Digtial a path way to rail resilience; Digtial a path way to rail resilience;

A pathway to rail resilience

Effective transport underpins our society. Failure, disruptions or inadequate provision can cause a cascade of issues impacting employment, education, leisure, and essential services such as healthcare1. In this context the resilience of our rail networks is essential – particularly if we want services to continue ‘no matter what’, in the face of the diverse shocks and stresses they currently face. We do not routinely design, deliver and operate our railways for resilience. But it really shouldn’t be an afterthought. Resilience needs to be embedded in the whole rail life cycle – from the start of planning through to ongoing operations and maintenance.2

To achieve this goal, a better common understanding is needed of the factors that contribute to rail resilience and how these can be achieved in practice. Improving resilience increases the ability of rail systems to withstand potential threats and recover quickly from disruptive or extraordinary events. A consistently reliable service and asset is the ultimate aim. Industry interviews by the Resilience Shift3 highlight where resilience is already being built into the rail system, along with recommendations on potential actions to further increase it.

Digitalisation offers opportunities for improving how we plan, design, build, operate and maintain our rail systems in a more resilient way. For example, embedded sensors now provide real-time feedback into rail infrastructure; and advanced modelling and analytics enable condition-based and predictive maintenance.

These technologies enhance the resilience of rail networks, by reducing the potential for human error – making systems faster, smarter and more adaptive – before, during and after an incident. As an illustration, Japan’s earthquake early warning system can cut power and apply emergency brakes to trains in the first seconds of a seismic event, to avoid derailment. However, as rail systems become increasingly sophisticated and digitally connected, their complexity increases. Digital systems overlain onto legacy infrastructure won’t remove pre-existing and underlying vulnerabilities. Conversely, they may introduce new issues which can lead to disruption and other unintended consequences. As just one example, digital technology such as the European Railway Traffic Management System (a continuous communication-based signalling system) could present opportunities for cyber-crime if not managed effectively.

With this in mind, if digital technologies are not to undermine system resilience, their introduction and planning must be grounded in a deep understanding of the systemic context. Balance is also vital. The need to make digitally-connected rail systems more resilient must be weighed against the broader benefits of digitalisation and its positive impacts on service.

Going forward, the focus must shift to how to ‘do resilience’ in practice. Practitioners and decision makers will need to design and implement strategies that find ‘sweet spots’ between resilience, sustainability, efficiency and the safety of the railways during operations. These strategies will help making a compelling case for resilience.

Resilience in rail requires consideration of technological, societal, organisational, environmental and physical systems. It cannot be managed solely at sector level or by engineering interventions. It needs a long-term view as well as a whole-system, cross-sectoral approach involving multiple stakeholders. Key interdependencies, such as the reliance on the power network, also need to be actively managed.

There is still some way to go, but if industry stakeholders across the infrastructure value-chain work together to integrate resilience into their existing systems and decision-making, it will clearly benefit everyone.


  1. Reeves S, Winter M, Leal D, Hewitt A. Rail: An Industry Guide to Enhancing Resilience.; 2019.
  2. Pulido D, Darido GB, Munoz-Raskin R, Moody JC. The Urban Rail Development Handbook (English). Washington D.C.; 2018.
  3. Reeves S, Winter M, Leal D, Hewitt A. Rail: An Industry Guide to Enhancing Resilience.; 2019.