Products & Technology

The digitisation of rail: Offering smarter mobility for all Australians

Michael Powell, director, technical and engineering at Thales, writes how the digitisation of rail can enable safer, more sustainable journeys while helping operators control costs.

Cost is always a key driver as rail operators face constant pressure to do more with less and keep fares affordable. However, there are other factors at play including capacity. Prior to the pandemic, growth in public transport use was surging across many Australian cities and, while usage has gone down, the last year has seen people migrate further away from city centres which will create new shifts in demand.

In addition, the pandemic itself has created new requirements around social distancing which change the dynamics of public transport and how capacity is managed. These pandemic-related challenges are ones that we did not envisage, and it is simply impossible to predict all of the requirements that will emerge in the future. 

We need the ability to respond to changes in our environment faster than ever and the digitisation of the industry will enable us to do that. This is due to the advancements in data and technology as well as the ability to shorten development, integration, and validation times through leveraging digital twins, simulations, and virtual reality technologies.  

More specifically, digital technology can help to increase the carrying power of existing rail networks, avoiding the need for operators to continually build new physical infrastructure while at the same time reducing the amount of carbon produced. For example, our digital signalling system SelTrac G8 can reduce traction energy consumption by about 15% compared with traditional communications-based train control (CBTC) systems. This is achieved by loading efficient speed profiles into the train’s on-board system.

The role of the passenger

Another key driver in the digitisation of rail is the passenger and we believe shifting the focus from concrete and metal to data and software will enable much more timely, integrated, and safe passenger journeys. For instance, passengers understand that incidents occur within transport systems, but they also expect situations to be responded to and rectified quickly. More autonomous and digitalised railways allow for faster response and rectification of incidents which can be outside the control of the railway.

As an example, technology can help operators automatically adjust the speed profile of trains in order to move passengers more quickly during times of increased capacity. These could include sporting events, concerts or multi-day events like the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Once these events are over and normal conditions resume, technology can then help operators to automatically optimise their networks for efficient energy consumption.

Helping rail operators take advantage of the digital revolution

Thales helps operators to supervise their networks, monitor capacity, ensure safety and security, and enhance the passenger experience in the most effective way possible. Providing a smooth passenger journey involves more than just the train. It involves providing passengers with the appropriate information, directing them to the right carriages to optimise the dwell times at stations, and even controlling the speed of escalators. It also sometimes requires managing crowds by limiting the number of passengers entering the station.

These capabilities are essential requirements for modern rail networks and are made possible through advancements in digitisation, artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, and cybersecurity. Thales offers proven solutions in all these areas to deliver on the promise of smarter mobility. Using AI, for instance, we’ve developed a new passenger density and guidance system which allows passengers to identify which carriages are the least crowded before their train arrives in the station. The Distributed Intelligent Video Analytics solution helps to reduce crowding and facilitate social distancing for safer and more comfortable travel. 

We have another video analytics solution, SAVARITM, which can be used to detect fare evasion or instances where passengers are not complying with requirements for facial masks. NAIA is another solution we have that helps rail operators leverage data from ticketing machines and tap-in and tap-out barriers to better understand their passenger flow and therefore make better decisions. For example, by looking at historical patterns, operators can plan for recurring events and optimise schedules. They can also use near real-time data to react to abnormal events such as unexpected peaks in capacity. 

In addition to data, which is contained within the transport system, it is also possible to integrate open-source data to understand other relevant patterns and inform decisions to improve the passenger experience. For example, weather forecasts (which may mean more people stay home), traffic conditions (which mean more people could take public transport), and information on snap lock downs which result in substantially changing travel behaviour. Transport operators around the globe are acknowledging this need to be more data-driven and there is an enormous amount of data available to them that can be gathered and analysed to drive business and operational efficiencies. It can also be leveraged to provide a better passenger experience as in the examples above.

Sustainable transport networks

It is important rail operators are able to handle more traffic or different patterns of traffic without always building new networks. In order to achieve this, operators need to increase utilisation of their existing networks. We can help operators by increasing the flexibility and regularity of services and by reducing the intervals between trains during peak hours. For example, with our CBTC solution used for metro applications, we can reduce headways as low as one minute between trains to help maximise network capacity. In the mainline arena, we have our European Train Control System (ETCS) which are fast becoming the global standard for maintaining a safe maximum speed for each train. Our Level 2 and ETCS Level 3 Hybrid solutions are also moving towards automatic train control for mainline applications.

When it comes to the environment, rail is already efficient. It is the only mode of transport where emissions are falling despite an increase in passengers and freight. Of course, there’s always more we can do and Thales is developing eco-responsible AI solutions that are helping to reduce the energy consumption of trains, metros, and stations. The key to this is the management of data. By collecting information about the actual speed profile of the train and drivers, we can calculate the optimum speed profile for either throughput or energy consumption. This data can be a useful training tool for drivers.

These solutions include GreenSpeed, our driver advisory system for main lines which uses advanced energy-saving algorithms to calculate the optimal speed for each train. This reduces emissions and costs while also ensuring punctuality for a more reliable passenger experience. The move towards autonomous technology will make rail even more sustainable by reducing operating costs, adding to capacity, and further cutting emissions.

It will also make it possible for operators to monitor their infrastructure in real time for greater safety. Thales is a leader in rail autonomy and we are developing solutions for both main line and metro applications. In fact, our autonomous positioning solution for metros is already available. One of the key advantages of this autonomous positioning is that it reduces the need for trackside equipment by incorporating sensors on board the rolling stock to understand its location.

Another benefit of this autonomous positioning is reduced delivery risk as it avoids the need to install many kilometres of electrical cable and equipment. This is something that can be disruptive to normal services. Other advancements in autonomous operations for main line railways, include a new concept from Thales called RailBot™. This has two key components: RailBot Drive for Automatic Train Operation (ATO), including driverless operation, and RailBot Eye, our obstacle detection solution. These solutions are examples of how AI will be applied in the future to help trains “think” and move for themselves.

Future proofing networks and guarding against cyberthreats

We know you can’t always close down railways while you upgrade them. At the same time, we recognise operators need the flexibility to adapt to new requirements and respond quickly to an evolving threat landscape. What matters most to operators are seamless upgrades with little to no impact on existing operations. For this reason, we’re very focused on how we can deploy solutions with significantly reduced disruption. One way we can do this is by adding new functionality through strictly controlled software uploads and we have enabled this for many of our solutions such as SelTrac G8 for metros and ETCS Hybrid Level 3 MAX for main lines. Our latest SelTrac G8 implementation allows for a flexible implementation and leverages on board sensors for positioning to minimise the amount of trackside equipment. It also future proofs radio technologies by being radio agnostic.

Radio networks have evolved from Tetra-based systems to GSM-R to LTE and now there are discussions about the use of 5G. We simply cannot be certain what the future holds, but we do know that what is considered state of the art in 2021 will not be state of the art when current rolling stock comes to the end of life around 2040. In fact, there will be several iterations in between.

By making the system agnostic to the actual communications bearer, the system can evolve as the technology is upgraded. The same applies to sensor technology. Sensors are improving in accuracy and functionality at a rapid rate and by having a system designed for upgrades and specifically planning for these upgrades (or refreshes) during the life cycle of the asset, operators can take advantage of these technologies rather than being constrained by legacy technology. Thales is involved in many communications and sensor applications and can integrate the latest technology into systems.

We also believe it’s time for operators to move away from the traditional reliability-centred maintenance (RCM) approach to condition-based maintenance where technology is refreshed and security upgrades are deployed on an ongoing basis. Our predictive maintenance solution, TIRIS, can support operators to make this shift and achieve cost savings of up to 30%. Again, data is the key, and TIRIS works by capturing information and enabling analysis into large volumes of data, in order to support operational decision making.

A technology refresh approach also makes it easier to upgrade networks with new features and functions while combatting cyber threats. Cyber, security, and safety are all interlinked these days and the way we manage these is changing. Traditionally, our standards, processes, and tools have been geared towards identifying safety and security threats at the time of design and then mitigating those through the design, verification, validation, and qualification process. This approach has worked for typical safety hazards which are well known at the time of design and can therefore be mitigated. It has also worked for traditional, well known security threats such as intrusion, vandalism, and other criminal acts.

The threat associated with cyber is new and different. Firstly, where railways previously used bespoke, proprietary, or standards-based technologies we are now using common approaches like 4G, ethernet, and Wi-Fi which are widely used and understood. Secondly, cyber threats are changing on almost a daily basis. You cannot simply wait for “end of year maintenance” to incorporate new cyber upgrades; upgrades need to happen more frequently because the threats are changing more frequently.

Thales can further help operators to succeed in the digital world by ensuring operational readiness with new technologies. As previously mentioned, digital twins, simulations, and virtual reality technologies can help speed development or validation of new solutions. With our world-leading immersive simulation capabilities, for example, we can work with operators to insert new technologies into a virtual environment where they can be tested and optimised before they are deployed within a train, station, or control room. With this virtual environment, scenario-based training or training on emergency response becomes more realistic and cost-effective as well. These technologies can also provide just in time training or remote assistance to personnel in the field carrying out inspection or maintenance activities and can lead to more efficient and effective training across the workforce. Ultimately, these technologies can enable a rail workforce to be fully prepared for the new digital systems and ensure that safety is maintained or even improved, and the passenger experience is enhanced.

In addition, Thales has a rich history in designing and implementing systems for transport and other mission critical industries which we can leverage to help operators reduce risk and disruption as they adopt new digital technologies. To learn more about Thales and smart mobility solutions,