Passenger Rail, Signalling & Communications, Technology and IT

Digitising our future: Improving passenger experience through innovation

Downer’s Tim Young takes Rail Express through the company’s latest innovations in rail, and how modern data collection and analysis can drive passenger growth.


With governments at local, state and federal levels gradually approaching a consensus on the importance of growing public transport, Australia is on the cusp of an urban rail construction, operations and maintenance boom.

While rail patronage will undoubtedly rise when new connections are opened to growing areas, the addition of new services to already busy networks can compound challenges already faced getting stubborn road users to shift to public transport. Unplanned rail delays and congestion at busy stations are common excuses for commuters to continue driving to and from work, even if it is the more expensive, more stressful and – on the average day – more time-consuming option.

For Tim Young, Executive General Manager Rollingstock Services at Downer, answering these challenges will require modern, digital solutions.

“80 per cent of the world’s data has been created in the last five years,” Young tells Rail Express. “If you look at where we’ll be in 10 to 20 years, there will be a huge focus on ecosystem integration – integration between assets and people, and a huge focus on customer experience.”

Young wouldn’t always have been so optimistic about that rate of change. Over more than 20 years in the rail, aviation, safety, mining and manufacturing sectors, Young has witnessed, and taken part in rail’s digital journey, and says the sector has gotten better in its approach to change.

“My experience in the rail game has gone from staff and ticket operations and block limit boards to fully automated signals and points that are being set by Advanced Train Control Management Systems,” he says.

“Over that history the rail industry has, at times, been very slow to move and evolve. Its culture has at times been slow to adapt to the introduction of new technologies and new processes.”

Young recognises that part of the sector’s trepidation over the years has been well-founded. Rail operators bear a high level of safety responsibility, and all change must be with safety kept paramount.

“We need to understand how we play in this sphere that we don’t actually have 100 per cent control of. Because we’re dealing with commuters and their lives, we don’t take these decisions lightly – so more often than not this is also a precursor to why technology deployment in our industry is so slow,” he says.

With safety in mind, Young says change has become more rapid in the rail sector. But there are still barriers that could be lifted.

“The pace of change has certainly picked up, particularly when you look at the introduction of new technology in the rail industry in Australia. In the last decade we’ve seen advancements in signalling technology, we’ve seen advancements in onboard train technology, train control management systems. I think the evolution of digitalisation in the last decade has certainly been enhanced – the degree of introduction has increased,” he says.

“However, there are a number of constraints, particularly around the sense of urgency for those changes. Regulations and policies are things that constrain technology elasticity, and digitalisation in the rail industry more broadly.”

Another key hurdle for innovators is simple: capital cost.

“There’s a degree of risk associated with unknown applications, unknown technologies, and whether they’re actually going to deliver a tangible return, so capital is always going to be a question mark,” Young explains.

To ameliorate some of these concerns, Downer been looking to partner with more of its suppliers, and to collaborate with other technology firms and research bodies, with the aim of increasing the rate of development, and the success of project delivery.

In one example, Downer is working with the CSIRO and the Rail Manufacturing CRC to improve control battery technology, addressing issues like thermal runaway, and the potential of better battery solutions for improved life expectancy on Downer’s trainsets.

Collaboration is also taking place internally within Downer. Video analytics developments being made by Downer’s Defence business could have an application in public transport.

“This is leading-edge technology at the moment,” Young explains. “Technology that is able to detect either an incident that has occurred, or is about to occur, based on certain algorithms that are put into a database … We’re looking at whether that technology has applications, particularly from a safety perspective, within our industry, because there’s plenty of opportunities there as well.

“Obviously with surveillance-based technology there are privacy concerns to address, but that is something we’re working through with our Defence colleagues; working with that type of legislation.”

Ultimately, Young says the end customer is likely to be the biggest beneficiary of rail’s digital growth.

“We’re trying to deal to hyper global issues, with hyper local content experience,” he says. “Everybody carries a mobile device, and through it they’re connected globally. Well, we’re trying to take a local experience, like an urban rail service, and provide consumers with a global solution. We’re trying to solve today’s problems with some of today’s technology, but also trying to develop tomorrow’s technology today.”

How Downer is taking rail digital

Talking again about how the industry is set to become even more focused on the customer, Young says one example for Downer has been reducing delays and improving uptime for passenger rollingstock, through a reliability-centred approach to maintenance.

At the forefront of this is TrainDNA, which puts large volumes of data through an array of algorithms to highlight issues for maintenance before they cause delays.

Built on Downer’s Neuroverse platform, and based on the Microsoft Azure software stack, TrainDNA was developed over 18 months using in-house expertise and a strategic partnership with Deakin University and the Rail Manufacturing CRC.

The platform is now deployed on Sydney’s fleet of Downer-built Waratah trains, and will be rolled out across the rest of the fleet maintained by Downer by April next year.

“This is a data analytics platform on steroids,” Young says. “Analysing such volumes of data will allow our team to establish trends in relative real time, enabling us to proactively predict failures and calculate the remaining life of an asset more effectively.

“The advantage to our customers is that all of this takes place whilst the train is in service without interrupting the operation. At the same time, it enhances worker safety through the potential of removing high-risk inspections.”

Young expects TrainDNA to boost Downer’s ability to predict failure rates, and reduce unscheduled train downtime.

“TrainDNA demonstrates our capability as a world-class maintainer and asset management partner of choice. While we are still in the early stages of the solution, TrainDNA is a step in the right direction in our journey towards predictive maintenance.”

Mirroring this is TrackDNA, the equivalent platform for monitoring track for predictive maintenance purposes. “It will hang off some of the Waratah trains so we can extract information from the track,” Young explains.

“We can then put that data through a raft of algorithms, with the intent to understand not only track conditions for preventative maintenance activities, but also for further insight into the wheel-rail interface, something that no operator has at this time.

“It’s bringing the data from the train and the data from the track together, so you can understand the broader ecosystem health as it relates to the vehicle.”

Customers the focus of Wynyard trial

Another digital innovation Young says can improve the appeal of public transport comes in the form of a trial underway at Wynyard station in the heart of Sydney’s CBD, where Downer has installed its Dwell Track system to analyse and help manage movement through the busy station.

Developed by Downer and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), and supported by the Rail Manufacturing CRC, the trial involves the installation of 16 infra-red and digital devices which sense customer movement, without identifying individuals.

“It allows station staff to understand the movements of consumers on and off the train, so they can try to position those consumers well on the platform,” Young explains.

“The passenger information display systems on the platform can also show passengers where seats are available onboard the approaching train coming to Wynyard station, through the airbag sensors. That culminates in allowing Sydney Trains to better manage the ease and speed of their consumers, through Wynyard train station, which has a direct consequence in managing dwell time more effectively, allowing for a better customer experience, and an improved ability to maintain their timetable.”

Dwell Track is undergoing a planned eight-week trial. Based on its performance, Sydney Trains will decide whether it will deploy it elsewhere on the