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IBM hops aboard high-speed rail

Could high-tech train projects in China and the Netherlands pave the way for similar work in the United States?

Imagine traveling by rail at 200 miles per hour between cities, and then catching a local line to your final destination.

IBM on Wednesday plans to announce details of three rail projects outside the U.S. that bring that vision of efficient and convenient rail travel closer to reality. Overall, the projects in China, Taiwan, and the Netherlands show how rail travel can reduce urban congestion and cut down on pollution from transportation, said IBM.

Investments in rail--and high-speed rail, in particular--are a significant portion of many of the government-sponsored stimulus spending programs around the world. The U.S. is poised to put about $8 billion in upgrading the rail network and developing high-speed rail "corridors."

But establishing an effective network of high-speed trains is more than building faster locomotives. A large portion of what makes a successful network is its computer technology, according to IBM, which is angling for government business in transportation and rail.

Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation

"We're seeing a spike in projects and when you start moving people and trains at 350 kilometers an hour (218 mph), you need to start focusing on smarter trains and higher levels of safety to operate effectively," said Keith Dierkx, business development executive for travel and logistics at IBM's Global Technology Services consulting arm.

The U.S. rail network right now uses RFID tags to help railroad operators keep track of some inventory as trains roll past RFID readers. But a more sophisticated network of wireless sensors providing real-time updates will be increasingly important to the spread of high-speed rail, said Robert Goodwin, transportation industry analyst at Gartner. Amtrak's Acela line, which goes from Washington D.C. to Boston, tops out at 150 miles per hour, a speed that's limited by twisting tracks through most of the journey.

"These trains move so rapidly, you can't afford to have any errors so you need current feedback," Goodwin said. "There's a lot you can do based on what you didn't know 10 seconds ago. It gives you a chance to be more nimble."

Sensors could also ensure that hazardous materials aren't tampered with on rail cars and video scanners could automate safety checks on equipment, said IBM's Dierkx.

In the meantime, however, IBM's rail work has focused primarily on keeping the trains running on time. Its customers used a mix of IBM software and services to improve service and maintenance.

Netherlands Railways used software from Ilog, which IBM bought last year, to optimize its schedule to best match its equipment--5,000 trains, 390 stations, and 2,800 kilometers of track--with passenger travel. By fine-tuning this complex system, the rail authority lowered its operating costs between 5 and 10 percent, saving about 20 million euros a year, according to IBM.

The Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation is using an "asset-management package," which IBM gained when it acquired MRO Software, to get trains running from the north side of the island to the south with a punctuality rate of 99.15 percent. The 90-minute trip replaces what would be a 4 1/2-hour trip by convention rail.

The Guangzhou Metro in China also used the Maximo asset-management to help operators manage cars, tracks, and signaling equipment for peaks in demand--like during soccer games--and stay on top of equipment maintenance.

Killing congestion
Part of the reason that rail travel is being promoted is that it's a relatively energy-efficient way to move both people and freight, said Dierkx.

On average, U.S. passenger trains emit less than half the global warming pollution per passenger mile than a typical car carrying a single person, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. A train can move a ton of freight 436 miles on one gallon of fuel, almost four times better than truck transport, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Traffic jams are also responsible for billions of dollars in lost productivity, Dierkx said. Rail travel serves as at least a partial solution to the trend toward giant megacities around the world where traffic is a serious problem.

"As a mode of transportation, rail has always been efficient and effective. There hasn't been the urgency around the environment and congestion issues," he said. "Especially in these megacities, the ability to effectively move citizenry around the country by rail may be the only way to do it effectively. And it's a green way to do it as well."

Speeding to the U.S.?
In the U.S., the country's rail infrastructure is due for a significant upgrade and, potentially, new high-speed rails projects that France, Germany, and Japan have had for years. Dierkx predicted that in five years, China will have more high-speed rail lines than any other country.

The U.S. stimulus plan dedicated $8 billion of funding for rail. The Obama Administration's budget calls for an additional $5 billion for high-speed rail grants over the next five years, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The Federal Railroad Administration is scheduled to publish a strategic plan for spending the $8 billion in the stimulus plan, which is expected to include a vision for high-speed rail corridors. Already, $1.3 billion has been set aside for Amtrak for intercity travel and $450 million to upgrade the safety of existing rail infrastructure.

However, transportation experts point out there are at least 11 proposed high-speed rail corridors in the U.S., each of which would cost billions of dollars to install. A project to build a fast train between northern and southern California alone would cost $45 billion.

As a result, IBM considers government funding for high-speed rail is the equivalent of "seed money" for large projects, said Ken Donnelly, transportation strategy manager for IBM's Maximo asset-management product. As problems over traffic congestion and pollution become more acute, IBM's Dierkx expects interest in rail to gain steam.

"In an economic downturn, a lot of green initiatives can come under pressure if you don't have strategic foresight," he said.