Future Mobility Research Group at Newcastle University

Connected Places Catapult is pleased to introduce one of our Business Fellows, Dr. Tom Zunder. Tom has worked with Connected Places Catapult for a number of years, helping us understand the challenges around freight, logistics and transport modes. 

This short article usefully deconstructs the value of visioning and road mapping for the rail sector, based on extensive involvement by Tom in a series of UK and trans-European projects including:

  • the way in which competitive rail freight strategies from operators align,
  • conflicts with centralised, policy led initiatives are explored,
  • alongside a consideration of what wider enabling conditions are needed to really drive rail’s role as a backbone of the UK freight delivery network.

We hope you agree it represents a fascinating snapshot of the opportunities that exist; we would commend readers to follow the link at the end of the article and find out more about the TER4RAIL project. 


The Future Mobility research group at Newcastle University has a long and deep competency and expertise in railway research and innovation, dating back to the earlier days of the Newrail Railway Research Centre. From 2018 to 2021, Dr Thomas H Zunder has been undertaking various visioning and roadmapping research on behalf of:

  • the EU Joint Undertaking (JU) Shift2Rail, with special regard to the rail sector RAIL VISION 2050,
  • the Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda (SRIA) for Rail, and
  • the forthcoming new rail sector JU: within Horizon Europe: “Europe’s Rail Joint Undertaking”.  

Road-mapping and visioning are powerful techniques that has become integral to the creation and delivery of strategies and innovation in numerous sectors. It can deliver alignment and dialogue between functions within one sector and across sectors, such as road-rail, air-rail, and so on.

A technology roadmap implies a flexible planning technique to drive strategic and long-range technological planning, by matching short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals with a commonly agreed vision that includes specific technological solutions.

The European Rail Research and Advisory Council on behalf of the rail sector, have produced rail research visions and agendas since its’ formation in 2001.

At the time of writing, the emphasis is on following and reinforcing the exact roadmaps entailed when reviewing and supporting the roadmaps’ progression and identifying gaps in these roadmaps for the next major phase of the revision. It was therefore appropriate and important that there was an independent validation of the stated rail sector visions for 2050 free of organizational dynamics, politics, or culture. 


In order to achieve this validation, a methodology was developed and followed. The approach consisted of four steps:

  • (a) compilation of key statements from the RAIL 2050 VISION; followed by
  • (b) two online rounds of Delphi study,
  • (c) validated in a Word Café event between the first and second rounds and
  • (d) reported and discussed in four online webinars.

A Delphi survey is suited to quantitative and qualitative data. It is an appropriate approach for the collection, aggregation and analysis of informed judgements from an expert group,. This is done in multiple rounds, using anonymous online surveys, with statements tested for agreement, disagreement, and eventual consensus.

The method is useful to collect group judgments while avoiding negative effects related to interpersonal biases, strong personalities, defensive attitudes, and unproductive disagreements. It can have disbenefits and as such this led to an agreed mitigation strategy based upon a World Café event and webinars. 

Novel Insights 

Of the multiple insights gained from this work, one was from statistical analysis of the responses by demographic profile. From the statistical analysis we can suggest that the older and more senior a panel member or if they work for an SME, the more likely they were to express dissenting views about the Rail 2050 Vision.

This suggested that the anonymity granted in a Delphi unlocks dissension in people usually restricted by their organisational status. Another insight was from the dissenting voices and the non –consensus statements that the panel just couldn’t agree upon.

One of the major objectives of applying a Delphi study is to achieve consensus on some previous issues through the “Hegelian dialectic of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis” (Stuter, 1998).  The statements that remained unstable and unresolved at the end of the study, and therefore in need of further research and examination informed the conclusions as much as the agreed consensus. 

Summary of Conclusions 

There are issues with rail freight, increasing use of rail freight and for it to become the backbone it is imperative that it addresses some fundamental issues; namely cost competitive, asset utilization and customer facing connectivity. These service user aspects are the important challenges that need to be addressed in order for rail freight to raise expectations and to enable the shift of freight from road to rail.

An important aspect that has been highlighted, is that it is expected that rail freight transport units will be able to communicate with each other as well as with the infrastructure and operational.

This expectation will not become a reality without significant investment and development of the appropriate communication standards towards the intelligent freight train which will communicate over the next generations communication system. 

A very challenging target that will need significant support is to move from competitive rail freight to rail taking the lead and becoming the backbone of an intermodal Mobility as a Service for freight. The freight business has not yet been consolidated but there are opportunities with sea transports that lead to success for rail. Intermodal transport with a rail backbone is the segment with a great potential. To achieve this potential there must be investment in terms of capital but also essential research. One way of improving intermodal mobility is to improve rail provisions in terminals and close to ports. 

With respect to passengers, there is a clarity that rail and public transport are the solution to provide mobility for passengers. This belief builds on rail’s existing credentials and credibility as the most environmentally friendly form of mass land transport with an excellent safety record. In 2050 rail will still be the safest mode with zero casualties and this is recognised and valued by European citizens. This opportunity is enhanced by the fact that passengers across Europe are to access real time personal communication continuously, before, throughout and after the journey. This situation will only improve as passengers demand connectivity and entertainment through their mobile devices. 

One issue that will hold back seamless services is that national rail services do not integrate seamlessly with rail services available in neighbouring countries. This situation must be addressed by research into standards and data sharing without serious consideration of this aspect integrating seamlessly with all other available transport modes would seem unrealistic. 

The flagship for passenger services is rail is at the backbone of urban mobility. With rail considered the mass transit solution, with large numbers comes the responsibility for protection and improvement of service but also the revenue to provide intelligent stations at the heart of smart cities, being life-centric places to work, meet and communicate. This improvement is considered as a given and it is believed that the expected innovation in mass transit will lead to rail being fully intelligent, autonomous vehicles operating in cities and the offer further from the city centre being less focused on mass transit with the innovation such as pods being researched and developed for the final stages of the journey. These pods or fully-smart vehicles may be self-regulating by 2050 in traffic, negotiating vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-X to determine movement priority, resolve potential conflicts at junctions in the network, and reacting to unexpected situations. 

In cities there will be new energy-efficient station designs, Europe will provide easy access and seamless interchange across all transport modes, enabling railways to manage growing passenger volumes and mobility demands funded by the secondary spend in stations. 

There is one basic assumption that has to become a reality for the strategic development of the rail system. Free access to data from all providers for all modes and relevant information must be shared across the European rail stakeholders as a part of the data economy. An additional challenge is to have a harmonised system architecture and data organisation to be able to support the challenges listed above in an open, interoperable way whilst preserving the requirements of some of the parties’ privacy in terms of data confidentiality. A commitment needs to be made to managing the growing volume of data in Europe contributing to the data economy. Tools will need to be jointly developed for the collection, analysis interpretation and prediction of passenger flows. Passenger information needs to be automated to provide consistent up-to-date information, supporting fast, well-informed travel choices and aiding decisions. This will all benefit rail as a business. 

Europe has a number of languages and native speakers in urban areas who will need easy tailored access to mobility services. The same is not true for non-native speakers and therefore research should be conducted into the use of smart systems to assist non-native speakers. 

The common themes elaborate areas of focus for the sector and future research. The statements showing dissent and instability merit further investigation and either research and action to mitigate the concerns, or an acceptance that the vision needs reconsidering in light of expert opinion.  

Further documentation and details can be found here.


I wish to thank my co-researchers in this work: Armando Carillo of EURNEX, and Mark Robinson, also of the FM Group at Newcastle University. This research received funding from the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no. 826055 (TER4RAIL)