Sustainability: A challenge to respond through new technological advances

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The railroad has become the cornerstone in sustainable transportation. to respond to new environmental challenges, the railway industry works in the development of technological advances with which to contribute to reduced environmental impact.

Currently, transport represents about 23% of CO2 emissions worldwide. As well as causing atmospheric, acoustic and landscape pollution

Aware of the need to implement means to ensure a more sustainable future, from the administrations and the industry we work on new models in the big urban centres or more ecological alternatives in the movement of goods or passengers over medium and long distances.

In this joint effort, the railway plays a decisive role; since it accounts for solely 0.7% of total CO2 emissions. The modal shift in favour of this type of transport would also allow for a reduction of a series of pollutant gases (NOx and particles) and environmental aspects (noise, luminescence, etc.). Likewise, it has a series of additional advantages such as reduced energy expenditure, high capacity and the flexibility of its rolling stock that makes it adaptable to the forecast demand peaks in each case.

Travelling by train significantly saves on CO2 emissions. Per unit transported, in the case of the road, it produces between 3 and 5 times less than road journeys, while in the case of the plane it is between 7 and 10 times lower.

This mode of transport will be essential in the coming years in the face of cities’ trend towards growth. It is estimated that by 2050, 85% of the world population will reside in urban centres, especially in regions such as Europe and America. This structural change involves the development of new concepts such as Smart Cities; a change where sustainability will be pivotal. In order to respond in a planned manner to the increase in journeys, the implementation of integrated public transport networks is backed as a solution. Therein, the presence of urban and interurban rail systems stands out, due to its numerous advantages: comfort, speed, reliability, high capacity, etc.

The importance of the environment in mobility in Spain is reflected in lines of action such as the “Innovation Plan for Transport and Infrastructures 2018-2020” issued by the Ministry of Public Works. Within this programme, the fourth axis is dedicated to “Energy Efficiency and Sustainability” with proposals that aim to achieve an energy efficient and environmentally friendly transport system.

The “2014-2020 Energy Savings and Efficiency Master Plan” drafted by the Railway Infrastructure Administrator (ADIF) operates along similar lines. Amongst the main initiatives, the use of systems for the generation of renewable sources or the use of surplus energy for self-consumption or reinvestment into the network is promoted.

At the fore in terms of R&D

Furthermore, to respond to the environmental challenges associated with all of the foregoing changes, the Spanish railway industry, in collaboration with administrations, universities and technology centres, is working on the development of new advances with which to contribute to reduced environmental impact. A stance that provides added value and contributes to its position of leadership in the world, both in terms of manufacturing, as well as in operation and maintenance, compared to new competitors that boast an increased presence in the global market.

The constant work in innovation is rendered in the implementation of pioneering solutions that provide greater energy efficiency in the operation of different networks (high speed, medium distances, commuter, urban transport or goods, etc.) and a way to travel or transport goods with the lowest carbon footprint.

Spanish companies have designed cutting-edge systems to achieve more efficient consumption.

In infrastructure and superstructure, its contribution has made it possible to have one of the most modern and efficient networks, with 3,240 kilometres of high speed track, the second most extensive in the world only after China. Furthermore, it is at the forefront in the implementation of the most modern signalling system, the ERTMS (EuropeanTraffic Management System), with more than 2,000 kilometres equipped with this system.

In this field, ADIF also has a presence as a technology tractor for “efficient infrastructures of great capacity”, with actions to achieve a “Smart Electrical Network”, equipment more resistant to adverse weather conditions, noise reduction and maintenance costs. With regard to rolling stock, we work on making available to the market new trains with lighter equipment, with an aerodynamic design and equipped with state-of-the-art technology. The advances incorporated by companies such as Renfe Operadora, for example, already save 30% of the network’s energy, minimising thus environmental ramifications.

Bolstering innovation

The manufacturers located in Spain, in addition, have reinforced the R&D area in recent years to introduce innovative concepts such as state-of-the-art high-speed platforms; trams without catenary, tram-trains or electric battery trains. In addition, new advances have been created such as inductive battery chargers that do not require any direct electrical contact, such as catenaries, cables or plugs. They have also contributed to the efficiency of the new train fleets, the research in relation to the useful life of the materials used and their maintenance. The development of a new electric traction system, by means of a converter designed from silicon carbide semiconductors (SiC), will allow for us to reduce the size of current devices by 30%.

Additionally, in the field of goods, we work on new platforms with high traction power, with an economic and ecological functioning, which have systems capable of reducing total energy consumption by 5%. Another step in this segment is the work being carried out around the “coach of the future”, which, through the introduction of new propulsion concepts, will offer more attractive rail freight services by maximising flexibility and efficiency and reducing operating costs and maintenance.

The operation of autonomous trains (ATO) is another development that will increase the competitiveness of passenger and freight transport by rail, improve operational efficiency and thus optimise the use of resources. Advances in sustainability are also being developed in other multiple segments such as traffic management systems, including Da Vinci, which has been implemented in many countries around the world, given its major capacity to adapt to other types of traffic.

Energy optimisation

In matters of resource optimisation, several pioneering initiatives around the world are worthy of special mention. On the one hand, the reversible substations in a conventional network of 3000 V DC. The energy produced in the regenerative braking of a train, if not used by other nearby trains, is returned and re-injected into the supply network, leading to savings. The results of this project, named Inverfer by Adif, are already operational on the Málaga-Fuengirola commuter rail line.

The Spanish industry also brings major advances in this field as the system of energy recovery from the regenerative braking of rail traction vehicles. An improvement that allows us to use this energy for the internal consumption of the installations, returning the surplus to the electric company’s network.

In terms of network management and operation, Spanish innovations are also notable, such as advanced, non-contact ticketing systems (Smart Tickets).

Renewable energy supplies

On this path towards sustainability, the use of renewable energies is increasingly common. At present, the consumption of electric power allows Renfe to use massively clean energies unlike other modes of transport dependent on oil such as aviation, maritime transport or the roadways. For its part, Adif has several innovative initiatives such as the so-called “Ferrolinera”. This involves a system for recharging the batteries of electric vehicles in stations and car parks. The system consists of taking advantage of the electricity coming from the substations that feed the catenary, storing the clean energy generated by the application of regenerative braking of the trains, and adding it to the photovoltaic energy collected in the canopies of the parking lots of certain stations, equipped with photovoltaic panels.

Other systems, such as the Madrid Metropolitan Railway, provide 100% of heating and cooling to platforms and underground offices in certain stations, such as that of Pacific, through the installation of geothermal heat pumps.

Shift2Rail: new technologies

In terms of transport, Europe has made a contribution to sustainable mobility through the promotion of the railway. In this context, the Shift2Rail R&D initiative came into being, whereby the work of Spanish companies is highly noteworthy. The main aim is to develop a new concept of trains, more comfortable, silent, ecological, etc. operate more reliably in a more innovative rail infrastructure network.

Among the numerous projects in which the Spanish railway sector participates are: Mat4Rail, Etalon, Optrail, INESS, Merlin, C4R, GRAIL2, RIVAS, SUSTRAIL, AEROTRAIN and Roll2Rail. The themes on which they work within these initiatives are also diverse: Materials and smart interior design, digitisation and automation of freight transport, electric traction system, smart maintenance, reduction of energy consumption, new generation of sturdy wireless communications for control and monitoring applications, etc. The Spanish contributions stress the importance that R&D has for the industry and the major resources it devotes to the same in order to contribute to achieving more sustainable transport.