Rail Rivals

Rail rivals look to gadget-packed trains

Trains are likely to become more like long-haul planes, with customised carriages and tablet computers embedded into hi-tech seats, as Western manufacturers fight back against cheaper Chinese rivals and Europe's railways open up to greater competition.

Europe's rail passengers may feel their comfort has long been overlooked by an industry, still largely in the hands of cash-strapped governments and struggling to compete with low-cost airlines as well as buses and cars.

But that looks set to change, judging by exhibitors at InnoTrans trade fair in Berlin, the world's biggest venue for rail equipment suppliers worldwide, where companies flaunted their latest project innovations on a site as big as 28 soccer fields.

At the stand of France's Alstom, maker of the high-speed TGV, visitors could try out a prototype of new seats for long-distance trains, with headphones embedded in the headrest and a table converted into a multimedia tablet. From there you could read the news, watch videos, check on your travel itinerary, order food, dim the lights and even convert the windows into a giant screen.

"Beyond speed, we're looking to make the journey a pleasant moment - less noisy, cooler, more connected and personalised," said Benoit Perrin, the vice-president of marketing at Alstom Transport.

Such innovations are costly and could take years to reach trains, especially where public budgets are being reined in. But there are powerful incentives to make them happen.

In the past few years, China's CNR and CSR have overtaken Alstom and its larger Canadian rival Bombardier to become the world's top makers of rail rolling stock by revenue. Struggling to compete on price, the Western firms have identified passenger comfort as a potential way to fight back. Like Alstom, Bombardier exhibited electro-chromatic glass windows that can be dimmed - by passengers or automatically - to reduce glare and heat on a sunny day.

The market is worth fighting for. According to the European Rail Industry Association, the world market for rail supplies, including trains and infrastructure, will grow about 2.6 percent a year to reach €170 billion ($24.3bn) a year in 2017.

The focus on innovation could also appeal to Europe's train operators as they gear up for greater competition. By 2019, the EU wants the rail market to be fully deregulated, so passenger train operators from one country could compete for tenders in another member state. That could lead to demands for greater customisation of carriages from rail companies seeking a competitive edge.

Alstom is already on the case. In Morocco's capital Rabat it decorated tramways with mosaic patterns, while in Reims, in France's Champagne region, it gave them a V-shape reminiscent of a champagne flute. In Dubai, the company designed them with a diamond-shaped nose and three classes: gold, silver, and women and children.

Industry executives reckon the oil-rich cities of the Gulf are the most obvious target for offbeat designs and gadget¬-packed trains. Another promising market lies in the traffic-jammed cities of south-east Asia, where au¬thorities want people to switch to mass transit, says Yeshpaul Soor, the managing director of Volo TV. "They could say: why would you want to be sitting in a car? Look how good this is."

Source: Natalie Huet, Reuters

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