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Digital rail: Why are we still waiting?

Across many areas of our economy and society, digital technologies are changing the way whole sectors work, and data is revealing new and deeper insights into everything from planning, design and operations to meeting net zero carbon reduction goals.

But for industries with long-established infrastructure and traditional ways of working, finding the right ways to both apply digital technologies, and use them to deliver real benefit, isn’t necessarily easy. Rail is a sector that is both highly aware of the transformative potential of digital technology, but not always ready to take best advantage from it.

There are pockets of innovation that point the way forward though, and examples of successful digitisation in railways are growing in number. Network Rail in the UK is digitising its legacy infrastructure using sensors, big data and artificial intelligence to realise the potential of remote condition monitoring to radically improve its asset maintenance. Agent-based-modelling promises to greatly improve our understanding of user behaviour, reshaping future decisions about rail and transport systems. Or you could look at the State Railway of Thailand’s embrace of a combination of blockchain and Internet of Things for signalling and goods delivery. Digital rail’s potential is clear, even if adoption isn’t yet ubiquitous.

Why, then, aren’t railways fully digitalised yet? What are the missing ingredients of the railway of the future? Two things stand out.

Mobilising the scale of investment required

The first is resources. Successful implementation of the digital solutions that are now possible across all aspects of our railways will need sustained, significant, and network-wide spend. We need to ensure that systematic resources are allocated to digitisation, at far higher levels than currently. This is likely to require shifting from traditional contracting and supply-chain management methods, towards more innovative, investment and risk sharing approaches, almost certainly with the major technology firms as new partners in the railways. Everyone knows this investment must be made, and will ultimately drive service improvement and cost efficiencies. It’s time for boldness.

The need for system-wide leadership

The second issue is system-wide coordination and leadership. Successful digital transformation of the railways will require, for example, common and shared data and technology systems. That means shifting from disparate systems and information to interoperable data standards; common technology codes; defined and shared approaches to cybersecurity; a system-wide modernisation of regulations, and more.

Plainly, this cannot be done by individual operators or supply chain partners on their own. Rather this can only be achieved by enlightened, persistent and patient leadership by system leaders, whether they are governments or national rail agencies; and an investment in greater digital capability within those organisations themselves. Is such leadership currently being offered? Does it look like it is on the cards? Again, greater boldness is needed.

Artificial intelligence and smart infrastructure: learning from other industries

Rail can and should also learn from other industries, which are already using digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and sensor-driven data to design and manage assets better. In Beijing and Hong Kong, for example, Arup is trialling Neuron, one of the world’s first AI and data-driven smart building systems, to improve asset performance, save energy and cut carbon emissions. In both the UK and other parts of the world, we have implemented sensor and IoT technology for smart bridges.

This ‘digital twin’ technology offers valuable new dimensions to rail asset management, operations and maintenance. Operators will be able to quickly review real-time asset performance, diagnose problems remotely and test proposed fixes before having to apply them to physical components. For an asset-dependent industry, it’s the start of an exciting new era.

Transforming construction and meeting sustainability goals

Digital also has the potential to improve the considerable amount of physical construction, manufacture and refurbishment railway operators must undertake. For example, employing robotic fabrication for fleet production or digital fabrication to quickly replace spare parts that can normally take months to replace, could save time and money for operators, while at the same time help meet sustainability goals. And we are already seeing these technologies mature into commercial propositions in other sectors. For rail, the adoption of these technologies is ultimately inevitable, so it’s time for leaders to commit to and invest in the truly transformative (and transformed) rail we all know is coming.