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Digital technology is helping rail operators to tackle the Covid-19 crisis – and forge a closer bond with their passengers.

These are turbulent times for rail operators. Ridership is down. Revenues are under pressure. And as lockdown is eased, operators face the challenge of adapting their networks to minimise the risk of infection.

Looking ahead, rail operators will need to tackle the even tougher job of restoring both profitability and passenger confidence. This not only means winning hearts and minds, but also being ready to accommodate new patterns of travel as people reassess the way they live and work.

A perfect storm

There is no parallel for the challenges now facing railways. First, operators need to protect the health of passengers and employees. That means monitoring and enforcing compliance with hygiene rules, such as social distancing and the wearing of face masks. They also need to comply quickly with changing government and city regulations. 

In the midst of all of this, operators need to maintain train services. This is being made harder by social distancing rules that restrict how many staff can be in the same place at the same time. Meanwhile, the need to supervise passengers and carry out deep cleaning is stretching resources to the limit.

Against this background, operators are facing a revenue crisis of unprecedented proportions. Passenger numbers on some networks were down 95% at the height of lockdown. Even as ridership recovers, operators face the prospect of running their networks at a fraction of their true passenger-carrying capacity – further eroding revenue.

How is digital technology helping?

One thing that has become clear during the crisis is the value of digital technology. Digital solutions help rail operators to protect their passengers, improve decision making and boost mobility at a time when it is needed most. Digital tools can be deployed rapidly and offer operators the chance to make quick wins, as well as creating lasting value.

The top priority is keeping passengers safe. AI-based video analytics play a critical role here, allowing operators to monitor passenger density and flow not only on stations, but also on moving trains. Video analytics and biometrics are used to carry out mask detection, while thermal imaging provides instant temperature checks. Passenger privacy is protected at all times.

The beauty of video analytics is that solutions can be linked to existing assets, such as passenger information systems and ticket gates, to generate alerts and to control access to stations and platforms. Some of these solutions can be set up in a matter of days.

Driverless trains are another example of how digital solutions keep everyone moving. The key technology is communications-based train control (CBTC). Driverless CBTC networks require fewer staff, and services can be easily adapted to match demand. Train frequency can be boosted at the click of a mouse, so passengers never have long to wait.

Remote working tools are also transforming operations. These enable control centre staff and station operators to work collaboratively from separate locations via a secure web-based portal – mobilising the workforce and dramatically reducing the number of people who need to be on site.

What happens next?

Nobody can predict exactly how the post-Covid future will unfold. But two things are clear.

First, the current dip in passenger numbers is likely to be short-lived. In Europe, long-term data about teleworking suggests that the proportion of people who usually work from home is approximately 5% – a figure that has barely changed in a decade. Patterns of rail travel may change, but aggregate demand may be little affected in the long run.

Second, there is now an urgent need to roll out next-generation rail networks. Green, digitally-enabled railways will not only be vital for driving economic recovery, but are also likely to attract stimulus funding. Indeed, a UN report suggests that greening the transport sector post-Covid could create up to 15 ‎million jobs worldwide.

Digital technology holds the key to building tomorrow’s railways. It allows operators to rebuild passenger trust with services that are more reliable, more accessible and more attractive. Most important of all, it allows operators to reposition the passenger at the strategic centre.

How Thales can help

Thales offers a complete portfolio of digital solutions for rail. These include Integrated Communications & Supervision systems, Urban Rail Signalling systems, Main Line Signalling systems and Revenue Collection Systems.

All our solutions are highly automated, minimising the need for human intervention. Everything can be integrated on a secure Digital Platform. This uses machine learning and data analytics to transform performance and to achieve new synergies.

Thales embraces digital transformation through its ability to analyse large amounts of complex data. This allows you to constantly improve decision making and mobility, providing you and your passengers with the right information at the right time.


Learn more about solutions to the Covid-19 crisis in ground transportation