Like most industries over the last few years, rail transport is experiencing a tidal wave of digital transformation whose impact is difficult to imagine. “It’s truly a decisive moment for the rail sector”, says Pierre-Antoine Benatar, marketing manager for rail transport at Thales. For Benatar, the needs of the operators have not changed because of digitalisation. The traditional measurements for rail transport performance requirements remain, but each of them will show a positive impact from the application of digital technologies.
- Transporting people and goods safely and securely,
- offering the best passenger experience,
- constantly improving operational efficiency,
- optimizing infrastructure and operating costs,
- increasing network capacity without building new infrastructure.
For railways, the main impact of digitalisation is on the model of operation. Technologies like artificial intelligence, big data and cloud computing, connectivity and autonomous driving will impact the industry. These technologies are creating a new environment in which rail operators will need to be more agile, to act more quickly and to change continuously to succeed in their mission.
Chances and risks in the railway industry
In this new environment, the opportunities are endless to create “a new global platform for mobility”, where passengers are accompanied door to door with connectivity, information, and online services, as well as more efficient and dependable rail service.
Within this new environment, new competitors are emerging, applying digital technologies to create new offers for transportation like car sharing companies or other low cost alternatives to rail or bus. They represent a serious competitive threat to traditional rail operators.
Given all these factors, transformation is not an option; it is inevitable. “The parallels with the natural world are fascinating”, says Benatar. “Like all living species need to adapt to an ever-changing environment, the transport industry needs to adapt to changed conditions. It is not just a revolution but a deep transformation.” The process starts with the digitalisation of current operations.
Customer satisfaction at the center of digitization
All traditional rail systems get their fair share of digital transformation. Some of them were digital by nature and are simply evolving to embrace the latest technologies. That is the case of signalling - a traditional Thales strength - or passenger security with the application of smart video analysis. It is also being applied increasingly to passenger and operator connectivity as well as fare collection.
In a similar fashion, continuous connectivity empowers customers as well as rail operators in two ways. It provides passengers with information and services all along their journey and it gives operators information needed both to better manage current operations and to develop improved rail offers that meet specific customer demand.
It’s part of a new Mobility Platform that turns raw data into accurate real-time information with predictive insights for both passengers and operators. The platform is able to adapt its behaviour dynamically to match constantly changing operational scenarios, with data taken from many operational sources including signalling systems, fare collection, video analytics and anonymous location data from passengers’ mobile devices. Operators also equip their staffs – service or maintenance – with digital tablets that provide them with up-to-date real time information, increasing passenger satisfaction and service reliability whilst minimising costs.
Autonomous instead of automatic – The future of public transport
The ultimate stage of digitalization is the upcoming advent of autonomous rail operations. With the autonomous trains, the trains will have eyes - advanced sensors that give the train a full perception of its environment. These eyes will be combined with artificial intelligence to allow them to run on the network in full autonomy. This is not just a vision. Thales Germany develops together with the local Albtal-Verkehrs-Gesellschaft (AVG) an autonomous tram in Karlsruhe.
Finally, we orchestrate all train movements on the network using an advanced traffic management centre also benefiting from artificial intelligence. Autonomy is the ultimate contribution of digital technologies to the best customer journey and all other key rail operator requirements. For example, DB Netz is developing the train control system of the future in the research program "digital control command and signalling technology". In the future, notifications about whether a track is vacant or occupied will no longer be reported via axle counters on the route, but rather by the ETCS vehicle device's position report to the control center. In September 2018, DB Netz's Living Lab was used to carry out a demonstration of the technology together with Thales and the rolling laboratory vehicle "Lucy". Thales tested all components of the train control technology. With other projects such as Lite4ce™, SelTrac™ and ARAMIS™ on GDP (Digital Platform), Thales has already successfully demonstrated that there is tremendous progress in the digitalization of rail transport and that the autonomy of mobility is no longer inaccessible. To learn more about this topic, read this article (in German language only).
A real digital transformation is occurring in the vast and critical role of maintenance of rail infrastructure. With a combination of tiny sensors throughout the track and switching system, information can be immediately analysed by Artificial Intelligence and Big Data to pro-actively predict maintenance needs, avoid incidents or delay and so improve both safety and operational efficiency.
Cybersecurity in the train transportation
Of course, when you increase ‘Connectivity’, you must also assure Cybersecurity as the surface to be protected becomes larger and larger, both to secure rail operator information as well as passenger data. Pierre-Antoine Benatar
And specifically in terms of rail, Thales’ offer is unique because it brings together Thales’ recognized digital technology expertise in AI, Big Data, Connectivity and Cybersecurity with the company’s exceptional experience in signalling systems and other rail systems; every year, over 8 billion public transport journeys are made worldwide using Thales systems.
Pierre-Antoine Benatar recognizes that “the digitalization in the train sector can seem a daunting challenge for rail operators, but we have what it takes to accompany them throughout the disruptive process. We know how to use the power of digital technologies to help our customers create opportunities for cost savings and service improvement, from smart infrastructure to passenger experience, from cybersecurity to train and metro autonomy.”
It is no exaggeration to say that the digital transformation of rail represents the sector’s latest revolution. It represents rail’s future to assure its role for safe, efficient, enjoyable and environmentally-friendly mobility worldwide. Pierre-Antoine Benatar