In the first of a series of one-to-one interviews with my fellow Hitachi executives, I spoke to Andrew Barr, Group CEO of Hitachi Rail, to find out the latest on the future of mobility.
Every train takes us to a destination. But it’s never quite looked like this before. The journey we’re on today is much more than getting from A to B. Powered by world-leading innovation, we’re transforming mobility to create seamless, sustainable journeys and accelerating quickly in the direction of a cleaner, greener planet.
With COP26 disappearing into the distance and a crucial year ahead, I caught up with Andrew Barr, Group CEO of Hitachi Rail. Here’s what he had to say:
What can the rail sector deliver in 2022 and how can Hitachi act as a catalyst for its future transformation?
The rail sector has a fantastic opportunity in front of it and if we’re going to unlock that opportunity, we need to assess where we are in early 2022. As we navigate our way out of the pandemic, it’s essential that we get more people back onto trains and the good news is that as a green mode of transport, rail is ideally placed to make this a reality. I think COVID-19 has turned the spotlight on the scale of the opportunity for rail and public transport, particularly in major cities.
But how do we deliver the seamless, simple and sustainable journey experience that will encourage people back onto trains? Well, from a Hitachi point of view it starts with the power source.
We have been developing battery trains for a number of years now, whether it’s our Dencha (Duel Energy Charge) battery fleets in Japan, or our hybrid Masaccio trains in Italy which can reach speeds of 160km/h but run with 50% lower emissions than standard trains. Plus, we’ve got numerous UK projects up and running, including the trial of an intercity battery hybrid train on one of the routes from London to the South West of England. The bottom line is that high-speed electric trains are cleaner and greener than diesel trains, particularly if they’re using renewable energy.
To support this innovation, we have a growing focus on what we call ‘Smart Mobility’, the delivery of digital solutions that improve and optimise the whole transport system – things like smart ticketing, real-time information updates and integrated multi-modal traffic management. If we’re going to build a cleaner, greener transport network, we need a whole-systems approach. Our transport systems are inter-connected, so our solutions need to be inter-connected too.
Underpinning all of this, we’re continuing to deliver our best-in-class technologies and products in our rolling stock business, we’re building trains for Europe from our plant in Italy, and we’re delivering trains in the UK for the East Midlands Railway and Avanti West Coast partnership operations. At the end of 2021 we were appointed to build High Speed 2 rolling stock for the new high-speed network and to provide direct services via the existing mainline railway.
In Japan we have 50 years’ worth of experience working with the JR Group to build the iconic Shinkansen rolling stock and, in the US, we’re just about to start the construction of our factory in Washington DC which will build commuter trains for the Washington area. Our signaling business continues to deliver high-speed signaling around the world and in late 2021 we were awarded a contract to install European Train Control System (ETCS) onto the current high-speed line in Italy.
As you can see, there’s a lot going on, but all of these projects have one destination in common – use digital technologies as an enabler for better passenger experiences, create a key lever for decarbonisation and improve quality of life in and between our cities.
How is Hitachi Rail working with other parts of the Hitachi business to accelerate a cleaner, greener transport system?
As a social innovation business, we are uniting all of our resources behind the common cause of the environment – it’s the connector that flows across our businesses globally and it’s the link to the types of challenges that our clients and partners are facing.
With this in mind, we’re looking for total solutions. For example, Hitachi Rail is now working closely with Hitachi Energy to bring cleaner energy to the mobility sector. We’re working together on energy storage and the capability for batteries on trains, batteries for the grid and road vehicle fleet decarbonisation too.
As I said earlier, when it comes to transport, we need a whole-systems approach – as transport solutions become more sustainable, we at Hitachi are looking for how these innovations can crossover to make journeys more convenient. We’re an automotive supplier as well as a rail supplier and we can absolutely see the synergy of innovations being made in both fields. There is no doubt, for example, that the work automotive companies are putting into reducing the cost, weight and size of batteries will benefit the rail industry.
And likewise, we’re currently working closely with bus companies on mobility incubation. Late last year, for example, Hitachi agreed a strategic partnership to support First Bus Glasgow in its decarbonisation journey, starting with the provision of 148 electric buses over the next 18 months to Caledonia depot. The partnership encompasses battery finance, smart charging software, and on site zero carbon power generation.
How important is battery technology to this transformation? Do you believe this technology is the key to opening up a cleaner, greener, and more affordable rail network across markets?
There are two alternative power sources currently being evaluated in the marketplace – batteries and hydrogen. From a Hitachi point of view, our preferred mode is battery because it has a 20% higher carbon efficiency and up to 50% lower cost than hydrogen.
At the moment, hydrogen is more of a niche power source. This may well change as technology is developing all the time, but the same is true with battery technology – the size is getting smaller, the range is increasing, and both the cost and the lifespan continue to be more favourable. Whilst there’s hope in hydrogen, we believe batteries are a longer-term solution.
As I mentioned earlier, battery technology is already right at the heart of our rail strategy – from Dencha battery fleets in Japan to our new hybrid Masaccio trains in Italy. In the UK we’re currently trialling retrofitting batteries on GWR and TransPennine diesel electric fleets, and we also see the potential for battery trains across the world, including in the US and Canada. One specific opportunity is in Boston, where the transportation authority MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority), is looking at the option to replace its existing commuter fleet with battery trains or hybrid trains.
Long term, the goal is to remove diesel power from rail and to replace it with batteries. The reality is that the electrification of the network will take a number of years but in the short-term battery and hybrid fleets can have an immediate impact, reducing costs and carbon emissions and accelerating the benefits of an electrified infrastructure – this might be replacing or repurposing existing diesel trains, or complementing existing infrastructure in places where the network isn’t electrified or there are gaps in electrification.
Against the backdrop of COVID-19, what do high-speed projects, like HS2, mean for modal shift?
One of the abiding images of the pandemic was the clear, blue skies of successive lockdowns – with aircraft largely grounded and roads often deserted, we had a glimpse of what the future might look like.
As I said at the start, in 2022 rail has a fantastic opportunity. But we need to get people back on the trains and the way we do that is by offering a positive alternative to air travel and other forms of transport. This is the fundamental shift we need to see. We know there’s a desire for this – research shows that journey time is crucial – for three hours journeys, 80% of passengers prefer rail to air travel.
But for this to happen we need a good product, and we need governments to promote rail travel. Italy is a great case study – despite having a well-developed network of domestic flights, the government is now investing heavily in a high-speed rail network.
We’re seeing this in the UK too and HS2 is a major focus for Hitachi as part of our modal shift strategy. To put the situation into perspective, transport is responsible for one third of emissions in the UK, but rail only contributes 1%. The short-term picture looks promising – HS2 analysis shows rail share in 2030 will increases from 47% to 70% between London and Glasgow, and from 67% to 75% from London to Edinburgh.
We’ve already seen the new pre-book low cost “no frills” Lumo service between London and Edinburgh heavily over-subscribed and our other projects such as the Frecciarossa ETR 1000 long distance high-speed trains which run from Paris to Milan point the way forward.
How would you summarise the longer-term opportunities around rail and net zero?
Developing a complete solution is the next focus for Hitachi Rail. In the coming year, the signalling solutions company Thales will join our business and what they do is very complementary to what we do with digital technologies linked to ticketing and the potential to control the end-to-end journey. So, we want to develop that and use that opportunity to really contribute to people's changing journey habits longer term because that is key to this challenge.
For me, the future is electric-powered trains controlled by digital technology end to end, with seamless journeys that are in effect contactless and managed through your own personal devices. This is where our ‘Smart Mobility’ digital solutions come to the fore by improving and optimising the whole transport system – not just trains but buses, e-scooters, EVs.
Ultimately, our focus is on making journeys as smooth, seamless and sustainable for passengers to switch to green public transport options that are sustainable for the long-term.
If we do that and make trains more affordable so governments can invest in their future as an alternative to long distance car or air travel, then I really believe we may be about to usher in the next golden age of rail.