“The trend for the market is to move beyond a purely product-based approach, instead operating an end-to-end integrated solution, one that is scalable as cities and networks expand.”
Vivek Mahalingam is the director of CBTC solutions management for Rail Control Solutions at Bombardier – its signalling arm – and is responsible for ensuring that the transport company offers the best service and performance to its customers around the globe. Vivek took some time out of his day to speak to SmartRail World’s Dave Songer about what he finds most fulfilling about heading up Bombardier’s CBTC department, the academic and professional route he took to get there and why this year’s InnoTrans illustrated what he sees as a new approach being taken by the transport industry as a whole.
Hi Vivek, great to meet you – how did you come to arrive at Bombardier?
Thanks for having me. Well, I grew up in Bangalore, which is India’s version of Silicon Valley, where I did my Bachelor’s and I then moved to the US to do my Master’s. I joined Bombardier in 2005, so next month will be the start of year 14. It’s been a long but very rewarding time but I see myself at the beginning – I have colleagues who have been with Bombardier for twice as long as me and still have many years ahead of them.
I came in as a wayside safety software engineer, which saw me work on several projects in safety software and travel to sites that gave me real experience. There’s obviously a difference between being behind a desk and actually seeing it being commissioned – doing the latter one understands the realities of what it takes to execute. I then went on to be a systems engineer on the London Underground SSR project and since then have held various leadership positions in engineering within signalling, which transitioned into my current job as Director of global CBTC solutions solution management.
What do you most enjoy about your job?
Definitely the global aspect. It’s very exciting to get to know new markets, new people and cultures. It’s certainly not a one size fits all approach at Bombardier – our model is Together We Move, so our idea and objective is to work with customers, understand their problems and together determine the solution that best addresses their needs. It’s taken me to a lot of countries; I’m based out of the Pittsburgh office but, given that my role is global, I have travelled to several cities in Europe, the UK and Asia - which is going through a terrific rate of urbanisation. There are still more markets that we need to penetrate and I’m sure I’ll get an opportunity to go there one day.
You were at InnoTrans recently, where Bombardier had a very large stand – how was it?
We had a very productive time there, and I don’t think we could have imagined the level of participation and engagement that we had from our customers and suppliers. As a company it’s a great opportunity to showcase our new solutions, business objectives and also how we want to work with our customers. What’s been a big change from the previous years is how we’ve positioned ourselves to be a strong mobility solution partner for customers – understanding and delivering an overall solution. I think that’s because the trend for the market is to move beyond a purely product-based approach, instead operating an end-to-end integrated solution, one that is scalable as cities and networks expand. The challenge as I see it is to prove that the mobility solution model is scalable over the next 10 to 15 year lifecycle because technology is developing so rapidly – far more than it did in the previous 30 years.
What would you say has been your biggest personal career challenge?
I wouldn’t call it a challenge as such, more of learning curve, and that’s been developing a business perspective. I came through the engineering stream and am still heavily involved in it, but my role now needs a blend of business outlook allied with engineering delivery. So, I would say that’s been an opportunity more than it has a challenge: learn things, expand your horizon and diversify your experience.
Where do you think the big changes will come in rail in the future?
I suspect from the convergence of technology outside the rail industry into the railway applications – and one obvious one I believe is autonomous technology. There’s so much investment being made by the automotive industry and I see it all converging in some way – it’s vital that all the different technologies being developed in this area are integrated to make sure we understand passengers, their flow, demand and capacity needs. The evolution of all those technologies is a big challenge, yet also a big opportunity.
How has the transport industry changed since you began working in it?
The speed of the evolution, particularly since the introduction of the smartphone. Right now, if information isn’t available on a smartphone it almost isn’t deemed important enough and the last 10 years have really accelerated where we need to take the industry. It’s perhaps true that signalling as a whole hasn’t evolved as fast over the past 20 years in terms of the latest tech trends, but then we obviously have to bear in mind that we provide safety-critical systems that must satisfy much more stringent safety and industry standards than some of the other solutions such as automotive. For us, safety is always our number one priority.
Are there any particular infrastructure projects that have grabbed your attention?
I would be doing something of a disservice if I was to pick only one! The exciting part is to help deliver solutions and then really see the benefits that they bring; different markets have so many different requirements and we all take pride in helping deliver systems that show tangible results. We go to all these cities that have our systems and we see trains moving reliably, seeing people prefer riding our systems rather than another means of transportation. There’s real pride in that!
For more information on Bombardier's CBTC signalling systems, visit the company website.
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