"When I joined it was like things would never change – economic uncertainty, more competition from other modes of transport and impatience from our customers against some service quality issues made the atmosphere challenging. Our industry is certainly wiser now."
SNCF Réseau is the infrastructure manager of the national railway network in France and is responsible for maintaining and renewing around 18,500 miles of railway lines. After decades of building new high-speed lines its priorities have shifted somewhat in recent years to modernising the existing network. As a result SNCF Réseau has a huge task of renewing its assets and upgrading its signalling systems for the 21st century in order to attract more business on the rails and to respond properly to the challenge of moving passengers and goods, especially in densely-populated areas like the region of Paris.
From SNCF Réseau, SmartRail World welcomes Thomas Joindot, its chief technical officer, to tell us more about the crucial department, how a business-oriented approach helps one understand how things really work and why it’s Germany and Denmark that have the best rail journey in the world.
Dave Songer (DS): Great to have you with us, Thomas. Can you start by telling me what your position of chief technical officer at SNCF Réseau entails?
Thomas Joindot: I’m responsible with my team for all the technical rules related to the design of infrastructure components (which products for where and how), the designing and studying process as well as maintenance engineering. I have also the task of delivering expertise in all technical domains of the infrastructure in order to understand and solve very specific and complex problems with some of our components, and to improve the reliability and economic efficiency of the network.
DS: What do you most like about working in the rail industry?
TJ: The industry embraces almost all the aspects of engineering, from very classical civil or electric engineering to the most complex and advanced form of critical software design. It’s also an industry with a lot of passionate people and a lot of room for innovation. People often think the railway is a very complicated and static sector because of safety issues. It’s definitely not. If you adopt a business-oriented approach and make the effort to understand how things really work you can easily find a lot of things you can make evolving quickly for the benefit of all the system.
DS: Absolutely, what would you say has been your biggest professional challenge?
TJ: I would say it’s when I entered the railway. I began as a manager in a rolling stock maintenance shop: an environment which was totally new for me. The daily challenge of delivering the service was quite hard, with difficult-to-maintain equipment, and at the same time I had to prepare for the future working with new and upcoming rolling stock. It wasn’t easy but when I see what the shop has become I’m proud of having contributed to this – railway is definitively a long-term activity.
DS: That is indeed a challenge – what have been the biggest changes in the 12 years you have worked art SNCF?
TJ: Euphoric isn’t perhaps the best word to describe the atmosphere when I joined. I would say it felt like that things would never change – economic uncertainty, more competition from other modes of transport and a form of impatience from our customers against some service quality issues made the atmosphere challenging. Our industry is certainly wiser now; it’s now a good time to implement news technologies with a user-focused approach!
DS: What do you think are the main challenges facing the rail industry in France? And what about the opportunities?
TJ: We have to transform very quickly a network on which the technology, especially in signalling, has barely evolved since the 1980s. And we have to do that not just for the pleasure of developing new technologies, but to enhance quality, add capacity where it’s necessary and also lower costs. That’s a huge challenge for an industry which is sometimes keen on thinking as a ‘closed world’ and having a much segmented economic approach with barely a system view.
We spent the last year reviewing and rethinking all our technological strategy on signalling and I’ll take two examples from that. First, the cost of telecommunications in a re-signalling project can be huge. We deploy technologies that rely on a lot of telecoms but this resource is sometimes considered as an existing utility. But if you consider signalling and telecom at the same time it would be possible to influence the design of signalling in order to minimise your constraints on the telecommunications system, and also to reduce constraints coming from future technology migrations. Therefore, there isn’t ‘telecom for the railway’ on one hand and ‘signalling for the railway’ on the other – there is a system to consider as a whole.
Second, there was the habit to develop a new product for each new need. We ended with a variety of technologies: an interlocking type for large stations, another for little ones, a third for shunting yards and also the radio block centre for European Train Control System (ETCS), which is a different product, whereas all that isn’t far from an automated logic controller being parametrised in a different way. So we decided to focus on the way we use the products, the way we make the projects and how we deliver the data for our supplier to parametrise the hardware. We do that in order to reduce the number of technologies in operation and to be able to have an extended range of applications for them. This implies a lot of work together with our suppliers. It’s what we’re doing in the project ARGOS and we’re very confident with the results we’ll obtain.
So there are a lot of things to think about differently and digital processes will help us that a lot. Having the view of all the systems – on a technical as well as on a temporal basis – as we also embrace maintenance, we’re aware we’re in the centre of all that and that makes us very excited to work with our provider to deliver the better railway network everyone is waiting for.
DS: Where do you think the big changes will come in the rail industry over the next five to 10 years?
TJ: Digitalisation is deeply transforming our industry, even faster than what I would have thought one or two years ago. For us that work in the infrastructure, it will affect all our technical domains with a special focus on signalling. Signalling is basically dealing with information but we still have to use physical assets to gather information from the field, compute it and transmit it to the trains. Digitalising our design process should enable us to go quicker towards ETCS, which means cab-signalling and therefore a dramatic reduction of our fixed assets. That is a deep transformation which will involve all parties, on the front line our supplier and us.
DS: You’re due to speak at SmartMetro in October – what do you think you’ll cover?
TJ: I’ll speak about the new signalling systems we’ll deploy in the Paris region in the next years, including the NexTEO communications-based train control (CBTC) which will transform our most heavily used RER sections into the most efficient systems of this type in the world. I’ll also talk about our global technical strategy to digitalise our signalling, transforming our engineering processes.
DS: If you could, is there any career advice you’d pass on to your younger self before you began working?
TJ: Keep your eyes and ears open, take the opportunity of any occasion to go out there and see the ‘real life’ of the railways. A lot of things can be learned by observing in the field – indeed, it’s what I say to all the young engineers who come to work under me.
DS: What’s your favourite rail journey – anywhere in the world – and why?
TJ: Oh, for that I would have to say the line that connects Hamburg with Copenhagen. The bridges over the sounds, followed by the train that goes into the boat: that’s a real European journey!
For a more detailed look at what will be happening at this year's SmartMetro, and to see who will be speaking at this three-day event, visit the show website.
If you enjoyed this interview with Thomas, why not check out the last edition with Peter Härdi from Comlab?
If you would like to get involved in this informal feature, which gives a glimpse of the personalities behind the industry, get in touch with Dave Songer: email@example.com.