"Without timely access to information we can trust, we will never be able to communicate effectively across our own teams, let alone with members of the travelling public.."
What happens when you get 24 representatives from international rail and metro operators sitting around a table discussing the evolution of digital in their work? Well, lots of expert insight, some different solutions to similar problems, a few complaints and plenty of honesty. Facilitated by SmartRail World’s Luke Upton and Bentley Systems senior vice president rail strategy Mike Coldrick, at SmartRail in Amsterdam in April, the discussion operated under ‘Chatham House’ rules – meaning we can write about the outputs, but not cite the source of comments. So what were the key themes that came out of this meeting?
The discussion kicked off with the question of whether the rail industry is doing enough to utilise the digital technology and solutions available today. While many suggested as an industry we were failing in this area, some disagreed, arguing that many of the technologies and approaches to problem solving have actually been in operation for a number of years.
“We’ve been working with an Internet of Things, before it was even called that” remarked one Northern European operator to laughter. The same could be said for the application of building information modelling or management (BIM) in recent years, a topic that came up later in the conversation. BIM, which recommends the use of a set of agreed standards and processes to optimise collaboration and deliver improved outcomes, is for many a relatively new way of working. Yet I recount another Northern European rail owner claiming they had been doing BIM for twenty years, they just didn’t have a name for it back then.
So what has changed? Well, there was a clear acknowledgement around the table that the funding challenges that have persisted since the global financial crisis in 2007 have hampered technology adoption. While the development of technology in both operational and passenger focussed areas has accelerated at rates never before witnessed, and shows no signs of slowing anytime soon, rail is arguably a very traditional industry.
Although not strictly a change, the continued demand for more capacity was our next topic. A key challenge identified by a European metro was that “each department has to do more with less”, with another adding “we are in the situation now that we can’t actually afford the capacity we have.” So then, it would appear that it is no longer enough to simply carry on doing what we have always done. As an industry we must work smarter, and surely technology is the only way we can achieve this.
Financial challenges also manifest themselves in creating a ‘skills gap’, the first mention of which prompted nods of agreement around the table. Our table of experts spoke about how under-investment in apprenticeships, an outdated perception of rail industry jobs versus other “sexier” industries where it is immediately apparent that those with digital skills are in demand, plus staff in the public sector being lured into more lucrative private sector positions.
Discussion of staff challenges, linked into the role of trade (labour) unions within organisational change. Particularly as the meeting in Amsterdam coincided with a major industrial dispute between unions and SNCF in France. As you might imagine, with an international grouping around the table, how unions are engaged with varied considerably. While in Asia they (unions) seemed to have little power, so changes could be delivered fairly directly, whereas in Europe the picture was more complex. The roll-out of driverless trains on certain lines on the Paris Metro was used as an example of well managed changed involving a powerful union.
Once staff were discussed, conversation turned to the passengers themselves, how do they engage with change and rail and metro operators?
“There are some changes that are invisible to the customer, but may still cause disruption to their journey so we need to be able to explain better what we are doing,” stated one western European mainline operator. To achieve this, whether disruption is caused by overrunning engineering works or as a result of introducing major new infrastructure upgrades, our ability to improve outcomes comes down to one thing – information. Without timely access to information we can trust, we will never be able to communicate effectively across our own teams, let alone with members of the travelling public.
This division, between operational changes, which are typically less obvious to passengers and those more customer focussed developments which are more visible was agreed as being important. Ticketing was agreed as one major digital change, and there was a general consensus that “paper free” was the platform to which all operators were heading.
The relative success of a digital evolution in ticketing, led into discussion around BIM, with the work that the Crossrail project in London has achieved being heralded by a number of the attendees. Learnings from BIM, its ongoing transition to being part of normal business practice, and in future the “industrialisation of BIM” to generate improved outcomes, was seen both as a very important development and as a good template for other digital innovations becoming widely used.
Another area of digital change, introduced into the conversation by a metro operator, was one of reducing headways through signalling upgrading. Revisiting the issue of communication, whilst headways and signalling might be alien to most passengers, more trains per hour is something all will understand and welcome. And this kind of digital innovation and the results it delivers should be heavily promoted to passengers.
An attendee from Central Europe said about change, that “You can’t do it all in one big bang. It has to be done slowly and each step has to be justified. Whilst a representative from a government department added to this by telling the table, that “building a business case is the key, once you’ve done this the technology will follow.”
As we came towards the end of our hour together, attendees offered some summing up of the main challenges.
“Technology is not the challenge, it’s the people” said one government owned rail operator to broad agreement around the table. In fact, a discussion ostensibly about technology actually had a human focus. What became obvious throughout the discussion was that people are the most important factor in ensuring a digital railway can achieve what we know it can, followed by the processes and standards, and how these should change or be applied, and then the technology itself, which should support not be the primary driver.
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