To paraphrase a line from a movie classic: “life moves pretty fast and if you don’t have a good look around you’re going to miss it”. Used to justify his motives for having a fraudulent day off, surprisingly those words spoken all those years ago by Ferris Bueller also describe the modern rail industry. It’s certainly the case when applying it to the rapidly evolving technology that now underpins the sector.
So, at the beginning of a new year, SmartRail World's Dave Songer gives a snapshot of five things that are likely to make a big difference to the lives of the rail industry’s operators and passengers – and some that have already begun to make their mark – from the latest zero-emission eco-trains and tech that seems to have a mind of its own, to the importance of strong partnerships.
Water and electricity don’t mix
From the coal-powered trains steam trains introduced in the Victorian era, to the powerful rumble emitted by the more modern diesel engines; fossil fuels are inextricably linked to trains. That link is one that possibly won't exist in another generation as the network of electrified tracks extends and brings with it almost silent and totally smoke-free journeys. Those electric trains are fine for those parts of the world with the funds to install the huge amount of cabling and overhead line equipment required to operate an electric network, but what about the areas where electrification isn’t possible?
The answer to that quandary could well be hydrogen-powered trains, a zero-emission alternative to diesel that would prove a far more suitable investment for cash-strapped governments than upgrading an entire line. Alstom has developed a train that has already grabbed the attention of Germany, which will in spring commence testing of 14 of the units in Lower Saxony. The Coradia iLint trains emit only water and use hydrogen fuel cells to create electricity, enabling the train to cover up to 620 miles between refills.
An end to paper?
With paper tickets, inhabitants of cities blessed with a truly interlinked transport systems, who on a daily basis use contactless travel cards, bank cards or even phones to pay for their daily commute, must wonder what all the fuss is about. Singapore and London are ideal examples of how it can work: use whichever payment suits, tap in-tap out and pay the best-value fare at the end of the day. Those metropolitans should remember, however, that many of the world’s commuters don’t recognise that situation.
Taking on the challenge of joining up an entire nation’s rail and wider transport network with a seamless payment experience is the UK government, which this month announced it would scrap paper tickets within two years. Transport secretary Chris Grayling unveiled an £80m plan to make travel simpler by replacing magnetic strips with “mobile phones, barcodes and smartcards” by the end of 2019. Quite how that will leave that small but vitally important section of the community still yet to have a smartphone is unclear, but if facial recognition is introduced that works as well as Wuhan station in China then it will be child’s play!
As face-recognition ticketing proves the rate of progress of technology in the rail industry is rapid, with each day seemingly more advanced that the day that came before it. But for those not yet able to open ticket barriers with just a glance at a camera, it’s rail-specific smartphone apps where the public arguably sees the most progress.
Allowing users to check times, buy tickets and watch the latest films, those apps make rail more accessible than ever. But it’s a new breed of app, Transreport, that could bring the biggest improvements to customer experience. Transreport gives users the power to report issues that have affected their journeys such as broken toilets, offensive graffiti or carriages being too hot or cold.
However, it's not just for carriage cleanliness where apps are making a difference to the public. There is a seperate customer-focused app also developed by the Transreport team, Passenger Assist, which promises to make a huge difference to individuals with disabilities whom require assistance to travel. With a range of functions which inform station staff what to prepare for, Passenger Assist sends exact location information and a picture of the individual(s) to members of staff that help keep services on time and – most importantly – encourage more people with disabilities to travel by train.
The power of partnerships
Technology is an omnipresent part of today’s modern rail networks and it’s simply not an option to ignore it and try and get by without making it central to operations. Nowhere is this truer than in the rail industry, where to not take on new and emerging technologies, nor hardwire them into the business, could lead to operational inefficiencies, poor service and alienated customers. Therefore, it’s vital that operators embrace the modern world and make partnerships with other companies and developers – whether that be strategic asset management and condition-based maintenance software to help maintain train fleets, or linking up with car-hailing service UBER or bicycle hire schemes to make seamless journeys.
Capitalising on emergent technologies such as the Internet of Things and data analytics are among the tools that will allow rail operators to better manage their networks. By doing so operators can manage new tech to provide smart solutions, make more informed decisions and drive efficiency. For more information on one such company helping transport companies do just that, Trapeze Group, which helps deliver smarter, more effective public transport solutions, a White Paper can be downloaded here.
The east-west London game changer
In the UK at least, you’d have to be living under a rock to not know about Crossrail. One of the leading reasons for that is down to the 2014 BBC documentary, The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway, which over two years followed the progress of London’s super tunnel and the more than 10,000 people who have helped construct it. When the project is underway in December 2018 it will bring an extra one-and-a-half million people to within 45 minutes of central London and will link London’s key employment, increasing the capital’s rail capacity by 10% - the largest rise in 70 years.
Officially named the Elizabeth Line after the reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, the line which connects Reading in the west with Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east will be equipped with a software model that promises to something of a game changer for the UK rail network: a digital twin. The digital twin can be used to analyse and replicate real operating conditions that automatically respond to changes, an almost AI level of intelligence that can be used to improve operational performance and, effectively, safety. Expect it to be a mainstay of future rail networks.
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