digital rail

The digital rail revolution

As one of the leading providers of digital technology in the digital rail sector, Mark Coxon of Alstom explains what changes rail can expect to see in its digital future.

Since the beginning of the modern era, rail has been closely connected to each major industrial innovation. Initially, in the first industrial revolution, the use of steam to textile mills was almost as iconic as the steam-powered train engine, which became the symbol of increased productivity and modernisation during the 19th century.

In the next era, the adoption of hydrocarbons as a source for fuel also enabled the diesel train, able to haul large loads for transcontinental journeys. Simultaneously, widespread electrification and the urbanisation of worldwide populations saw the adoption of electric, underground metro services that have kept crowded cities moving. Now, as the information revolution looks to set to be the next defining wave of innovation, train technology is leading the way in innovation.

Alstom is one of the early adopters of the digital wave in rail, and indeed has become one of the drivers. The significance of this shift is not lost on Mark Coxon, managing director of Alstom Australian and New Zealand.

“Digital Railways doesn’t have quite the romantic ring of the great train services of the past – the Orient Express, the Canadian Pacific or the Trans-Siberian. But digital is the next big wave in the railway sector, and train users can look forward to higher service standards, more timely information and even better ticket pricing,” he said.

The two primary technologies that have come to define digital rail are digital train control and digital signalling. Although there is an array of other technologies, according to Coxon, these tools will have a fundamental impact on the evolution of rail during the current industrial revolution.

“Digital signalling and digital technologies in general will have a huge influence on the evolution of rail services. They are just the latest developments in an industry that has a great track record (pun intended) of technological innovation. From steam to diesel to electric power, the railroad’s evolving technologies have unleashed economic potential and social mobility wherever the rails were laid.”

Indeed, the new technologies exist in order to improve the usefulness of rail networks, rather than being a cosmetic add on.

“Today we are entering an age where digitalisation allows operators to have real- time information on train movements and analyse overall performance – ultimately reducing costs by streamlining processes and improving efficiency and reliability,” Coxon said.

UNLOCKING THE URBAN
For many cities, including Australia’s urban centres, the efficiencies promised by digital rail could not come soon enough. Traditional signalling systems have reached the end of their useful life, while patronage continues to increase. Additionally, building new rail lines through cities is often not an option, and tunnelling underneath poses significant cost challenges. This has put pressure on existing technology, said Coxon.

“Railways have been part of the urban landscape for so long that networks in many countries have become extremely dense, especially on commuter lines in major cities, making it difficult and costly to implement major upgrading projects. Instead, the kind of improvements in efficiency that digital technology excels at can have massive operational impacts.”

Digital rail can also extend to find connections with other forms of transport, across heavy rail, metro, light rail and also bus and micro-mobility networks. Finding these efficiencies in the digital ecosystem can deliver major benefits to transport and city planners.

“Digital technologies hold out the promise of true transport integration, linking main-line rail services with other urban transportation modes, enhancing efficiency and passenger convenience,” said Coxon. “The introduction of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT), Intelligent Transport Systems and open- data/open-source transport applications are transforming urban transportation, optimising the efficiency of existing and new urban transport systems, at a cost much lower than building new infrastructure from the ground up.”

Within the railways themselves, the enhanced data and feedback gathered by digital sensors form a connected railway that can reduce costs and improve service delivery.

“New transport data collection technologies are also being deployed to provide information about delays, downtime, and predictive maintenance which could lead to huge improvements in service standards, safety, and unlocking the potential of railways. Passengers will also be able to make real-time decisions about their journeys based on the features that matter most to them such as reliability, safety, travel time, and cost,” said Coxon.

In addition, as governments and individuals increasingly identify a project’s sustainability as a key factor, adopting the digitalisation
of railways can enable railway operators to reduce energy usage, improving air quality, while also delivering a seamless experience for the commuter.

“Enhanced safety, predictive maintenance, and automated driverless operation are all part of rail’s future,” said Coxon.

PUTTING THE PASSENGER FIRST
Perhaps an even more fundamental shift will be occurring in the way that passengers interact with transport. Currently divided into discrete journeys often limited by transport mode, a connected digital railway can enable the rise of Mobility as a Service (MaaS). Via data-enabled apps, commuters can move through transit modes made as one seamless trip, with real- time information to smoothen the transition.

“From the passenger’s perspective, access through online apps to real-time information on travel times, potential service interruptions, ticket prices, seating arrangements and even on the least crowded places to wait on a station platform, will enhance convenience and reduce the stress of travel,” said Coxon.

Reducing disruptions also enables transit time to fit into the other rhythms of daily life, with enhanced services available onboard.

“Railways today offer a connected service all along the passenger journey with on-board Wi-Fi for internet and entertainment options. Passengers are able to experience these services using their own mobile devices –laptops, tablets and smartphones,” said Coxon. “This approach to train connectivity can unquestionably deliver a significantly improved passenger experience.”

These developments occur as part of a strategy of putting the individual first, rather than forcing the individual to comply with the requirements of the service.

SEIZING THE DIGITAL FUTURE
However, just as digital rail offers solutions, there are challenges too, as Coxon acknowledges.

“The path to digitalisation will not, of course, be entirely smooth.”

The benefits of digital rail require collaboration and coordination between companies, agencies, and organisations that have up until now existed in their own silos, with limited interaction. In addition, the skills and knowledge that is required to build and run a digital rail system is quite different to those needed in an analogue rail environment, although Coxon notes that these changes could have their own benefits.

“Despite the challenges, the railway sector’s move to digitalisation is clearly unstoppable. Digital technology in the railway sector will see a shift from the traditional emphasis on heavy engineering, to software and data handling skills. In the future, once the hardware is installed, upgrading a signalling system will no longer require hundreds of workers out on the tracks; it might be more like upgrading the software on your phone.”

Getting to this digitally enabled future may require some difficult transitioning, however through collaborating across industry lines, returns can be found.

“Rail operators should take this digitalisation opportunity to integrate different mobility options into their existing offering and consequently focus on value creation through innovation,” said Coxon.

“Without a doubt, it is the quiet efficiency of digital technology that will take rail systems and their passengers into a new age of rail travel that is safer, more convenient and comfortable, more economical, and more climate-friendly.”