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The top 10 innovations that are shaping the future of rail and metro.

Posted by Luke Upton on Feb 25, 2014

NB . This story whilst always popular, dates from 2014. For a more up to date look at key developments Seven rail technology trends set to shape our industry in 2017.

 This month SmartRail World takes a look at ten rail innovations that are changing and shaping the future of rail and metro industry. We asked experts, canvassed opinion on social media and discussed the area at Global Transport Forum events in November. With so many ideas it was hard to narrow it down to just ten, but here they are! Some are already in use, some still a little way down the track but without doubt all will make some big differences to our business. Feel free to continue the debate and suggest your own innovations as well! We hope you’ll find the list interesting, entertaining and perhaps even a little surprising…

1 Virtual Ticketing Agents 

Ticketing has been amongst the most innovative areas within rail and metro, perhaps most visible in smart-card systems overtaking paper tickets in a growing number of the world’s transport networks. The next development could well be Virtual Agents, essentially an at station computer offering a combination of ticket office, vending machine and call centre. A passenger using the Virtual Agent is able to talk a ‘real person’ in ‘real time’ offering a similar experience to being a the ticket window except over a video link. The ticket agent you speak to would be likely at a central ticket office hub.

For rail companies this would enable a central pool of staff to be deployed across the network and be able to be focussed at certain peak times. It would also potentially offer the opportunity to offer ticket advice in different languages and even link staff from quiet stations into helping at busier stations at peak times. For passengers it offers a human contact but also the immediacy and speed of a ticket machine. Challenges for this service exist, not least ensuring a communications infrastructure exists that can support non-stop video calls but with virtual ticketing agents already being trialled by Deutsche Bahn this is a technology likely to begin being seen at major stations soon.


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2 Li-Fi

The development of Wi-Fi within rail and metro within transit is well documented and is a service offered on many trains and at stations around the world. But a new technology, Li-Fi, could well soon supersede it and become the future of mobile internet. Li-Fi, transmits data using the spectrum of visible light and many experts claim this leads to reduced costs and greater efficiency to traditional Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi and Li-Fi both transmit data over the electromagnetic spectrum, but whereas Wi-Fi uses radio waves, Li-Fi uses visible light. As visible light is far more plentiful than the radio spectrum its believed it can achieve far greater data density and provide a better service.

This technology is appealing for railways and metros not only for the opportunity if offers passengers to better access web-based material and enjoy a greater array on on-board or at-station infotainment but also from an operational point of view as Li-Fi by not using radio frequencies poses no risk of interfering with mission critical electronic circuitry.  This is still a developing technology and questions still remain over line of sight and issues of delivery but if executed fully can offer a major opportunity.

3 Big Data and rail

A major buzzword for many industries but a development with real potential for the rail and metro industry. Big Data, defined here as a massive volume of both structured and unstructured data that is so large that it’s difficult to process using traditional techniques. The harvesting of such data has two major areas of potential for rail and metro. Smarter train communication through wireless signalling enables operators to constantly receive data from trains and more effectively monitor performance and highlight potential problems or maintenance requirements earlier. This can diminish the time trains are out of service and limit passenger disruption.

In addition, the development of smartcards and CRM systems have enabled operators to gather a huge amount of data on their passengers for the first time. This enables operators to gain a deeper insight into behavioral and movement patterns and make smarter and more efficient choices accordingly. Not only on an operational level e.g. staff deployment or passenger station flow management but also in improving customer service and making marketing more targeted.

SmartTransit Congress, Boston, 2020

4 Ticketless Travel

The recent announcement that Transport for London (TfL) will soon be offering London and underground passengers the opportunity to use their bank cards for ticketless travel is the strongest yet development in this sector from one of the most influential operators. Passengers on buses in London can already use their bank card instead of the Oyster smartcard or cash.

DOWNLOAD  Selecting Ethernet Cable  to Meet Transportation Demands  WHITE PAPER NOWA number of solutions are now available for the use of bank cards acting as ticketless solution on rail and metro including EMV band cards (Europay, MasterCard and Visa), and Barclaycard’s PayTag stickers.

Many commentators see the main development in ticketless travel coming from smartphones eventually replacing completely the need for season tickets and smartcards with NFC (Near Field Communication) technology already built into many smartphones and not being deployed.

One question that this does raise is where does this lead smartcards? They are still very attractive to operators as not only do they maintain a stored value, so the operator has your money before your travel but they can also be read very quickly at barriers and gates and help to build up a significant data picture. No doubt the technology will soon be able to answer these questions though!

Here's an update from 2017 - 5 fascinating future rail trends and when we can expect to see them.

5 High-Speed and Hyper-Speed Rail

For anyone reading this in the United Kingdom or California they will be well versed in arguments about the development of high-speed rail but we could soon be entering the world of hyper-speed rail travel. High-speed rail has already revolutionized national and international transportation in many parts of the world, in particular in Japan, China and continental Europe. And now plans are being developed to go even faster.

Earlier this year, few will have escaped the media coverage of Elon Musk’s ‘Hyperloop’, a innovative new form of transportation, consisting of an elevated, reduced-pressure tube that contains pressurized capsules driven within the tube by a number of electric motors, Musk claimed it would “never crash, be immune to weather, go twice as fast as an airplane, four times as fast as a bullet train, and – to top it off – run completely on solar power.” Whilst the Hyperloop may currently lack the financial or political will to make it a reality there’s no doubt that super high-speed rail is a reality.

In China, the Shanghai Maglev Train has been in operation since 2003 and has been recorded at a top speed of 311 mph, Japan’s famed bullet train, the Shinkansen runs on a high-speed network of over 1400 miles hitting speeds of up to 275mph and in Europe, France’s TGV Réseau which generally runs at 199mph has been serving passengers since 1992. The slow but continued growth of High-Speed rail not only opens up a host of further technical developments but offers a strong countermeasure to other forms of transport.

Click here to read the digital guide - Using Data to Enhance Rail and Metro Operational Performance

6 Ergonomic station design

With passenger numbers generally increasing and demands and expectations changing, the modern train station is changing and offers a host of potential developments for passengers. Ensuring that large numbers of travellers can move freely and efficiently to, through and from a station is essential to maintaining the operational effectiveness of the transport system as a whole.

Station developments now consider ergonomic and human factors, in particular looking in a scientific way at people and their needs, and then providing analytical evidence based on psychological, behavioural and physical factors to improve experiences. For example, in the development of stations experts can be used to analyse passenger movement and behaviour and then plan the station layout to encourage them to do the things you need them to do, for example travelling one the correct side of the escalator or arriving at gate lines with their tickets ready. Other areas of growth in this sector including the development of new technologies and smart ticketing and also the place for retail and catering opportunities within the station.

Couple with Big Data and Smart Ticketing, ergonomic station design could create a new and improved passenger experience at a station.

7 Rail Loyalty Schemes

Already a major part of business for the airline industry, passenger loyalty schemes – structured marketing efforts that reward, and therefore encourage, loyal buying behaviour – are a developing trend for rail and metro operators. The development of loyalty schemes has become particularly important in deregulated markets where the passenger has a number of choices over a particular route. It’s also been made possible by the development of smartcard technology and data storage so it can be run more effectively and efficiently.

One of the most advanced rail loyalty schemes is run by East Coast in the UK, we asked Peter Williams their Commercial and Customer Service Director for more information on this: “Our loyalty scheme is called East Coast Rewards, which we launched in July 2011. It is a Points-based scheme with points being able to be redeemed for a number of rewards from train travel tickets, to cinema tickets, magazine subscriptions, hotel stays even WiFi or access to our First Class lounges. We’d actually had a loyalty scheme before but it was a fairly antiquated system, involving the physical sending in of tickets which was pretty labour intensive and only had a limited membership. The development of our digital platforms has made East Coast Rewards possible and it’s been a great success, with us exceeding our targets and we have plans for its further development.”

With the growth of smarter and deeper data on passengers and greater competition the development of loyalty schemes looks set to grow further.

8 Passenger Entertainment

Once upon a time this extended no further than this morning’s newspaper or a well-thumbed novel but modern rail is increasingly offering a host of options for passengers to be both entertained and informed on board. Train passengers can now be offered films, TV programmes, music, games and news either by fixed on-board video displays (similar to airlines) or via Wireless to be watched on their own device. On example of this is NTV in Italy which offers an on-board portal, Italolive, which enables passengers to watch TV, films, news and sport this is again free and offered through our Wi-Fi service.

This development improves the passenger enjoyment of a journey, particularly a long-distance one, bringing it on a par or even exceeding that of an airline trip. Not only does it create a more positive passenger experience but it also potentially opens up opportunities for further revenue generation by offering such entertainment as a paid for-service. Passenger entertainment is still at a fairly formative stage for most providers but as the technology develops and becomes more widespread it’s set to grow further.

9 Digital Signage

Signage at rail and metro stations has sometimes been a neglected area amidst the developments happening around it. But now a series of changes has created a new opportunity for the growth of this unglamorous but essential aspect of the industry and even in an era when mobile devices are omnipresent the usage of digital signage continues to grow. The Transportation Research Board recently published a report analysing its use and found that not only does it boost the perception that the transit service is being improved but also reduces the perception of wait time and highlighted how informed riders feel more safe and secure.

The slow but steady increase of colour signage and video is outlined by Michael Welsh of Data Display: “A colour display offers a number of additional offerings to a traditional display – operators can customize the colour to fit their colour scheme or to colour coordinate with a particular line. It offers the capability to display a full colour video which opens up the opportunity to potentially run advertisements whether for local tourist attractions, for visitors or of a purely commercial nature. This in turn potentially opens up a new revenue stream for the agency.”

The evolution of colourful digital signage which can run videos and adverts is a development which can not only improve the passenger experience but also create additional revenue streams and branding opportunities for operators. One to watch!

10 4G

The creation of mobile internet has revolutionised travel for rail passengers and development of the 4G, the fourth generation of mobile communication technology standards will continue these major changes.

Firstly, it’s expected that 4G would help end the limited and sometimes frustrating phone and mobile internet coverage on-board trains. And the high-speed connection would help quicken the pace of the roll-out of on-board passenger entertainment as it would enable the viewing of video and streaming of music far quicker and on a more stable platform. In addition the widespread use of 4G will further underline to passengers how easy and convenient mobile ticketing and on-board e-commerce can be and would increase its usage.

The deployment of a 4G solution on rail and metro is not without obstacles, not least the rail operators being able to access sufficient spectrum and how it would work alongside the existing networks. But perhaps of all the features on this list, the development of 4G in our industry is the most inevitable and maybe just the most important.

Editor - Do you agree? What have we missed? What is here but shouldn’t be? Let us know by commenting below.

Luke Upton

Written by Luke Upton

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