It’s not a secret that China is making massive investments in its passenger (and freight) rail service and infrastructure. They’re looking at spending something to the tune of $87.8 billion over two years, and $727 billion by 2020 as well. It might not be too long until we’re talking about “Chinese-style high-speed rail” rather than “European-style” for the fastest and most efficient systems.
So maybe it’s not surprising that IBM is making China home to its new rail technology center. Building and efficiently managing the IT framework behind complex modern rail networks is hard work and serious money. Despite common misconceptions, rail advocates aren’t pushing for quaint choo choo’s.
Robert Goodwin, a travel and transportation analyst at research firm Gartner, estimates that about 3% of worldwide rail spending will go to IT systems.
“Within five years, China is going to have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined,” Dierkx said.
But China’s rail system, the primary mode of long-range distance travel for most Chinese, is still beset with huge problems, such as an antiquated ticketing system whereby passengers must be present at a station to purchase a ticket, and massive overcrowding of the system during holidays.
IBM has been a vendor of basic information technology systems to rail projects in China, including the recently finished high-speed rail connecting Beijing to the northeastern port city Tianjin. Its goal with the new innovation center is to expand its services to offer technology and business management consulting for railways.
We can hope that improvements in services like e-ticketing will eventually make their way over here. Train booking still isn’t quite as seemless, straightforward, or integrated as it is for the airlines (and that’s not even saying much). After all, the company’s objective is, ostensibly, global. But the jobs, like the rails, seem to be seem to be flowing towards Chinese soil.
UPDATE: It seems in this post I neglected to really focus on what the Global Rail Innovation Center itself is doing. Short answer? Crunching numbers and developing technology to maximize efficiency and service in advanced rail systems. It’s the sort of work that is going to make the most out of rail’s particular advantages over other modes of travel… and that’s crucial.
American and international roadways have had efficiency experts scrutinizing them over and over for years. Air travel has had a similar advantage. It’s no wonder studies like this (H/T to my friend Eric Handler) come out from time to time questioning if American trains really are more efficient than planes or cars. Apples and oranges. American planes and cars are perpetually being upgraded to newer and better technology. You can’t say that for Amtrak, which is long overdue for new rolling stock, or even most commuter rail and transit authorities.
Hopefully we’ll be seeing some exciting rail tech come out of this place in the coming years. For the full lowdown, check out the press release or, for the web 2.0 oriented, the well-done YouTube video.