IBM rides the high-speed rail

The tech giant looks for ways to make high-speed trains smarter, safer and more efficient.

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By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, senior editor

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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In keeping with its massive Smarter Planet strategy designed to match analytics software, sensor technologies, and consulting expertise to the world's problems, IBM last week cut the ribbons on the Global Rail Innovation Center in Beijing, China.

Founded in conjunction with several partners including Motorola (MOT, Fortune 500), MIT, Tsinghua University, and California High Speed Rail Authority, the center aims to guide the estimated $300 billion that China plans to spend building out high-speed rail lines across the country.

If the plans play out, China should have more high-speed rail in five years than the rest of the world combined, connecting massive population centers like Beijing and Shanghai. The project is a chance for technology and infrastructure companies to boost revenue, but perhaps just as crucially, it represents a chance for those companies to learn how to build the next generation of high-speed rail lines in the U.S. -- which President Obama and California voters have called for -- and elsewhere. The center's director, IBM's Keith Dierkx stopped by Fortune last week to discuss how he plans to improve rail transportation. (For more on IBM, see: IBM's grand plan to save the planet.)

Delays a thing of the past. The first issue is safety. A train traveling more than 200 miles per hour, or one carrying millions of tons, takes a long time to stop. "Imagine a mesh network on the train. You'll have hazmat detectors, you'll monitor for leakage, you'll have intrusion detection and sensors that will tell you if a refrigeration unit has failed," Dierkx says. "In the future, we will be able to automatically slow or stop a train from a control center."

Real-time communication will be used to avoid both accidents and delays. "Derailments and delays become a thing of the past. There'll be on-board capability to communicate where I am, how fast I'm going, the weight distribution and what products I'm carrying," he says. "Video has also become very useful. With machine vision -- the ability to automatically scan and interpret images -- you can monitor the condition of the track and communicate from one train to the next." Place sensors on bridges, tunnels, underpasses, and nearby roads, and it's also possible for a passing train to pick up status reports on all infrastructure.

Once the safety component is nailed, that's when you start thinking about speed. Higher-speed trains aren't just a matter of convenience. They'll save money. "All inventory should be either moving or sold. If you could manage the corridors and safety better, you could get to market faster," says Dierkx.

The Rail Innovation Center is also working on consumer-oriented communication technologies that link train, bus and plane schedules. "From the consumer experience perspective, we need to manage the end-to-end experience," he says.

A different kind of commute. But the real promise of high-speed rail could be a shift in lifestyle. California voters recently approved the build-out of a high-speed line that promises to link San Francisco and Sacramento to LA and San Diego in about 2.5 hours. There are many hurdles to overcome before that line ever goes live, but if it does, it promises to redistribute the population of the state. "What if you have a central valley stop? You open up opportunity for people to live in a lower-cost area," Dierkx says. "Now the suburb on a 'green' commute to LA becomes Fresno."

If it seems far-fetched, that's partly because our society has been built and organized around car travel. Rail travel has the potential to not only take cars off the road and carbon from our skies, but it also promises to make us more productive.

IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) began eyeing rail development a few years ago when executives started to notice improved financial returns in the rail industry and the fact thatWarren Buffett was investing.

"IBM said we're expecting a boom, and we could bring a lot of innovation to bear," Dierx says. So, naturally, Dierkx has become an evangelist. "This is a once in a generation if not once in a lifetime opportunity," he says. "If we don't do it now, it's not going to get easier or less expensive over time -- but may become more urgent." To top of page

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