For a long time, taking the train has been the most environmentally friendly way of getting from A to B – swift, efficient, and with a low carbon impact per passenger. Now, with millions of electric vehicles set to take to our roads over the next few years, cars are increasingly closing the sustainability gap and the pace of innovation in the automotive sector is rapid.
As transport solutions become more sustainable, we at Hitachi are looking for how these innovations can crossover to make journeys more convenient too. Our attention is firmly fixed on making it easy for people to move around, giving them the tools and technology they need to plan journeys that are both efficient and good for the planet.
Unlike our competitors, Hitachi has the advantage of having a foot in both camps: We’re an automotive supplier as well as a rail supplier and we already see plenty of synergy in the innovations being made in both fields. Take, for example, the work automotive companies are putting into reducing the cost, weight and size of batteries. We expect to see digital battery technology emerge over the next couple of years, and when we do, the rail industry – and others – will be able to benefit from it.
It’s this whole-systems approach that characterises our approach. While Hitachi produces trains – from trams to high speed – and whole railways that improve capacity, speed, and service levels around the world, our growing focus is on what we call ‘Mobility as a Service’.
In other words, we’re prioritising delivering digital solutions that improve and optimise the whole transport system – things like smart ticketing, integrated multi-modal traffic management, and remote condition monitoring, which both improve the experience and reliability of travel for passengers, and encourage a modal shift in how people choose to get from place to place.
This modal shift is crucial if we are to reach net zero, and I believe we need to stop viewing it in terms of cost. Over time, optimising the whole transport system – from cars to trains and everything in between – will save money because we’ll be using less energy.
Sadly, at the moment journeys with the lowest carbon impact aren’t always the cheapest – you only have to look at the difference between a rail journey and a flight on a budget airline to see that. But that is changing. We want to improve the transport system so that it becomes possible to say this route for your journey uses the minimum energy, and therefore, is potentially the least costly, whether by car or rail.
Hitachi is committed to improving the sustainability of existing railways, and with minimum unnecessary spend. For example, we know that diesel trains need to be replaced in favour of those using more environmentally friendly power sources, so, taking our learning from the automotive industry, we’re working extensively on developing battery trains. Just as some EVs can flash charge and then run for miles and miles, a train sitting in a station with a 25,000 volt continuous electricity supply, could charge up its onboard battery system, and use that power to reach another city, which doesn’t have the wires.
Diesel trains can be retired or repurposed with batteries, and in countries where the network isn’t electrified, or places where there are gaps in electrification, these trains could use battery power. Reducing energy use comes with a significant cost saving: instead of investing vast sums in infrastructure, the trains themselves can be upgraded to make the system more sustainable, a solution that will help bring even the most old-fashioned rail networks around the globe up-to-date.
Battery trains are running and or coming soon around the world. In Japan, our Dencha battery fleets will celebrate their fifth anniversary this year. We’ve developed battery trams in Florence, and testing new hybrid Masaccio trains in Italy run with 50% lower emissions than standard trains and can reach 160km/h. In the UK, we’re working on a trial of intercity battery hybrid train on one of the routes from London to the South West of England.
When it comes to something as critical as reaching carbon net zero, the solution needn’t be a choice between what’s sustainable and what’s cost-saving. At Hitachi, we see reducing carbon impact as a means to both ends. We’re bringing all our knowledge and expertise to the table, learning from all sectors and innovating so that one day, soon I hope, the most sustainable way to travel and the cheapest will be one and the same thing.