Heidelberg University

"A Journey from Cosmology to Railways: Why physicists are needed to drive the evolution towards sustainable transport forward"

Tim Tugendhat, DB Analytics


Policymakers all over the world are slowly beginning to grasp the fact that our planet cannot sustain the current level of human greenhouse gas emissions. Our consumption-based economy and its exponential growth are approaching the limits of what an Earth-sized ecosystem can handle. There is no easy solution to this. Attempts to place the responsibility for the looming climate crisis on the behaviour of the individual consumers are an expression of both helplessness and marketplace ideology. Clearly, solutions can only be radical and systemic. Forcing a shift in transportation from rubber on roads towards the much more energy efficient railway is a vital part towards solving this conundrum. Finally, German politicians of (almost) all parties are pushing towards an expansion of rail traffic and capacity, albeit still with different concepts in mind. Today, Deutsche Bahn is at the very forefront of these attempts towards climate neutrality, though fatally ill-equipped: The expected growth of rail traffic is gigantic - neither our infrastructure nor Deutsche Bahn's vehicle fleet could currently handle it. Data science has thus become an essential tool for Deutsche Bahn: Without cleverly optimising railway schedules, simulating the flow of people through stations as they change trains, modelling material consumption and deterioration, predicting shortages, or determining bottlenecks in infrastructure, strategic planning for a modern infrastructure and railway company is impossible. We as physicists bring just the right skillset for this job: A curious tendency to try to mathematically model everything we see, a thorough understanding of statistics and likelihood, strong computing and programming skills, and sometimes a weird obsession with trains.