Harnessing the power of digital – powering railways into the future

Rail Express spoke with Dominic Clark, Alstom’s signalling and infrastructure director in ANZ, about what is happening, digitally, in the world of rail right now.

Dominic Clark (DC)

The technological advances of the 21st century all rely on one thing – data. Successfully delivering better customer outcomes across a range of industries will broadly hinge on how this data is used. This is very evident in the railway sector. Today’s rail infrastructure produces large volumes of data and this offers new opportunities when it is gathered, stored and analysed in order to produce more efficient services for customers and communities.

The extensive use of this data has allowed areas, such as maintenance for example, to become more precise and predictive. Today, we can identify previously undetected faults, pinpoint failing assets and improve troubleshooting across vast networks of both freight and passenger services. This has had a real impact on our industry

Together with rail operators and infrastructure managers, Alstom, via the use of a broad range of digital applications, is helping optimise networks, boost the effectiveness of maintenance and improve the availability and efficiency of entire railway systems. The shift toward digital is filtering through the entire rail industry – with the most significant developments happening in the signalling space.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution and what it means for the rail industry

REx: It seems that the digital revolution has the capacity to really change our industry and beyond? 

DC: Some are calling this shift to digital as the Fourth Industrial Revolution which will have significant impacts for the future. In terms of CO2 emissions, and energy consumption, rail is the most sustainable means of transportation. Nevertheless, to make rail truly attractive, we also need to manage the growing volumes of passenger and freight without constant reinvestment in new infrastructure or technologies. The original Industrial Revolution was made possible by innovations in water and steam, while the Second saw electricity introduced to power new systems and ideas. The Third Industrial Revolution, meanwhile, ushered in the digital era, developing exciting ways for information technology and electronics to work in tandem. Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution, focused on automation and smart technologies, is building on its predecessor, while being just as revolutionary in terms of achievements, not least for rail.

Rethinking rail capacity – making upgrades affordable

Extraordinary growth in rail demand has pushed many systems to their capacity limits, and this is a challenge that can be met by the advanced digital signalling, made possible by the latest technologies. It creates new possibilities for increased passenger numbers and freight volumes.

REx: How does the use of digital technologies change the way we have done things up until now?

DC: By moving products and cables away from the track and onto trains we shift our focus from developing hardware to software and solutions that focus on intelligent use of data and automation. It is all about establishing communication that is more reliable, immediate and accessible. This intelligent, accessible and reliable data means systems and system operations can be predictive rather than what has been traditionally reactive. An additional benefit is that when less trackside equipment is needed, the associated cost for maintenance is eliminated. The Sydney Metro Projects for example, with its fully-automated, driverless technology has already provided Australia with of a glimpse of what is possible.

Smarter maintenance and more secure systems

When rail systems become more ‘hardware-agnostic’, introducing new functionalities becomes easier. Since systems can be updated more easily, the possibilities for new and more efficient servicing methodologies open up.

For example, applying advanced analytics to operational data improves our understanding which then can be used to improve traffic management or pinpoint how an operator can make substantial energy savings across a network. Through data fusion, algorithm functions are transferred from track to train. Using both satellite navigation and inertial movement to accurately and safely measure the location and speed, equipment for trackside monitoring is now integrated within the train while reducing asset management burden. Shifting to digital also means that we can be agile and innovative to address shifting system needs, evolving client and market needs as updates can be rolled out remotely – ensuring a system never goes out of date and is cybersecure during a train’s entire life cycle.

Digital technology allows for precise journey planning.

Harnessing the power of digital

REx: What does a Digital future mean for companies like Alstom who have a very strong, traditional industrial base?

DC: The Fourth Industrial Revolution goes hand in hand with an evolution of new business models for the rail industry. A movement away from trackside hardware in the signalling space for example, is a catalyst for Alstom to enhance its digital and software-based solutions, in tandem with its traditional industrial prowess. 

In addition, the cross-pollination of technologies means that more and more of our applications are not specific to railways. Instead, we are looking at a range of solutions for all markets. We are taking fresh ideas and concepts and adapting them to rail to ensure they meet the highest standards of both efficiency and safety which can also be applied to other industries. The future is already here, and we are determined to be at the forefront of rail’s digital transformation.


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