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Is 'digital' flattering to deceive?

Thirty years ago, the first computers were used on trains. Since then, onboard control has evolved to the point where trains are almost completely ‘fly-by-wire’. This means that all functions and train operator commands – from traction and braking to door control and sanding – pass through a centralised train control system.

Astoundingly, we also recently celebrated the 50 - year anniversary of automated driving systems being introduced on the Victoria line of London Underground. Unlike the proliferation of train control, automation has subsequently been restricted to metro and light-rail operations. China, however, is leading the drive to deliver the first automated trains for high-speed lines, with trains able to reach speeds of up to 350km/h.

The ‘digital railway’ is full of promise, but no more than a handful of new signalling and traffic management schemes are actually being implemented. None of which are really experienced directly by the passengers.

So, is ‘digital’ flattering to deceive, promising much but being limited in its delivery? The implementation of advanced train control systems such as European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) is inevitable, along with the onboard technology to enable the communications with the control centres. Customers will ultimately see the benefits in terms of faster and more frequent trains, but possibly only when European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 3 and Automatic Train Operation (ATO) are achieved together.

Elsewhere, digital technology is being used to enable design verification of rolling stock. In doing so it creates a virtual reality of the journey experience that allows designers to ensure long-term passenger satisfaction.

The industry is also belatedly taking advantage of the widespread ‘sensorisation’ of trains: the rolling stock itself makes diagnostic decisions about its own health and what sort of maintenance attention it requires. In doing so, train operators can reduce unnecessary activities, eliminate the dreaded ‘no fault found’ scenario and optimise mileages for key components. Train-borne sensors are also starting to play a significant part in digital asset management of the networks, being able to report back track defects in a more efficient manner than through traditional inspection regimes.

The greatest opportunity for transformation will be in customer experience. Whilst ticketing is changing and becoming more oriented towards smart devices, the coming years will see more interaction between the train and the customer’s digital presence. Seat reservations, agile ticketing, wayfinding and augmented reality lie in wait to make the railways the transport mode of choice for the travellers of tomorrow.

Ultimately, the benefits of the digital world in the design and operation of trains will only be limited by our imagination and our ability to embrace new ways of working.