A classic story among movie buffs revolves around trains. In 1895, a French film entitled "L'arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat," or "the arrival of a train in la Ciotat," was screened in Paris.
The film is about a minute long, and over the course of that minute, the train approaches the camera slowly and then speeds up. The audience's reaction was anthologized in classic cinematic and technological history: seeing the train apparently speeding toward them, they panicked and fled the theater, afraid of the train that seemed to be barrelling straight for them.
Maybe that's a good lesson to keep in mind when it comes to really fast trains. As much as we obsess over speed and sleekness, we're also a little bit afraid of speedy trains, intuitively, and we tend not to believe the speed is possible when we're first promised it.
That's part of what makes the CSR Sifang Co.'s high speed train technology in China so exciting. The rolling-stock train-tech manufacturer builds cars for the Chinese subway and high-speed trains alike, spanning the gamut of transport tech solutions in a crowded country where transport accounts for 18% of the nation's GDP
High-speed trains go at about 250 km/hour, according to Sifang's estimates, and they're also busy targeting so-called "normal speed" trains - which, we might remember from the arrivée, is still pretty darn fast.
This is a large market to fill - over 1,000 train cars a year need to be retrofitted for inter-communicative technology and safety devices. And perhaps even more than in the case of freight trains, safety is paramount when it comes to passenger trains with hundreds of people on board. With that in mind, Sifang wants to build both the safest and the most efficient technology possible, giving its trains HVAC monitoring and energy-efficient options, not to mention systems to deal with fire or other emergency and alarm capabilities.
"Thrill of speed has always amazed us. There's something even more thrilling about the tiny particles required to make an enormous machine like a train speed like a bullet. So much of what has to come before speed is reliability, or the former is worthless."
And because trains aren't a brand new technology, more often than not, Sifang's job involves retrofitting pre-existing trains with sensors and an autonomous communication system. As with many industrial applications of device networking, this means all the technology has to be backward-compatible and forward-thinking, a balance that any engineer could tell you is a tough one to strike.
Oh, and we can't forget that this is China, where industry standards are a new ball-game and require technology meeting a high degree of scrutiny.
So what's an ideal system? For one, one that's low on wires. A high or normal-speed passenger train can't be burdened with a hefty wiring system. But train engineers want to have their cake and eat it, too -- the system needs to function down a long stretch of train line, and it can't exist on a standard commercial-level wireless system, whose functionality and robustness is limited.
Entrée the LonWorks FT10 channel, a server linked to a proxy and numerous devices, which can serve a number of train cars in a row along the tracks. That single server holds responsibility for a number of functions on each set of cars, including for communicating with sensors monitoring oxygen, doors, brakes and anti-lock systems on brakes, and power supply. Again, because the system doesn't use an external Internet, it essentially operates on an internal, autonomous Internet which is more robust for an industrial-grade application.
The thrill of speed has always amazed us. There's something even more thrilling about the tiny particles required to make an enormous machine like a train speed like a bullet. So much of what has to come before speed is reliability, or the former is worthless. Yet that's the beauty of building systems that are meant to be invisible to the common eye: they're always on, always working, always strong. But when we marvel at the safe, clean train ride taking us through China's hills and cities alike, we’re busy looking out the window at the sights, much like how the audience at Entrée was busy marveling at the train speeding startlingly off the screen at them, forgetting, for a moment, how many little whirring levers in the projection room were at work to make that magic happen.