Energy | 21. June 2010 | posted by Jan Oliver Löfken

Energy question of the week: Will the trains of the future be faster and more economical?

On 3 April 2007, during a record breaking attempt using a modified train on specially prepared track, a French TGV travelled at 574.8 kilometres per hour through the French Département of Marne – an speed record for railway trains that still stands. In normal service, TGV trains run at around 320 kph. And Germany's 67 ICE3 trains are capable of reaching 300 kilometres per hour. Will the trains of the future be even faster and still be an economical form of transport?

Once the high-speed track has been laid, German trains will certainly be able to travel faster. ICE3 trains will be able to run at 330 kilometres per hour. And energy consumption will amount to no more than 3 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres per passenger, under normal loading. Now, nine DLR institutes have set themselves the aim of halving this value as part of the Next Generation Train (NGT) project. And the trains of the future should be able to reach 400 kilometres per hour in everyday service.

The challenge of aerodynamics

DLR is not going to build trains itself, but will rather lay the foundations in aerodynamics, running gear, materials and passenger comfort, to aid industry in developing the NGT. "The key to the NGT is a completely new aerodynamic concept," says Joachim Winter, NGT project leader at the DLR Institute for Vehicle Concepts (Institut für Fahrzeugkonzepte; FK), in Stuttgart. The objective is clear – railway passenger traffic should not only maintain its advantage over air and road transport, but also increase it.

Grafik: NGT auf dem Weg durch die Wüste. Beide Bilder: DLR.

Image: the NGT in the desert. Both images: DLR.

DLR researchers have already presented the first design studies. The NGT will seat passengers on two levels, like today's much slower regional trains. Conventional running gear, with its rigid axles, will be replaced by intelligent, mechanically and electronically-controlled wheelsets, where the individual wheels are integrated into the vehicle chassis and are driven by high-performance hub motors. As for aerodynamics, Sigfried Loose’s team at the Institute for Aerodynamics and Fluid Mechanics, Göttingen, is working with one of the most advanced wind tunnels in Europe and powerful fluid dynamics simulations to develop solutions at the edge of technical feasibility. The objective is to achieve dynamic stability and safety while reducing passenger compartment noise to a minimum.

A high-speed train with spoilers?

Since the NGT must be built in lightweight modules for reasons of efficiency, it is difficult to keep it on the track at high speed. Lift forces can be so powerful at high speed that the train could lift off the rails unless special measures are taken to prevent this. "But with active, adjustable spoilers, for example, we could equip the train with options that the current F1 motor racing regulations don't allow," says Loose, taking an example from his box of aerodynamic tools.

When – and whether – the NGT will ever run, is a question we still cannot answer. Manufacturers such as Siemens, Alstom and Bombardier, along with the railway operators themselves, will take the decision. But the technology available today means that European high speed trains travelling at 400 kilometres per hour could be an everyday reality within a few decades.

The DLR Energy question of the week in 'The future of energy' Year of Science

he Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) has given the Year of Science 2010 the motto 'The future of energy'. For this reason the science journalist Jan Oliver Löfken will this year answer a question on the subject of energy in his blog each week. Do you have a question about how our energy supply might look in the future? Or do you want to know, for example, how a wave power plant works and how it can efficiently generate electricity? Then send us your question by email. Science journalist Jan Oliver Löfken will investigate the answers and publish them each week in this blog.


About the author

Energy journalist Jan Oliver Löfken writes among other things, for the Technologie Review, Wissenschaft aktuell, Tagesspiegel, Berliner Zeitung and P.M. Magazin on issues involving energy research and industry. For DLR, he answered the Energy question of the week during the Year of Energy 2010. to authorpage