Although centuries have passed since the advent of steam trains, the railway still plays an important role in modern life. Today's trains are a crucial part of the global economy, ferrying passengers and valuable cargo between towns, cities and across national borders.
When things go wrong, however, delays can be crippling, and the frustration of passengers and businesses huge.
As technology develops, those responsible for the operation of railways are attempting to integrate new technologies into their systems in order to spot and fix problems quickly.
Towards the end of last week, SNCF Réseau – which manages French railway infrastructure – and Capgemini announced a partnership that will see them deploy new technology in an effort to improve the way issues on the network are monitored and resolved.
The idea is that it will use geolocation technology to pinpoint problems on the railway in real time.
Among other things, the system enables teams at SNCF Réseau to "localize incidents" on a map displaying infrastructure data, guiding workers to the exact place they need to be to fix the problem.
These on-the-ground staff can then liaise with their colleagues, providing updates on the problem and when it will be resolved.
According to Capgemini, SNCF Réseau has been using the technology in the Auvergne Rhône-Alpes region since the summer. The idea is for the system, dubbed "New Generation Supervision," to be rolled out to other parts of the country in 2021 and 2022.
Last Thursday, Olivier Bancel, deputy director of general production at SNCF Réseau, explained that the deployment of the system would "make it possible to improve not only the handling of incidents, and therefore the regularity of traffic, but also passenger information."
He added: "Overall, we are going to move from very systematic maintenance to maintenance that is closer to needs, more precise and in real time: network maintenance at the right time and in the right place."
France is not the only country where efforts are being made to improve the performance of rail transport using technology.
Back in June, the U.K. government announced £350 million (around $434.15 million at the time) of funding for a digital railway signaling system in a bid to reduce delays and upgrade ageing infrastructure.
Under the plan, traditional signals on a stretch of the East Coast Mainline will be replaced by a digital system, enabling staff to see the exact location of a train throughout its journey.
In a statement, the Department for Transport said the new "smart" signaling would recognize different types of train, "allowing train and track to talk to each other continuously in real-time."
"This 'in-cab' system will mean an end to conventional signaling at the side of tracks – first used in the Victorian era," the department added.
The trains companies use are also starting to change, with hydrogen fuel-cell technology offering an interesting glimpse of how rail journeys in the years ahead could be powered.
September saw trials of a hydrogen-powered train in the U.K., for example, with an initial journey successfully completed between the locations of Long Marston and Evesham in the West Midlands region of England.
The HydroFLEX train — which has been developed by a team from the University of Birmingham and Porterbrook, a rolling stock firm — uses a fuel-cell which combines hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, heat and water.
The train has been fitted with a range of kit inside one of its carriages. The tech includes a hydrogen fuel tank, the aforementioned fuel-cell and lithium ion batteries for storage. It's hoped that the technology will be available to retrofit trains already in use by the year 2023.