Bringing together more than 80 speakers, over 200 attendees and three streams covering signalling, infrastructure and rolling stock, SmartRail 2018 gave those in attendance a lot of food for thought that, I hope, enabled everyone to come away with at least one different perspective. Now the dust has settled, I wanted to reflect on what I took away from the show – I alluded in my Day One highlights email I was always going to miss something and while this isn’t comprehensive, it is a summary of what grabbed me and the themes I picked up on.
From what I saw of the show there was an industry-wide acknowledgement of how things have been done, what needed to be happen in order to enact change and what the rewards will be when we’re there. In my opinion it felt like an industry at a tipping point: the talk of technologies and ways of working that had in previous years and past shows been ‘something to look forward to’ were either here or within touching distance.
No insight captured this forward-looking attitude than James Shi, the director of operations at Taiwan High Speed, who appealed to the audience to “never catch up with the change; new tech happens all the time.” Stopping and doing nothing, he reasoned, “will soon leave you far behind” – and went some way to explain the Asian island’s foray into the development of AI technology, part of the operator’s desire to “do something for the passenger everyday”.
As for how things were done, the president of Argentina’s freight train service, Trenes Argentinos Cargas, Ezequiel Lemos explained to the audience how the “50 years” of chronic under-investment by his government had brought about a situation whereby the country only transported 4% of its freight by rail – a astoundingly low figure in a country with more than 1,000,000 square miles, I thought. Lemos illustrated perfectly the pronounced effect it was having on Argentina in terms of productivity, with many regions that are well-suited for growing grains not doing so because of their inability to transport them. There was good news though, with a $5bn investment plan that he hoped would take it from “worst in class to best in class”.
A little way ahead of Argentina, but still thankful for having a “clean sheet that is a great way to build a rail network”, Dr Bashar Al Malek, chief executive officer of Saudi Railway Company, explained that the country, which is yet to open its first metro network, has spoken with a leading developer of one of the most advanced and futuristic transport networks. “We have even been in discussions with Virgin Hyperloop One to help and contribute to that project; we believe it is technology where the future lies – innovation is a must and you have to survive in this very difficult industry,” said Dr Al Malek.
As far away – or, perhaps, unlikely – as magnetically-powered travel may seem to some, it was apparent to me at least of the huge progress than had been made to deliver the next big passenger development, mobility as a service (Maas). Offering streamlined travel, though not frictionless like hyperloop, MaaS is always an area I want to hear more about. I’m fortunate enough to live in London, a city where for some time now I have been able to travel from the Underground station near my house to the other side of the capital, on trains, trams and ferries, using just my bankcard.
Certainly, I agreed with one of those working to make MaaS a reality, Piia Karjalainen, a senior manager from the group behind the joined-up transport’s development, Maas Alliance, who said: “MaaS is not happening in five or ten years. It’s here today”. Alexandra van Huffelen, chief executive officer, GVB Amsterdam, spoke passionately about what MaaS should look like if it is to be deemed a success. “Transport that offers fast, high-frequency connections, with flexible options that reach low-density areas in comfort and with easy transfers and clear information,” she said, “must also be easy to pay for and sustainable that produces zero emissions.”
Perhaps as expected, the technology that would enable such a system to work as clockwork formed a key part of the overall debate. ERTMS was certainly well represented, with a whole afternoon stream explaining the progress that had been made and how it could be integrated into a rail network’s operations, however it was the use of wearable tech that really grabbed me. Tjalling Smit, chief commercial officer of Nederlandse Spoorwegen, pointed towards the variety that was made most famous by Apple, which can be used to improve punctuality and ease confusion. “We need to increase frequency, simply buying trains is not enough. Helping this along will be the conductors, who will have smart watches on their wrist to signal when trains are ready to depart and a real-time driver information system that tells them everything they need to know.”
Data = power
The use of big data isn’t a new idea but it was given a new lease of life for me in terms of protecting the public, John Voppen, the chief operations officer from ProRail, discussed it. “Big problems can be solved with big data. We have developed an algorithm to solve the problem of predicting where trespassers will be and is even able to predict where animals close to the track could be,” said Voppen.
Add into the mix the commercial possibilities gained from harnessing big data and one sees the huge value to rail companies of monetising their data as well as making journeys safer and more efficient. Lars Dannecker from SAP is fully aware of the financial benefits: “There is huge value in using big data from trains,” said the company’s big data architect. “Many of you have sensors on your wrist and what we try and combine in the sensor data with sales data that coming in – I want now to use this to optimise my sales and it can applied to trains too.”
I had a clear observation from this year’s SmartRail, and one word that summarised perfectly what was needed to help solve the industry’s problems and challenges: collaboration. It will have been used many times before and may seem obvious to many of you reading this, but it deserves repeating that without cross-industry collaboration those programmes and projects that keep improving the world’s networks forward simply wouldn’t have happened. I really look forward to seeing how existing, and yet-to-be-formed, partnerships bring the next round of much-needed improvements for the industry.
SmartRail will return in Spring 2019.
You may wish to read the daily reports from the show: