Innovation is in our DNA
A two-pronged rail revolution is underway in Poland. Firstly, 1789 km of new railtrack is planned by 2034 as part of a massive investment in the country’s railway network centred around the Solidarity Transport Hub (STH) scheme. Secondly, a new generation of eco-friendly trains will soon arrive on the scene, led by the hydrogen train. Antonio Moreno, CEE Managing Director at Alstom, a global leader in rail transport and sustainable mobility, discusses the changes, challenges and opportunities in the rail industry with Richard Stephens, Founder & Editor of Poland Today.
What are Alstom’s main aims and priorities in Poland and Central Eastern Europe?
As new Alstom we have a large presence in the region – 20 countries – and the biggest one is here in Poland, with more than 4000 people working for us. We have a lot of opportunities. We have two factories where we produce trains, in Chorzów and Wrocław. We also do signalling systems in Katowice, we maintain the Pendolino for PKP IC in Warsaw, along with TRAXX locomotives and TWINDEXX trains. This is the combination and heritage of many years in Poland. The whole impact (of our operations) on the economy is huge due to the supplier bases working for us as well. And with the portfolio that we have – from high-speed trains to urban metros, tramways and signalling systems – at present all rolling stock that we produce here is for export.
Where do you export to?
We export, for example, to Saudi Arabia, to Dubai, to Germany, to France, to Italy – but we are not producing for Poland so our aim is to concentrate on the domestic market. We can add a lot of value. We are close to our customers here. Our management is local. Our employees of course are locals, so our aim is to serve our customers with our portfolio of products, adapting the portfolio and the products to the local needs.
In Poland, as you know, there is a huge project to build almost 1800 km of new train track as part of the Solidarity Transport Hub scheme. Is this a project that Alstom is interested in?
We have a lot of experience in this type of project. With the development of a high-speed network in any country in Europe, you see the results for the economy, for passengers. It enables them to shorten their trips and make them more comfortable – the impact is huge, both for the economy and for the passenger. We have a lot of experience as the pioneers in high speed in Poland, for example with the introduction of the Pendolino in 2014.
What are your plans for the CEE region outside Poland?
We have strengthened our position in CEE, for example in Czechia we have a large factory producing body shells for export, we have a large presence in Hungary too, we have strengthened and doubled our workforce in Romania. It’s a strong footprint and we have tenders and projects in every single country.
Green mobility solutions are obviously very important for the industry, but also for the wider economy. What is Alstom’s take on this topic, because I know you’re at the forefront of this?
As you said, we are in the middle of a period of transition – with the climate, with the impact of decarbonization, with the strategy to decarbonize – and with the green deal in Europe, the aim is to achieve zero emissions by 2050. In Alstom, we are pioneers. Many years ago we started to introduce and develop the first hydrogen trains, to replace diesel trains. Today this train is a reality, it’s running in Germany and in Austria, we just received orders in France and in Italy, and there are initiatives also here in Poland. We are planning to present the first hydrogen train here in Poland in a month.
Is any part of the hydrogen train being prepared here in Poland?
Yes, we make the body frames for this train, Coradia iLint, in Poland and they are exported to Germany.
For people who don’t know trains so well, what exactly is a hydrogen train?
Actually, there are two types, let’s say, to simplify. Electrical trains that are already sustainable because they are fully electric, and diesel trains. We substitute the diesel engine with hydrogen cells. Hydrogen cells use hydrogen, which through electrolysis produces the energy that moves the train. The fuel is hydrogen and the only emission is steam water. And it achieves the same autonomy as the diesel train, up to 1000 km. There is another solution which is the battery train.
Going back to the topic of sustainability, what does the EU Green Deal mean for rail traffic in Europe, for the region, and for a company like Alstom?
It’s a huge challenge to achieve zero emissions in 2050. 2050 is tomorrow in our industry. For us, it’s a full strategy, including the first worldwide hydrogen train. Urbanisation is another of our challenges. To meet the needs of growing cities we have developed digital solutions to connect and orchestrate public transport (Mastria – multimodal traffic orchestrator). The goal is to interconnect metros, tramways, buses and high-speed trains. Then the fluidity for the passenger is much easier, with a big impact not only on travel times but also on emissions. It’s a full revolution. Innovation is in our DNA. We like to be there, at the forefront of technology – we like to be pioneers in this industry.
Obviously, COVID has made a massive impact on every industry, including the transport industry. How has it affected things from Alstrom’s perspective and from rail’s perspective?
The first impact is on traffic – passengers are not travelling. The problem was COVID, not a structural one. We have learnt many things from COVID. We knew that public transport was safe but now we can confirm that it’s absolutely safe. We discovered that we can do many things remotely. Digitalisation has increased a lot. We have also seen the resilience of our employees and their commitment. We still had to deliver the contracts so we continued with designing and producing the trains, designing the systems. We didn’t stop. We took all the health and safety measures, but the industry continued. It was the acid test, and we passed.
The ERTMS – the European Traffic Management System – is a topic much discussed in the industry. What is it and what will it mean for Europe’s transport future?
In basic terminology, it’s the infrastructure speaking with the train. It covers safety, frequency, speed and is managed with software, software which is installed on the tracks and on the trains. ERTMS is the response to the several signalling systems – meaning several different “languages” – in Europe. It is one language that covers the whole of Europe and allows trains to go from one country to another. Each company – suppliers and developers – have to follow the standards, which are compatible with each other. And then you have the train on top of the track, and the train needs to be equipped with onboard units that can read the ERTMS. Here in Poland, we are leaders in signalling. We are proud to be the first one to introduce the ERTMS level 2 on the Warsaw – Gdynia line. Once ERTMS is implemented, travel time is shorter, frequency is better and speeds can be increased. There are many benefits to it.
What kind of time frame are we looking at until all European rail networks are coordinated by ERTMS?
It’s a long-term project. Corridors are defined at a European level and given different levels of priority for financing and things like that. And each country is developing their lines and investing in those corridors to connect the different countries with the ERTMS technology.
What can the average person get excited about in the next 20 years or so in the rail industry?
There are many many things to be excited about. There’s hydrogen, there’s connectivity – we introduced wifi in Pendolinos because people want to be connected 100% of the time. There’s speed and comfort. Things will be smoother. If you take the bus or the metro every day to your office you can correlate one with the other. If there is a problem on the metro, the bus will take this into account. The object is not to move rolling stock – it’s not to move steel – it’s to move people, and a bus without people or an empty metro is a waste. Capacity and fluidity will be maximised – it will have a big impact.
It’s well known that Poland is a country where people love their cars, maybe more than other countries, and of course, the weather is a factor. Do you think that in Poland and Central & Eastern Europe people will be more converted to using public transport in the future?
Of course, if taking public transport is easier for passengers, they will take it. It depends on how many connections there are, how smooth the connections are – if you have to change between different forms of transport, but the direction big cities are heading is to choose public transportation over individual cars.
What would you say to young people, particularly young engineers, who are looking where to go in their careers, what would you say to them about coming into the rail industry, to attract them?
Well, it’s an attractive industry. The Association of the European Rail Industry is called UNIFE, and in UNIFE we have a claim to attract these engineers which is ‘Hop on for our planet’. The initiative is to attract young talent to our industry. We really need engineers. We are looking to hire more engineers because the need is there, the investments are there, the growth is there – and the transformation is massive. Digitalisation, clean energies and sustainable mobility are very interesting for anyone.
Many people say there is a lack of engineers. Is this something that you see in general?
In Europe, in general, we need engineers – in Poland or in Czechia. There are not enough engineers. If young people are thinking about what to study – if they have a passion for industry or for engineering – there are a lot of opportunities. There are many opportunities for so-called STEAM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). This is what I tell my sons.
When you look at the future of the rail industry in Poland, in the region, in the world, are you optimistic about developments?
Yes, definitely. The climate challenge is here and it’s going to be here for the long run. We see large investments in Europe, we see large investments in America – mobility is a need, and it will continue to be a need for people, and rail is the cleanest means of transportation. So definitely we have a good future.
Do you see Alstom’s presence in Poland expanding in terms of employment and production?
That’s our main objective – to develop the domestic market, to grow the domestic market. We have the product, we have the solution. We have products for passengers and for cargo. We are close to the customer and we’re ready.