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That light at the end of the train tunnel is the oncoming digital mutation

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, who leads marketing for rail transport at Thales, “Passengers and every other rail stakeholder will benefit from this thoroughly transformative journey because all aspects of rail operations will be improved.”

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.

1. Transporting people and goods safely and securely

2    Offering the best passenger experience

3 Constantly improving operational efficiency

4. Optimizing infrastructure and operating costs

5. Increasing network capacity without building new infrastructure


Digitalisation is about the application of new digital technologies.  For railways, the main impact of that transformation is on the model of operation:
•    Artificial Intelligence
•    Big Data and Cloud computing
•    Connectivity
•    Autonomy

All 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.

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 on-line 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. They are companies on the Uber model offering car sharing, and other low cost alternatives to rail including coaches.  They represent a major competitive threat to traditional rail operators.

Given all these factors, transformation is not an option; it is inevitable. “The parallel with the natural world is fascinating” says Benatar. “Like all living species which face a changing environment and threatening newcomers, the transport industry is confronting a need for mutation. Not a revolution, not just an evolution, but a deep transformation.”

And like a mutation in the natural world, the needs of the customers are not really changing in nature, but expressing themselves differently to survive in the new environment.

The process starts with the digitalisation of current operations – the defensive strategy.
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.  “Big Data can capture key information from a customer’s journey and Artificial Intelligence can analyse it to improve the traveller’s experience”, Pierre-Antoine Benatar notes.

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.

With Digitalisation, the mutation can go much deeper, transforming the DNA of transportation. The ultimate stage of such mutation is the upcoming advent of autonomous rail operations. With the autonomous trains, we give eyes to the trains - advanced sensors that give the train a full perception of its environment. And then, we combine it with artificial intelligence – the train’s brain - to allow them to run on the network in full autonomy.
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.

A real digital mutation also 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.

 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

Thales’ recognized experience in ground transportation, coupled with its leadership in all digital technologies, makes it the clear choice to accompany rail operators for success on this critical and historic journey.

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 system.

Pierre-Antoine Benatar recognizes that “the rail digital mutation can seem a daunting challenge for rail operators, but we have what it takes to accompany them throughout the disruptive process. That can include co-investment in new approaches. 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