Autonomous robots repairing rail infrastructure, driverless trains and ticketless journeys will be the face of train travel by the middle of the century, according to a report.
Growing urban populations, climate change and emerging technology will result in huge changes in mass transit over the next few decades according to design consultancy Arup, which used its experiences from current rail projects it has worked on to inform its Future Of Rail 2050 report.
Journey delays could be eradicated by the advent of driverless trains in constant communication with one another and sensors embedded in rail infrastructure, travelling in close succession and responding in real time to their location on a given track.
Ticketless technology will remove gate-lines in stations, with authorisation to travel universal and payment processed automatically when the journey is taken, allowing a seamless connection between various modes of transport.
And infrastructure will become the domain of intelligent robots building new infrastructure and constantly monitoring assets to allow predictive maintenance that avoids lengthy line closures. Swarm robotics, a theory based on swarm behaviour among ant and bee colonies, could see small robots working collaboratively on major railway repair and structural testing.
Arup's global rail leader Colin Stewart said: "The global urban population is growing rapidly and, by 2050, around 75 per cent of the world's population will live in cities. This places huge pressure on transport infrastructure and resources, but also creates a significant opportunity for rail, which relies on passenger density to function most effectively.
“The challenge will lie in juggling the responsibility of providing reliable travel for millions while simultaneously tailoring each journey for the individual.
"However, by rapidly developing technology and taking bold steps to overcome capacity and cost challenges through maximising efficiencies , the rail renaissance can deliver a future where rail is the backbone of our travel system, linking major urban hubs and feeding into multi-modal transport networks for the benefit of the passenger."
The travel experience could also be vastly different, according to the authors, with passengers able to contact family and friends via "HoloCalls" – holographic image displays – and train windows will adjust automatically to prevent external glare. Virtual shopping walls located in railway stations and even carriages, will enable products from the wall displays to be purchased via mobile devices.
Electronic tagging of cargo could allow reliable tracking to reduce delays with intelligent robots able to unload and sort goods at destination. But rail may face competition for freight traffic from other modes of travel, with a new generation of airships designed by Nasa and driverless pods running along underground pipelines both potential contenders, according to the report.
Mick Cash, the acting general secretary of transport union the RMT, said: "This report and its proposals are just dangerous nonsense straight out of some barmy work of science fiction.
"The notion of an entirely de-staffed railway with track workers replaced by drones could only have been cooked up by someone miles out of touch with reality."
He went on: "The RMT is discussing our continued fight against axing guards and gate-line staff at our conference in Bristol this week. Any train company thinking of looking at the proposals in today's report should be warned that they will face stiff industrial and political resistance from the RMT."
The Future of Rail 2050 report is available here.