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Railways: Heading Towards Digital Mobility

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Digital Rail

The rail industry is experiencing rapid technological adoption. Over the last two decades, transit companies around the globe have implemented new technologies to make passengers’ journeys more comfortable. Metro and other major public transportation systems have evolved from basic mass transportation systems to integrated public transportation providers. These public transportation systems would continue to embrace evolving digitalisation for the provision of services such as security, customer service assistance, and operational support, in addition to transporting people from origin to destination.

There is a growing demand for precise data and real-time information. Mobility data is also becoming more individualised, distinguishable, and predictable. This has allowed the layering of new technologies, which are supported by automated and AI-powered solutions. As a result, the following have evolved: Smart Station

(a) Smart Mobility

(b) Smart Operation

(c) Smart Maintenance

Digitalisation today has revolutionised the railroad industry. Railways in modern times is increasingly using digital technologies to enhance its operations and efficiency. The various core activities benefitted by digitalisation processes in railways can be stated as under:

Digitalization in Rail Operation

Digitalisation in train operations has the potential to increase the efficiency and productivity of station staff, drivers, middle management, and operations people. Rail digitisation can also provide real-time information to operations people, such as rotating scroll warnings, centralised traffic control, track maps, and more. For example, one of the oldest Metro systems of the world, Metro de Madrid in Spain, has begun to digitalise its activities. The operator has created a macro-project with a wide and cross-functional scope. It is coordinated by Lines Operational Management and considers both customer views and internal employee visions. Since 2018, the project has been completely operational in various phases, covering the following areas:

(a) Tablet for station staff

(b) Digital process of checking station installations

(c) Tablet for traffic and running staff (located at the headways)

(d) Digital head-end information displays

(e) Digital time recording of operational staff

(f) Digital repository of operational documentation

Digitisation in infrastructure maintenance

The applications of IoT, sensors, and devices in rail infrastructure maintenance are opening up various new possibilities such as:

(i) Problem/damage detection,

(ii) Preventive maintenance, and

(iii) Coordination with other systems, Government agencies, logistics providers, and transport modes.

In recent years, a number of digitisation applications have been launched collaboratively by public transportation operators and cutting-edge system providers to enhance system security, maintenance cost reduction, asset availability optimisation, issue detection, and mitigation strategies.

Digitalisation in control and signalling systems

Digitalised control and signalling systems have the potential to significantly improve the reliability and performance of train operations. In terms of infrastructure asset management, removing the obsolete train signal boxes and heavy copper wires. Here are a few instances of digitalisation in control and signalling systems:

Digitalisation in Customer Experience

Customer service is becoming increasingly important for rail transport operators. Passengers want improved service and real-time information. Passengers’ expectations are rising, and with increased competition from new mobility players, railways and train operators must embrace new technologies and provide digital experiences to remain competitive. Railways must put the traveller at the centre of the experience. Technology can help increase customer satisfaction and loyalty among passengers.

One recent example is implementing a passenger flow system to handle crowding at railway stations during the COVID. The train movement and passenger control during the pandemic involved the use of various new technologies, such as Passenger Flow Analysis using IoT devices and use of AI in Vehicles and Stations functions with various technologies. The implementation of passenger flow system can be stated involving following stages:

(iv) Real-time people flow estimation achieved by image processing

(v) Motion of image is converted to people flow and congestion rate

(vi) Count of number of passengers getting on and off the vehicle

Digital communications with passengers using AI applications

AI is essential for recognising and connecting data-generated patterns generated by advanced technologies. The popularity of AI has been growing significantly in Customer Support Centres at rail stations. The following are the most prevalent AI applications in rail transportation:

  • Customer Analytics
  • Real-time Operations Management
  • Intelligent Ticketing System
  • Predictive Maintenance
  • Scheduling & Timetabling
  • Multi-modal Journey Planner

Digitalisation in asset maintenance

Effective maintenance, in addition to system design, acquisition, operation, and decommissioning, is an essential component of total asset management strategies and guidelines. The impact of digitalisation is a game changer in all asset maintenance operations in the rail transport industry. Subsequently, the complete implementation of digitalisation for asset maintenance would pave the way for a fool-proof system. Public transportation operators can reduce costs, improve service quality, increase reliability, and make the best use of their physical assets by implementing suitable digital transformation strategies. Smarter asset management is assumed to be possible with maintenance systems that can learn and diagnose existing problems as well as predict likely future failures based on past data and analytics. They should also be able to come up with related maintenance solutions.

Condition-based maintenance strategies and problem prediction guidelines are vital and essential tools for optimising.

(i) Effective asset management decisions

(ii) Timely identification of future possible failures

(iii) Increase in asset availability, and

(iv) Improvement of maintainability.

To achieve the above objectives, there are four major requirements:

(a) Accurate identification of maintenance failures

(b) Accurate calibration of sensors

(c) Accurate assessments of causes and trends of failures

(d) Formulation of effective mitigation measures and preventive strategies 

Automatic monitoring systems for rolling stock conditions

Smart tracking and surveillance systems are transforming the way transit operators shall deal with various hazards, intrusions, railway crossings, and driver behaviours. The public transportation sector has planned and implemented an increased number of monitoring and surveillance systems as a result of constant improvements in safety, performance, and reliability. Many metro operators either store the captured digital data on local servers or incorporate it into the primary company’s information technology (IT) system. Many metro companies have customised their rolling stock condition monitoring software to meet their specific needs.

Most metro operators perform maintenance of their equipments on their own rather than relying on Original Engineering Manufacturers (OEMs)/Suppliers. Although they find the monitoring systems quite dependable, they still prefer to perform manual checks when the systems fail. Before operators can completely adapt to the technology, they need to have more confidence in its reliability.

The main benefits and drawbacks of engaging the rolling stock condition monitoring systems are:

  • Maintenance: Optimisation, labour reduction,automation, and crisis prediction.
  • Service Availability: Minimising service failures, reducing incidents and downtime.
  • Quality Information: Better understanding of rolling stock conditions, investigation data, prediction of problem indicators.

Drawbacks and preliminary mitigation suggestions

  • Suppliers: Metro operators often face challenges relating to dearth of OEM assistance, complicated validation, and maintenance training. Before making a final choice on the installation of an automatic monitoring system, it is highly recommended that all stakeholders be consulted so that they are completely aware of the requirements and potential constraints. It is also important to make purchases only from enterprises having a proven track record.
  • Equipment: Sometimes, it is difficult to integrate monitoring systems into the main IT system. They may also have operational constraints and require highly skilled personnel for servicing and upkeep. It is also suggested that the system hardware and software be able to be customised. The procurement contract should explicitly specify the system specifications with regard to system availability, measurement accuracy, operational conditions, and maintenance obligations.
  • Service Quality: Some methods, such as incorrect detection, have been proven to be unreliable. It will take time for public transportation companies to gain trust in their dependability. It may be beneficial to combine the monitoring system with the main IT system in order to identify the best detection and data access location. Data management concerns (such as size, usage, security, and access) and specialised data transformation skills are also essential considerations.

 Global Scenario

Metro operators in some countries have begun to use passenger trains to gather device data along railway lines for further evaluation at maintenance centres. This not only enhances the frequency and efficiency of machinery inspection but also lowers maintenance and repair expenses at night.

To achieve acceptable track conditions in the past, the Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) operator depended on a time-consuming, laborious, and data-intensive framework to plan and execute corrective maintenance works. They are currently working with Bentley Systems on a highly automated Predictive Decision Support System (PDSS) to improve efficiency in tasks related to planning maintenance, such as track renewals. The PDSS offers advanced data processing and visualisation capabilities to maintenance teams to support optimal decision-making, including:

  • Identification of areas where frequent corrective maintenance measures are to be carried out.
  • Prioritisation of maintenance tasks.
  • Quantitative assessment of asset health.
  • Analysis of asset health data to identify precursors of future problems.

PDSS also allows proactive maintenance. Planning chores that used to require hours per day (such as data collection, site surveying, and task prioritisation) have been completely automated. The risk of human error is significantly reduced. As a result, SMRT can now concentrate more on critical track defects and potential degradation of track conditions. The PDSS also allows complete and unrestricted access to the data. The total length of rail required for replacement each year is expected to go down with the use of PDSS to support condition-based rail replacement programmes. Intelligent recognition technology being used increasingly at metro stations, not only for ticketing but also for enhancing security and maintenance has become common. In terms of station train maintenance, some Asian metro companies have fixed image detectors in repair centres and use robots to rapidly scan train components before applying manual repairs.

Europe

European railways have made the most significant advances in formulating transparent interactions with passengers at stations and stops in the last seven to eight years. Among these services are 

(i) More informative and user-friendly websites,

(ii) Real-time information about vehicles in motion, 

(iii) Ticket purchase,

(iv) Onboard infotainment services, and

(v) Dynamic passenger and timetable information.

Several rail companies have made internet multi-media portals accessible to passengers on board. The Austrian Federal Railways (OBB) uses the catchy slogan to attract passengers to its train services in Austria. Rail travellers in Germany can connect to the internet at over 135 stations, Deutsche Bahn (DB) Lounges, and Intercity Express (ICE) trains. The use of robots as customer service representatives is becoming more common around the globe. This is helping resolve many challenges, such as staffing needs, linguistic barriers, and real-time customer analytics.

Japan 

East Japan Railway Company has developed and put into operation the JR East Communication Robot in Tokyo using Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Pattern Recognition technologies. The multilingual humanoid robot can answer questions about public transportation, local facilities, and sightseeing activities. Its data input consists of 216 frequently asked questions (FAQs) and responses gleaned from interviews with travel and commercial ‘customer service’ representatives. This communication robot has the potential to reduce the number of inquiries received by ‘customer care’ personnel at stations.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Pattern Recognition tools are also available at JR East’s Travel Service Centers in Sendai and Nigata. It is a workflow support system that provides pertinent information to ‘customer service’ agents in call centres in real-time. Agents can reduce their reaction time, and even inexperienced staff can handle the majority of customer inquiries with ease.

Challenges during the transition period of digital transformation

Some of the challenges to be faced due to digitalisation are:

  • Technical – Transmission and communication bandwidth, data accuracy, cyber security, inconsistent standards, and obsolescence.
  • Commercial – Fragmentation of supply chain, data governance, and management, warranty, proprietary software.
  • Economic / business case – High initial investment and maintenance costs.
  • Organisation and HR – Impacts on management and company culture, the requirement of IT maintenance skills.
  • Law and regulations – Resistance from safety authorities/PTOs/insurance companies, hindrance from complex tendering requirements on technological development.

Conclusion

During the last ten years, public transportation has changed dramatically, and urban mobility has undergone a significant transformation. Many of the exciting changes in the ways we live and travel have been driven by digitalisation and innovation. The digital evolution is rapid, and each new development in IT, every step, every journey brings us closer to the people-centric approach that the industry must maintain.

Digitalisation is a significant and evolving trend in global business and daily life. It refers to the adoption or increased use of digital and computer technology by an organisation, an industry, or a nation. In other words, it symbolises the use of digital technologies to:

  • Improve processing efficiency
  • Lower overall costs
  • Enhance productivity (for example, operation and maintenance)
  • Establish new business models
  • Provide new revenue and value-adding opportunities

It is a gradual process of moving into the digital business mode.

Changing Technology Landscape

Technology is constantly evolving, and it is obvious that new digital developments have greatly benefited public transportation. New and emerging technologies have also begun to have an effect on the public transportation sector. Technology adoption has grown with smartphones and is skyrocketing with 5G&6G networks. Passengers expect seamless transport and real-time information. When combined with emerging technologies (such as interconnected sensors and diagnostic tools, big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), machine learning, and artificial intelligence (AI), the public transportation industry can perform intelligent and rapid data interpretation. This will result in a radical transformation of business operations (planning, operation, and maintenance) with increased asset availability and cost-effectiveness.

The emergence of the internet and digital technologies is reshaping the industrial horizon, driving innovation trends, and deeply affecting all aspects of urban rail transportation. Rail operations have a unique chance to become an integral part of the transition to a greener and more sustainable mode of public transportation as a result of digital development. The digitalisation of the rail industry has the potential to enhance the performance, competitiveness, safety, and security of railway systems.

Digital solutions also improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of rail operations. Most train operators understand how to leverage the power of digital technologies to achieve cost savings, service improvements, smarter infrastructure, and a better passenger experience. It is important that they carefully consider worries about privacy, regulatory security, data ownership and proprietary systems, public acceptability, employment impacts, and investing in stranded assets.

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