8 Ways Rail Travel Could Evolve By 2050

With world population growing and moving to cities, we’re going to need far better rail design than exists today. From driverless trains to ticketless travel, here’s a glimpse of how it could look.

8 Ways Rail Travel Could Evolve By 2050
[Top Photo: Flickr user Max Talbot-Minkin]

With Amtrak continuing to hobble along on less-than-generous funding, the present moment may not feel like a “renaissance” for the railroad in the U.S.. But that’s how it looks in much of the world. Countries like China have been investing heavily in trains (including 300 mph Maglevs), and all signs point to the trend continuing. With 9 billion people expected on the planet by 2050–and the majority of us living in cities–there’s bound to be a need for efficient, environmentally sensitive transit that doesn’t use up too much space.


How might train travel evolve? That’s the subject of a new report from Arup, the multinational engineering consultancy. Here are a few of their more interesting ideas, all of which are based on current projects.

Driverless trains

Autonomous cars may still be a few years away, but driverless trains are already here. Copenhagen, Paris, Singapore, Dubai, and São Paulo all have them. Rio Tinto, the mining company, is rolling out a driverless freight network in Western Australia. Automation isn’t good for employment, of course, though there are benefits. Arup points to the possibility of reducing CO2 emissions, raising energy efficiency, and improving reliability.

Freight pipelines

Transporting freight by road causes congestion and pollution, particularly in cities. One possible solution: underground pipelines that shuttle packages in electrified pods. A group at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, is working on one version of the concept called CargoCap. A similar idea has also been proposed to bring containers to and from ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Flickr user Ian Lewis

Stations as destinations

Airports have become more and more like self-contained cities–destinations in their own right. Arup expects something similar to happen with rail stations. “Rail stations will become destinations and lifestyle centers that further blend our commute with our lives,” it says. “People are increasingly using stations not just as places to catch a train, but as centers for leisure and business.” (They must never have been in New York City’s Penn Station).

Hydrogen powered

While much of the future of rail will be powered by electricity, several groups are working hydrogen-powered alternatives. A team at the University of Birmingham built one prototype locomotive in 2012. “The fuel cell is used both to power the permanent magnet electric motors and to charge the batteries,” the report explains. A university team in Chengdu, China, is working on something similar.

Flickr user Eldelinux

Energy from footfall

Busy stations could be ideal places to harness energy from human foot traffic. Trial projects are already underway in Russia and France. “These tiles harness and convert kinetic energy from passers-by into electricity that powers parts of the station,” the report says.


Ticketless travel

The days of waiting in line for tickets or to pass through ticket gates will be over. “Authorization to travel will be universal and payment processed automatically when the journey is taken,” the report says. That isn’t good news for inspectors, who may be out of a job, though it might make revenue-collection easier and boarding times quicker.

Flickr user Lars Plougmann

Virtual shopping walls

Arup expects stations to be hubs for commerce. One innovation: virtual shopping walls. In Seoul, South Korea, commuters can already make purchases at the platform edge by scanning QR codes. Other possibilities include let commuters order items from work for pick-up at stations, or even on trains.

Flickr user Hekke

Freight shuttles

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute has developed a concept called the Freight Shuttle System. Like freight pipelines, it’s designed to move goods between cities that are relatively close to one another (probably not more than a few hundred miles). It does this using a raised platform, electric transporters that bookend containers, and automated terminals. Again, the aim is to reduce road congestion.


You can read more in the report here. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. With Amtrak’s outdated infrastructure, even getting U.S. rail up to today’s standards would be a blessing.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.