As our cities are growing, the need for mass transport increases. Individual car traffic, even if smarter and more automated, will reach a saturation point with stifling congestion in peak traffic. Public transport thought leader ‘Doc Frank’ Heibel, a panellist at Smart Cities 2019, is convinced that city railways have significant capacity reserves which can be unlocked with modern technology.

There are many intriguing concepts around for transport innovation. Autonomous cars, shared mobility, mobility as a service, and demand-responsive transport are just some of the buzzwords which promise a solution for today’s and tomorrow’s transport problems.

Yet they cannot resolve the biggest transport problem of them all – road traffic congestion. Why? Because all those trendy innovations rely on road transport. And if that keeps getting more, roads will get clogged eventually, and the only innovation effect left is that you are stuck in traffic in a self-driving car.

More infrastructure – road or rail?

Building new transport corridors within city centres is enormously expensive. If such investment is deemed unavoidable, at least the transport capacity of that new corridor should be maximised.

I have seen studies in Perth which showed that a railway line with rather modest service frequency of twelve trains per hour can carry the same number of commuters as a six-lane freeway.

So, on that basis, are you surprised that a new inner-city rail corridor would have a better benefit-cost ratio than a similarly expensive new road? (Mistrust any reports that tell you otherwise.)

Using existing infrastructure better

Before you spend big money to duplicate infrastructure, you may want to make sure you got the most out of what you already have. Perhaps the best question here is not whether expensive new transport infrastructure should be road or rail. (I believe we need a balance of both, by the way.)

A smarter question would be, what if the capacity of existing transport corridors could be increased so much that additional transport corridors are not even needed for many more years?

Smart technologies – how good are they?

In road traffic, there is a lot of hype around “Intelligent Transport Systems”, mostly a glorified variety of variable speed signs for traffic flow control. How much additional capacity will this provide?

I think many would be delighted if a practical increase of around ten per cent was the outcome. Impressive looks different.

The capacity reserves in our city railway systems are significantly higher, between twenty and one hundred per cent, depending on how much the current rail system has been squeezed. And the investment to unlock those reserves is much lower than for building more infrastructure.

What is needed for better railways?

The primary investment need for increasing the capacity of any railway is trivial but sometimes overlooked – more trains.

The second investment area is the upgrade of existing rail infrastructure so that it can accommodate more trains. One example is augmenting traction power supply, since more electric trains on a railway just need more energy.

The other area where modern technology can overcome a constraint for higher capacity is what I call High Performance Signalling. Currently being introduced in all four biggest Australian cities, those state-of-the-art signalling technologies will allow running many more trains than possible with the existing legacy signalling systems.

Invest smarter

Signalling technology may not be as photogenic for our politicians than a new train, tunnel borer or railway station, but its introduction is the smartest and more cost-efficient way to increase commuting capacity.

And which decision-maker does not want to be seen as smart and cost-efficient?

‘Doc Frank’ is a globally recognised strategist and thought leader for high-performance railway signalling. He has advised government railways in all four biggest Australian cities on planning and implementing their next generation signalling technology to boost capacity and improve operational performance.

Frank will be a panellist at the Smart Cities 2019 Conference, taking place 30-31 May at the Pullman Hotel, Albert Park in Melbourne. He will be speaking on the panel Easy, efficient, connected: a future blueprint for public transport. To see more speakers, click here. To buy discounted early bird tickets, click here.