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300 km per hour – greatest moment

Published Nov 24, 2010

He is certainly not a train fanatic, Sebastian Stichel, newly appointed Professor of rail vehicle dynamics. But he is certainly interested in trains. Not so much that he waits with bated breath every time an old steam train puffs away from the train station. But his interest is strong enough for him to get a dreamy look in his eyes when he talks about the 30 track wide railway lines in his native Germany.

“They awaken a desire in me to want to travel. And I enjoy travelling by train,” says Professor Sebastian Stichel.

But a so-called train spotter he is not. However, he likes to work actively to bring about a greater understanding among politicians when it comes to trains.

“I am not a person who wants to get rid of all of the cars. It is important to use the various modes of transport where they produce the most benefit. But running a relatively big car to and from work in a major city, for example, is not effective, and I would like to make a contribution so that the politicians understand that rail travel is the future,” he says.

He agrees that the future of passenger transport is likely to show greater variety than today. Small electric cars will share the space with large petrol cars and public transport in all its forms. It is difficult to be a clear winner in the current situation; this is because different people have different needs.

“People obviously do not like to be crowded onto trains and buses with other people; this is obviously an important issue. Will people be more inclined to use public transport in the future, or will they use small cars that are fuel-efficient? I believe in the former, for it is favourable not only to the environment but it also means less congestion on the roads,” says Sebastian Stichel.

Reawakening with Professor title

He has no major problems in listing the challenges that apply to a professor of rail vehicle dynamics. He quickly points out two areas.

“Passenger comfort is important, for example in terms of vibration levels. After about a year, there will be trains in China, partly developed in Sweden, which will be able to travel at 380 kilometres per hour. This makes great demands on trains and the rails, and here you have to keep maintenance costs down. Making the trains lighter is another important task. Lighter trains will lead to a reduction in energy consumption. The industry here is a bit conservative, and there is also the co-existence of a complex regulatory framework.”

He if anyone should know. For 14 years he has worked at KTH. During a major part of that period he remained with one foot in the academic world, and one in the business of manufacturing trains at Bombardier in Västerås. The title of Professor means a return to a full time position within academia, something of a real reawakening, he thinks.

“I like to do research and teaching. What drives me is the combination of being both a teacher and a researcher. I like the contact with students, and developing courses and figuring out new assignments for students,” says Sebastian Stichel with a smile.

He sees that there is a long term aspect of learning. Building a good course can take years. Research is also a process that takes time. That is not always the case in industry.

“I have spent 10 years in the rail industry. Things have to happen much quicker in industry, more to the point. But there is also a risk of superficiality, something that I do not like. I feel like I need to look deeper into the subject that things may take a little longer. Then it will be done properly. Nor did I have the time to write handouts and scientific articles when I worked in industry, I have the opportunity to do so here at KTH,” says Sebastian Stichel, obviously pleased with his professorship.

Mathematics and reality

He is a little pensive at the same time. To assume the role of professor also means assuming greater responsibility.

“Will you be able to fill the role? It is a major task. A professor should not only be an expert in his field but also a voice in society. To be in the public domain and write articles that give rise to debate.”

But Sebastian Stichel has an extensive track record, so this will not be a problem for him. He is also a great friend of teamwork.

“The greatest moment in my research career so far was probably when we on the Green Train project broke the speed limit of 300 kilometres per hour. Another great moment was when one of my students created algorithms and programmed an active suspension system for trains which governed movement from side to side, something that can sometimes cause discomfort for passengers. That work led to a marked improvement in passenger comfort. Today the solution is being tested intensively on trains in regular traffic, so the work went from theory and simulations to practical application and implementation. It is very stimulating.”

Sebastian Stichel says he feels a great satisfaction when mathematics reflects reality. Then he has “a good day,” as he puts it.

So what are the research areas that border on his work and arouse his curiosity?

“I appreciate the cooperation with Stefan Östlund’s research group regarding new types of train engines. But even the work in traffic planning, that we have done together with, among others, Bo-Lennart Nelldal, has been positive and interesting. There are many interesting issues; traffic planning is an important field as is the interaction between different types of traffic. How should roads be located? How should schedules look like so that as many people as possible will be able to travel between different points? Where do we need to expand the railway network?”

What is the ambition of your research?

“To do the best job possible, of course. And when I can, even contribute with improvements.”

Text: Peter Larsson.

Sebastian Stichel

Age: 44
Family: Married, three children
Interests: Running and cross-country skiing