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Time to embrace the information revolution


A panel of experts in data, innovation and policy discussed the opportunities for rail to advance at the Transport Systems Catapult’s Imagine Festival 2015. Richard Jones reports
One thing we all agree on is that rail infrastructure cannot keep up with growing customer demand, so the challenge is to improve efficiency, capacity and routes. Data and computing have huge potential to do so. But as well as exciting opportunities, there are technical and policy challenges to overcome.
Demand outstrips supply – how do we cope?
Patrick Bossert, director of digital transformation at Network Rail, outlined the challenge. Network Rail moves more than a billion people per year and a lot of freight. Passenger numbers have doubled over recent years and will double again over the next 30. Adding tracks and trains becomes harder. Meanwhile, lots of trains are already full.
There are two main challenges and corresponding opportunities: connectivity and capacity.
Connectivity relates to allowing people to connect via the most direct routes. Barriers come from trains not stopping at key hubs, so people have to go back on themselves or take less efficient routes. Capacity relates to overfilled stations or trains.
Building more infrastructure is not a complete solution. We also need to evolve intelligently.
Many delays are caused by old signalling systems. There is no reason why we can’t get rid of these and manage all trains digitally, using software and sensors to ensure they run efficiently. This would also allow us to know exactly where trains are, thus ensuring information at stations and online is always accurate.
Similarly with timetables, these are currently developed with a lot of manual input and then fixed for six months. If we introduced intelligent scheduling combined with real-time monitoring, we could optimise train’s schedules dynamically and hence more efficiently. For example if a train routinely waits outside London Waterloo for a minute under the current timetable, it could have spent that minute stopping at another station on the way, making the journey easier for customers. Combining the experience of our planners and the latest thinking on game theory could produce clear benefits.
Digital transformation offers huge potential here, and is being spearheaded by Network Rail’s Digital Railways programme. This is an ambitious plan – no one else has gone through a journey like this. Network Rail believes this could increase capacity dramatically on key sections of network.
In doing so, we clearly have much to learn from the aviation industry. It has used a digital approach to ease air traffic flow through airports and optimise throughput of aircraft. Heathrow has successfully implemented new technology enabling movement of 48 planes every hour, so there must be things the rail industry can learn about scheduling and managing services more efficiently.
The information opportunity
The opportunity here comes from more information and greater connectivity and greater ability to capture information.
Xavier Quayzin, head of rail services at QinetiQ, explained OptaSense, a new technology which turns telephone fibre into an intelligent listening device which can monitor any long linear asset such as railways.
This provides an acoustic footprint allowing information about the nature of disruptions and threats to be delivered in real-time, so train companies can react accordingly – potentially saving millions of dollars in avoided accidents and/or maintenance. It is being trialled in Germany but after two years of conversations, nothing has yet been decided in the UK.
Darren Wood, solutions development director at Delta Rail discussed how social media could be used to better understand the context of commuting and the frustrations customers face. If we listen, he said, rather than ask through surveys, we gain different insights. For example we found changing how information is displayed caused lots of dissatisfaction.
In fact generally big well-intentioned investments often cause lots of short-term pain. The reality is that the rail industry doesn’t really understand its customers.
In complex systems with lots of moving parts, faults and subsequent disruption will happen. But with better information we can better manage services, crowds and individuals.
A key part of harnessing data is opening it up. As was highlighted, a lot of very useful data is being kept behind closed doors. We need to understand how we can incentivise people to open up data and reward them for it so others can benefit from it. TfL is a shining example here that others should look to.
Creating innovation
Simon Smith, director of the Rail Executive at the Department for Transport, discussed how rail might create the innovation needed to make advances in efficiency, customer service and emissions.
While public investment in rail infrastructure is at record high levels, this cannot fix all of our problems. There are various good reasons for this – public spending constraints apply everywhere, and rail infrastructure investment is often expensive and disruptive to passengers.
However he explained that the DfT is looking at how Toc’s could be encouraged to do more by improving the way franchise contracts are awarded, and designing in economic incentives to invest in innovation.
For example DfT is looking at a mechanism whereby companies making investments with benefits accruing beyond the length of the franchise would get paid back for value that the investment delivers over and above the terms agreed. Other programmes involve grants for proposals that address key challenges, and shared innovation schemes where all operators invest in projects that benefit whole industry.
DfT is also experimenting with new technology. For example continuous electrification can be expensive on certain routes, which means diesel trains would still be necessary in some areas. To address this, there have recently been successful experiments with the IPEMU battery powered train built by Bombardier in Derby. This would enable discontinuous electrification and make services more affordable.
Rail is one of the most environmentally friendly modes of transport, but it needs to innovate to maintain that advantage. Aerospace and automotive have significantly reduced emissions in recent years, so we can definitely learn from other sectors on fuel efficiency.
Quayzin echoed this, adding that he would like to see a coordinated approach with a portfolio of innovation, rather than a piece by piece approach.
Security implications of connectivity
No discussion of connected transport is complete without discussing security. Xavier Quayzin shared his experience of the rail sector, acknowledging that the threat is nothing new, but that there is an increasing risk as rail becomes more connected.
With the Internet of Things, everything is inter-connected. We start with good intentions but it doesn’t always work out. Shodan – a search engine to find a ‘thing’ in the Internet of Things – highlights that connectivity creates new and unwanted opportunities for attack.
However Quayzin concluded that if managed properly, security is not impossible, we just need to understand and control the risk.
The future of rail
Rail customers are changing. We are increasingly urban, connected, older, and have higher expectations. Rail must adapt to that. It must provide a fast, seamless, safe, clean and comfortable service. And customers must find it easy to use through their personal devices.
The rail industry must rise to meet the challenge of these expectations. Other areas of transport, and even some innovate areas of rail, provide great examples; from Heathrow to TfL to autonomous vehicles.
So far procurement and innovation in UK rail has been relatively timid – we need to think harder about radical innovation. With the current pace of change, we can’t afford to delay.
Richard Jones is rail business sector director, Transport Systems Catapult