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Seven rail technology trends set to shape our industry in 2017.

Posted on Jan 11, 2017

Seven rail technology trends that could shape your 2017 (DB's Innovation Train) The old Chinese phrase 'may you live in interesting times' is often used in January, and has perhaps never been more fitting than at the start of this year. By any standards 2016 was a year of much upheaval, and its worth remembering that a lot of its dramas are yet to come to fruition...  2017 is by any measure going to be an ‘interesting' one but, putting aside political, cultural or environmental concerns, the past year did see its share of important technological breakthroughs for the rail and metro industry. One thing that always astounds when looking at recent developments, is not just the change but the pace of the change. The digitalization of rail has quickened possibilities, new entrants to the market are not respecting traditional timelines and operators are beginning to enjoy these shortened time-scales. Start-ups are shaking-up what has been considered an at times conservative industry, while larger companies are adapting and consolidating in response. If they don’t, they risk going out of business. So what do we expect from the new year? 2016 did much to damage the prediction business (Trump, Brexit, Leicester City, the Chicago Cubs, etc.)  but our Editor Luke Upton, is going to give it a try. There’s a myriad of rail technology trends that he’s watching, but here’s seven that he thinks you should keep an eye on…

1. The real IoT – the Internet of Trains.

A buzzword long featured in lists like these, and a concept familiar to those of us in rail, expect to see some major advancements on this front in 2017. The Internet of Things (IoT) enables metros, passenger and freight services to use sensors, Machine2Machine learning, the old favourite 'Big Data' analytics, cloud computing and other tech to gather and analyse information from a wide variety of sources and data streams. What is changing now is the pace, accuracy and decreased cost of analysing this data. It is getting cheaper and easier to now use this to help drive efficiencies, better manage operations and from this potentially offer new passenger focussed services. IoT really offers a world of opportunities for the industry and the solutions providers that sell into it. And across all departments, not just IT but also engineering, maintenance, signalling, communications, ticketing and on-board experience. All sectors of the industry will need to ensure they are fully tapped into the potential of the digital revolution, a revolution that has now become the mainstream. 

2. Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) both get real.

Both these areas logged major steps forward in 2016 and are set to grow further this year. For decades a favourite of sci-fi films and TV shows, last year saw the launch of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset priced at just $599, making VR both accessible and affordable. And who can forget the brief Pokémon Go AR game mania that struck the world, including the rail industry, last year seeing over 100 million downloads in the process. In rail too we also saw genuine, tangible progress, with industry giant Bombardier developing its ‘virtual manufacturing’ technology which allSeven rail technology trends that could shape your 2017 (Bombardier VR train)owed designers to create a 3-D model of a product and to also virtually test the efficiency of its performance. "This way, development and installation steps can be accelerated, optimized or done away with entirely,” explained Helmut Dietz, Head of Digital Manufacturing at Bombardier Transportation.

Deutsche Bahn have been working with the team at Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (HTT) to develop augmented reality windows (pictured above) on their 'Innovation Train'. Whilst in Boston in 2016 Keolis Commuter Services, which has operated the MBTA deployed smart glasses by AMA XPertEye which use “augmented reality lite” and link staff in the field, with technicians at the maintenance headquarters. Images can be transmitted from the glasses back to base and the idea is that the office-based colleagues can offer advice without having to travel to the site of the problem, saving time and money for the company and stopping possible delays for passengers.

Read for free: Urban Rail and Metro: Solutions for a Changing Industry.

3. Intelligent Apps.

The world already loves apps. In 2009, approximately 2.52 billion were downloaded globally, this year the number is expected to reach 268.69 billion. And now apps can be built that use both historical and real-time data to make predictions and decisions and deliver a personalized experience for users. This new category of apps includes technologies like virtual personal assistants and has a clear link to rail and metro when it comes to booking tickets, organising travel and making the user aware of changes or delays to schedules. They could also be a part of on-board for both passengers and staff offering a real time and accurate view (thanks to our old friend Big Data) of the journey and improving customer experience

4. More cyber-security breaches.

Almost all industries suffered from cyber-crime and high-profile hacks in 2016. Perhaps, most prominently the Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee and ensuing leaked e-mails, which some saw as helping Seven rail technology trends that could shape your 2017 (Ransomware and rail)sway the election towards Donald Trump. And our industry was no different, with the ransomware attack on the San Francisco Municipal Transport Agency in November, which took all the network’s ticketing systems offline on one of the busiest shopping days of the year a stark reminder of current vulnerabilities. Rail and metro operators are susceptible on two fronts to cyber threats; losing control of the operational aspect of the trains themselves and of the increasingly large data they harvest be it of a technical, passenger or financial nature. 

Network Rail, the owner and operator of most of the UK rail infrastructure acknowledged the threat stating; “We know that the risk [of a cyber-attack will increase as we continue to roll out digital technology across the network.” And these vulnerabilities are coming from a wide variety of sources, it’s estimated that 90% of IoT devices and unsecured, and one industry insider recently told me that a UK train had been accessed through an unsecured coffee machine on-board. The battle to keep ahead of the cyber-criminals will be a big part of 2017 and beyond. 

Upcoming digital guide is now accepting submissions: Protecting rail and metro from cyber security threats (March 2017)

5. It's twins! Digital twins... 

Okay, perhaps this is a bit of a step forward for 2016, but this is something that by 2020 we’ll see becoming more mainstream and expect to see progress over the next 12 months. So what’s a digital twin? It’s in effect a software model of a physical thing (or system) which can be used to analyse and simulate real world conditions, responds to changes to the original and improve operational performances. Of particular interest for rail and metro, digital twins can help create a deeper understanding and assessment of maintenance, and bring the work of engineers and data scientists closer together. The giant Crossrail (on completion to be known as the Elizabeth Line) in London has a digital twin model of the whole network and these virtual depictions of physical assets combined with digital representations of facilities, systems and environments will increasingly offer a detailed virtual view of the real world.

6.Disruptors keep on disrupting.

To quote a popular meme seen almost daily on LinkedIn: "Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening."

Seven rail technology trends that could shape your 2017 (Uber and other disruptors)High profile companies like Uber, Lyft, Ola, Gett and their ilk, have in a short period already shaken up the personal transport landscape. At their heart (along with that of Airbnb) is an ability to leverage spare capacity, monetize it and then expand quickly without large investment. Capacity and investment are two of the biggest challenges in public transport. What will emerge this year to further aid this challenge… or damage public transport? The cost of an Uber is sometime already comparable with public transport. What happens when it becomes cheaper to be chauffeur driven than hop on the train?

Our 7th annual SmartRail Europe will be hosted in Amsterdam this year. This topic will be a key area of discussion with industry experts from NS International, SNCF and Deutsche Bahn all confirmed as attending. We look forward to seeing you there! And remember, rail and metro staff go free! 

7. China are making allies.

We’ve all closely followed the growth of Chinese rail these past few years, and the amazing statistics that have come with it (more high-speed rail lines in the past decade than the rest of the world ever, etc.) but one change we’ve seen in 2016 and will see more in 2017, is the growth of alliances and partnerships between Chinese firms and WesternSeven rail technology trends that could shape your 2017 (TUV and CRRC) companies. Anyone who attended Innotrans in Berlin in September couldn’t have failed to spot the huge Chinese exhibition spaces. But perhaps the most interesting development was the announcement of the partnership between China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), the world’s largest rolling stock manufacturer and TÜV NORD the German technical service, with co-operation aiming sharpen the Chinese firm’s adherence to international safety standard (pictured above). 

And the end of 2016 saw the announcement that State railway group China Railway Corp and Hong Kong-based international transport operator MTR Corp signed a letter of intent to explore strategic co-operation ‘within and outside of’ China aiming to support the Chinese rail industry’s ‘Go-Global’ strategy. The partnership will aim to work across sectors including high speed, rail operations, transport-related integrated property development and staff training.  Who needs rivals when you can have allies?


There’s more we could have picked but we’ve kept it at seven. For balance's sake, here's a list from last year: Six key technology trends set to dominate rail and metro in 2016 . Let us know what you think! if you agree, disagree or want to suggest some more please let us know – Editor@GlobalTransportForum.com or Tweet us @SmartRailWorld  


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Read the Rail and Metro Innovation Guide 2017

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About the Author

Luke Upton
Luke Upton
Luke has edited this site since its launch and previously worked for b2b media companies across industries including energy, advertising and sport. His role includes writing, editing and commissioning...read more
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