Germany used to be the leading nation when it came to fast trains. As early as 1988, the ICE set the world record of 406.9 km/h. But it took only two years until France broke this record and the TGV raced along the tracks at 515 km/h. In fact, the Japanese have meanwhile conquered the top spot and set a new world record of 603 km/h on a test track with the Maglev magnetic levitation train in 2015. But while these records are mainly about competition between manufacturers, the issue of safety during regular operation is crucial.
Independent expert organizations such as DEKRA also contribute to safety. For example, DEKRA Rail regularly tests, monitors, certifies, and assesses the rail infrastructure, as well as rail vehicles and new types of trains. Testing a train may involve laboratory and test track measurements as well as measurements on the network of the future country it will run in.
Rail transport moves closer to Vision Zero
In addition, DEKRA’s Netherlands-based railway division works closely with the validation team of the manufacturer to make sure all necessary tests are carried out. DEKRA experts are also consulted when it comes to finding causes of a rare train accident. Train buffers and tensile stiffness play an important role in collisions and derailments. “We’ve developed our own numerical models to calculate how the resulting change in speed is propagated through the train in the event of an accident,” Jean-Paul van Hengstum, Managing Director at DEKRA Rail, describes another area of responsibility. Last but not least, the railway experts are responsible for a model that can be used to calculate the severity of injury for passengers involved in a collision. “With this model, we can investigate how retrofitting existing trains with shock-absorbing components affect passenger safety,” van Hengstum explains. This could be the installation of crash buffers in the front section of the train and shock absorbers in couplings and between train cars. Other measures include optimizing buffer properties or installing modified couplings between cars. Modifications inside the train can affect the distance between seats, the positioning and rigidity of seats, or the position and shape of tables, to name a few examples.
In Europe, DEKRA is acknowledged to do all assessments according to the European Directives for Safety and Interoperability. “This European legislative framework and the accompanying technical specifications are so comprehensive that they have become a de facto world standard,” van Hengstum explains.
Trains are one of the safest means of transport
Even if the Shinkansen with its 285 km/h isn’t the fastest in the world – the models from China and also France reach cruising speeds of 320 km/h, as well as those from Spain at 330 km/h – the Japanese high-speed network is said to be the safest. According to JR Central, in 56 years of operation there haven’t been any accidents with injuries or deaths on board. This is also due to the fact that high-speed trains in Japan have their own network and don’t share the rail with slower trains, as is the case in Germany, for example. An analysis by the Pro-Rail Alliance shows that the risk of death for passenger car occupants is 56 times higher than for rail passengers. The difference is even greater when it comes to injuries, where the probability of an accident on the road is 133 times higher than on a train.
Looking to the future
Not just the Corona pandemic has shown that a rethink of air travel is taking place. The flight shame debate that started in Sweden, especially with regard to short-haul flights, has led to a demand for alternatives. Futuristic projects are gaining momentum. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla and SpaceX, wants to explore a new form of locomotion in so-called hyperloops in addition to tourism in space. Passengers are to be transported in a capsule through a partially vacuumized tube at almost the speed of sound. After a research group from the Technical University of Munich was able to prove itself in the international competition, a test track is now being built in Bavaria. The prototype will be 24 meters long and four meters high. “The Hyperloop has the potential to offer a fast, electric alternative on medium-length routes and thus enable more sustainable and environmentally friendly transport,” explains Prof. Agnes Jocher, head of the research program. Whether we’ll actually be able to get from A to B through tubes in the future also depends on production possibilities, the economic efficiency, and, last but not least, the safety of the means of transport.