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Innotrans: Public transport is at the dawn of its digital revolution

With an ever growing population – over 7.5 billion people on this earth*, more than half of them in cities – how can we enable people to get around while preserving our resources?

Will tomorrow’s mobility be rail, air or road-centric? How will rail travel evolve in the face of autonomous cars or flying taxis? I believe that our priority should be to make public transport, rail in particular, the backbone of our intermodal mobility network, in and between cities, for passengers and for goods. Because trains have a capacity that autonomous vehicles can never replace, but also because public transport is – for obvious reasons – more sustainable than individual cars and road transport.

Our role is to come up with mobility solutions that are more efficient and more sustainable. InnoTrans, the world's largest transport technology fair opening today in Berlin, is the perfect opportunity for all stakeholders to get together and do just that. 

Digitizing public transport

The world of transportation is on the cusp of a ‘digital revolution’ which is going to change it profoundly, and which will stem from three major innovations.

First innovation: trains are going autonomous. Automated trains are already safer and more reliable than traditional trains, making it possible to increase the network’s global capacity; autonomous trains will be the next upgrade. Equipped with a brain (artificial intelligence and big data) as well as eyes (radars, lidars, sensors, cameras) to analyze and understand their environment, they will be able to optimize energy consumption and regulate their speed in real time, based on how fast other trains are going.

"Trains are going autonomous"

They will have the capacity to get much closer to one another with better control and safety, meaning that more trains will be able to run on the same line. And since most of these monitors will be on the trains themselves, there will be far less need for equipment along the tracks, and therefore lower maintenance costs. Thales is currently testing autonomous train concepts with several operators. There is a huge potential also to use autonomous trains for rural areas which have seen their rail lines abandoned because of cost issues.

Making public transport smarter

The second major innovation will come from smart infrastructures, made possible by Internet of Things (IoT) technology. This will transform originally “mute” devices along the tracks or on trains into intelligent sensors, capable of sharing their operating data. This Internet of Railway Things opens up immense possibilities, such as predictive maintenance. It will make it possible to monitor the equipment installed on-board and along thousands of miles of tracks in real time to detect the first signs of a malfunction and replace it before it fails. This is not science fiction: we currently supervise more than 40,000 connected devices in real time for our client Network Rail in England.

In Europe, rail operators spend between 15 and 25 billion euros a year on the maintenance and renewal of their equipment. Imagine the impact if our clients could save just 1%? That would represent between 150 and 250 million euros of savings a year!

Third innovation: ‘smart’ Operational Control Centers. These will resort to artificial intelligence and big data to analyze the massive quantity of data generated by sensors on trains and connected equipment, as well as outside data such as the weather or geographical data – all in real time. Transport authorities and their customers will thus reap numerous benefits: transport operators will have a global vision of all operations, and will also be able to merge data coming from different sources – signaling, video surveillance, ticketing – so as to offer passengers a better service.

‘"Smart’ Operational Control Centers will resort to artificial intelligence and big data."

Crises or incidents will be dealt with quicker and more efficiently, thanks to a clear and concise overview of all the information an operator needs to make the right decisions at the right time. Because they will be based on digital platforms, these control rooms can be operated in Software as a Service (SaaS) mode, for better flexibility and increased reliability at a lower cost.

IoT, connectivity, big data, artificial intelligence will require significant investment. But they will only make sense if they resort to cybersecurity technologies. Transport stakeholders indeed face the major challenge of protecting networks against potential terrorists or hackers, as well as passenger data in an increasingly connected and open world.

"It will be all the easier to convince users to use more public transport and to promote sustainable modes of transport if we take this unprecedented qualitative leap."

The technologies that will transform public transport exist. Let InnoTrans be the opportunity to demonstrate how they can make it more competitive, more sustainable and more attractive.
* The world population is estimated at 7.55 billion as of July 1, 2017 according to the United Nations.