January 04, 2018

Digitalisation: the new driver of railway technology

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AS we take our annual look at the year ahead, it is hard to avoid the “D” word. Digitalisation is starting to take hold in the minds of railway managers and engineers around the world as they begin to appreciate what it can achieve. Digitalisation is rapidly emerging as a driver of railway technology and innovation alongside existing drivers such as heavy-haul freight, high-speed, and metro automation.

Digitalisation provides a huge opportunity to reduce costs by streamlining processes and improving efficiency and reliability. It can provide real-time information on train movements, which for too long has been rail’s Achilles heel, while predictive maintenance for both rolling stock and fixed assets can finally become a reality. Digitalisation will allow railways to analyse overall performance and sub-systems to identify weaknesses which need to be addressed. The technology is also encouraging new companies, often in the form of start-ups, to enter the rail industry and inject fresh ideas and new ways of working.

Artificial intelligence will transform project management, support decision making, and help to allocate the best person for a particular job, which will bring down construction costs. This cannot come soon enough for cities desperately seeking ways to cut urban congestion and pollution through the construction of new metro and light rail lines.

Automatic train operation is well established on metros around the world, but now it is being taken seriously by main line railways many of which could not see the benefits until recently. According to a study by Alstom and Infrabel, train automation could cut energy consumption by up to 42% and improve punctuality, both prizes worth winning, let alone the ability to operate the railway more flexibly.

But in order to reap the full benefits of digitalisation, it is vital to educate people on how to make the best use of it and to ensure they understand how they will benefit. People must not come to fear digitalisation but embrace it. This applies to both employees and customers.

The hostility to the deployment of ERTMS in Europe illustrates the reluctance by many railways to adopt a new technology designed to benefit rail transport with the result that ERTMS coverage is still patchy and a far cry from the interoperable system that was promised.

As we look ahead, this is a good opportunity to consider some priorities for 2018. Obvious targets are to push forward with digitalisation and railway automation, and in Europe to stick to the latest ERTMS deployment plan which could be the final chance to make real progress.

Infrastructure managers need to start regarding train operators as customers who require a high standard of reliability in order to prosper. They should also try to make running trains easier. The Rastatt line closure in Germany caused far more disruption to freight services than necessary due to a complete lack of contingency planning and should be a wake-up call to train planners.

Poor-quality infrastructure is also an issue in many countries due to a lack of long-term investment which hampers rail’s ability to compete. You cannot build a sound business on poor infrastructure.

Rail freight in Europe is in the doldrums and continues to lose ground to road haulage. Lineas in Belgium has some good ideas for getting rail freight back on track. CEO Mr Geert Pauwels believes operators need to rethink their approach to wagonload freight where rail is in direct competition with road but has ceded huge volumes to its main competitor. His approach is to combine intermodal and wagonload operations to bring fast, reliable services to the market.

Freight traffic between Asia and Europe has finally taken off and is growing strongly. While transit times have been steadily reduced, bottlenecks at the change-of-gauge points in Eastern Europe are threating to stifle this success story and solutions need to be found quickly.

Rail needs to fight harder against actions which distort competition with other modes such as unfair tax breaks for competitors, or taxes on rail which other modes have dodged.

Rail also needs to be its own champion. Air and road fight hard to defend their interests, so it is high time for rail to trumpet its own successes and its relevance to society, for example its environmental benefits which often outstrip those of its competitors. Rail is the only mode where the maximum speed is continuing to increase, resulting in shorter journey times. Air has gone backwards since the demise of Concorde and the introduction of more onerous security at airports, while road is hampered by fixed speed limits and worsening congestion.

But rail must guard against complacency. Other modes are catching up as they seek to become more environmentally friendly. Autonomous driving should make road transport a lot safer, cheaper to use, and even more flexible than it is already. This poses a serious threat to rail - autonomous road trains could decimate rail freight traffic. This is why it is so important for rail to adopt new technologies which make it cheaper to build, operate, and maintain, and far more reliable and much easier to use than it is today.

David Briginshaw

David Briginshaw joined IRJ in 1982 as associate editor, and was appointed editor-in-chief in 2001. He has travelled the world extensively interviewing many of the CEOs and senior managers of the world's railways and transit systems which has given him an in-depth knowledge of the global railway industry.

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