Technological Innovations: Expending the capabilities of Railway Systems

With the breakthroughs, digital development provides a unique opportunity for railways not just to stay relevant, but also to increase their share in the overall logistics market.

Electrified rail lines
Electrified rail lines

With its roots in the 19th century and nearly 190 years of history since the opening of the first passenger railway in the world between Liverpool and Manchester, railway transportation has a long history. Although the basic concept of low-friction wheels on rails remains the same, the implementation has undergone significant changes, buoyed by multiple technological interventions. Now, two centuries later, technological innovations are expanding the capabilities of railway systems and helping to achieve faster speeds, greater capacity, and better safety to compete with other forms of transportation. Technology has transformed the way the industry works—fuelled by railway operators’ eagerness to reap benefits by making their operations more efficient, safe, and profitable.

Technology has the potential to impact five key dimensions of rail transportation

  • Safety enhancement: Technology can make train operations safer by detecting flaws in the tracks, remote monitoring the tracks, digitizing and automating maintenance, and improving basic processes such as welding and grinding. Improvements in signalling and telecommunication, crash safety of rolling stock, and surveillance of human operations can reduce errors and lessen the impact of accidents.
  • Infrastructure upgrades: Mechanized construction can enhance the speed for infrastructure upgrades—track laying and electrification while improving cost-effectiveness.
  • Train operations effectiveness: The effectiveness of train operations is best measured through asset reliability, utilization, and employee productivity. Technology can help improve asset reliability through sensor-based condition monitoring and data-driven predictive maintenance. Decision support systems can play a strong role in enhancing asset utilization and employee productivity.
  • Passenger experience improvement: The passenger experience is formed at each step of the journey—from planning a trip and booking a ticket to traveling to the railway station, arriving at the station, and traveling on the train. Technology can affect each stage of the experience. Seamless availability of information for planning, omnichannel ticket booking, smart railway stations, value-added services such as Wi-Fi and infotainment, and accurate train tracking based on GPS are just a few examples of ways that technology can enhance the passenger experience.
  • Organizational capability enhancement: Technology can have a powerful impact on an organization’s capability through effective trainings and assisting in decision-making. With the introduction of virtual reality (VR) and gamification that can simulate real-life scenarios, training has been revolutionized. IT dashboards and management information systems have been used extensively across industries to enable data-driven decision-making.
  1. Safety Enhancement

Safety is the most important aspect of rail operations, and Indian Railways envisions running at near-zero fatalities in the near future. Many global railway systems have successfully implemented technological innovations in four areas to enhance the safety of operations:

  • Tracks: Identifying broken rails and rail flaws, gaps in track geometry, and missing fittings and enabling remote track monitoring.
  • Signaling and telecommunication: Improving train control through better communication
  • Rolling stock: Better crash-worthiness to ensure minimal casualties in mishaps.
  • Personnel: Better supervision of train operators and to aid post facto analysis of accidents.
  • Tracks: Track failures and defects cause about 15 percent of all accidents on Indian Railways. Various track-related technologies are in use across the globe—from those that identify flaws to those that help with predictive maintenance. Some can be mounted on regular train services while some require special vehicles. The prominent innovations being used in railway systems around the world, which have applicability for Indian Railways, are described below.
  • Broken Rail Detection

Track circuits are the only commercially deployed method for detecting broken rails. However, the primary function of such track circuits is signalling and not broken rail detection. Track circuits are used in North American railways (Canadian National and BNSF) and Japanese railways.

Multiple new technologies are in various stages of development for detecting broken rails, including ultrasonic track-lined broken rail detection, distributed acoustic sensing, and magnetic flux leakage detection systems. However, none of these are deployed commercially in a large network in any advanced railway system. For mature global railway operators, the focus is always on early identification of defects and prevention of broken rails.

Although Indian Railways is doing a trial of ultrasonic track-lined broken rail detection over a two-year period on two 25-kilometer stretches, the organization could consider focusing on enhancing the effectiveness of rail flaw detection through technology, rather than investing in broken rail detection enablement.

  • Ultrasonic Rail Flaw Detection

Ultrasonic flaw detection (USFD) units can enable early identification of rail flaws. Although used extensively at Indian Railways, the efficiency of the process can be significantly improved through adoption of innovative USFD technology. Indian Railways can consider using non-stop USFD mechanism to increase coverage of flaw detection while using stop-and-verify systems for focused testing. At the same time, the organization could continue to pilot locomotive-mounted flaw detection on specific sections to assess accuracy and effectiveness of the system. The use of digitization (B-scan USFD technology) can further enable storage of track data and help in trend analysis of rail health to predict failures early and take corrective actions.

  • Track Monitoring

Track monitoring systems help identify irregularities in the tracks and can be done through specially designed test trains or through technology-enabled physical inspection. The process can include monitoring of signal and telecommunication systems and overhead electrification lines. Track monitoring rail vehicles can be of two types: autonomous railcars and automated test trains.

Autonomous railcars are coaches attached to regular trains and equipped to collect data on the tracks at line speeds. These have been successfully implemented by SNCF in France and Renfe in Spain. One major advantage is that they can be attached to multiple trains to allow monitoring without disturbing scheduled trains.

Automated test trains have been deployed by major rail systems such as SNCF’s Iris 320. These high-speed train sets are capable of monitoring tracks while running at speeds of up to 320 kilometers per hour. They have additional capabilities over the standalone railcars and are complete stand-alone laboratories for track monitoring. Although they require a separate window to run, the disruption is minimal because of the high speed of operation. For Indian Railways, automated test trains will be preferable given their additional testing capabilities and may be gradually introduced to enhance safety of operations.

  • Signalling and Telecommunication

Although the primary aim of signalling technologies is to ensure safety, modern technologies also help to maximize use of rails. Globally, two systems are used for automated train protection: the European Train Control System (ETCS) and communication-based train control (CBTC). While CBTC is largely useful only for suburban or metro rail, ETCS has utility for long-haul train networks. ETCS is comprised of three levels and involves track-side or radio-based communication technology. ETCS Level 1 involves using line-side signals and an on-track device called a balise, which communicates with ETCS equipment on board to calculate the next braking point, thereby keeping over-speeding in check.

ETCS Level 2 involves continuous communication of the movement authority and permissible speed through a radio block center using a GSM-R radio channel. This information is displayed for the operator and negates the need for track-side signals. This helps increase track capacity as operations are more efficient. Although significant investment is required to upgrade all trains on the network to operate without track-side signals, the life-cycle costs of the technology are lower because of the reduced infrastructure requirement. Moreover, this system provides better reliability, maintainability, and safety. Major railway systems such as DB, SNCF, Renfe, and Chinese Railways have implemented ETCS Level 2.

  • Rolling stock: Modern Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches are much safer than the traditional Integral Coach Factory coaches. Several safety mechanisms are used on the LHB coaches, including the following:
  • Center buffer couplers, which prevent coaches from climbing on top of each other during an accident.
  • Reduced tare weight because of lighter construction materials.
  • Efficient braking systems.

With these features, the crash-worthiness of LHB coaches is much greater, thereby reducing the risk of fatalities in the event of an accident and improving passenger safety. While Indian Railways has been enhancing the share of LHB coaches in its fleet, the same needs to be fast-tracked to enhance passenger safety in case of accidents.

  • Personnel: Human error has been one of the biggest reasons for railway accidents across the world. Technological innovations allow for greater supervision and implementation of standard operating procedures to reduce errors and make railway systems safer.

One such innovation is locomotive-mounted video surveillance. These cameras provide continuous high-definition footage of both the interior and exterior of the locomotive, enabling the gauging of operator performance and identification of any inconsistencies on or alongside the track. This surveillance helps identify the root cause of any incidents and acts as a training tool for crew as well as a maintenance tool to pinpoint the exact location of track- related irregularities. Several companies have come up with such technology, including Railview by Klein Tech and LocoVISION by GE. Key applications offered by these technologies include driver fatigue detection, trespasser alerts, and wayside monitoring. Indian Railways can consider piloting these applications to gauge their effectiveness in train running and safety.

  • Infrastructure Upgrades

Multiple technologies exist that can improve the rate of construction, enhance structural integrity, and improve the cost-effectiveness of projects, thereby contributing to faster infrastructure upgrades.

  • Mechanization of Track Construction: Track laying forms a large part of all infra- structure projects that rail systems undertake. The key technologies available to improve the track-laying process are outlined below.
  • Track linking or laying plain track machines : Track-laying work includes laying of new track and capacity enhancement through doubling.
  • Multipurpose Track-Laying Machines : The recent industry trend is to move toward integrated solutions rather than specialized ones. Multipurpose track-laying machines operate on a patented technique and are suitable for handling large panels. A big advantage of these machines is that they operate head-on, which means that any hold-up on the adjacent line can be avoided. Indian Railways has seen limited adoption of such track-laying machines, which if used on a large scale could enhance the speed of creating infrastructure. Going forward, Indian Railways could use such machines at zonal levels.
  • Mechanization of electrification: As Indian Railways progresses toward large- scale electrification, it will be crucial to induct innovative technologies for enhancing the rate of electrification. Several machines can be used:
  • A self-propelled overhead electrification laying train (SPOLT) is used for putting in place the contact and catenary wires required for electrification of rail systems. This train has automatic tensioning arrangements, guide masts, and instrumentation for ensuring proper tension and uniform rotation of wiring drums.
  • An eight-wheeler self-propelled multi-utility vehicle (SPMUV) has a cab at one end and a swiveling platform and crane at the other end, which support maintenance, adjustment of overhead equipment, and mast erection operations.
  • Usage of Prefabrication: Another widely used practice in construction of road and railways infrastructure is prefabrication. This practice is used with standardized designs, where most of the construction elements are pre-cast separately at a central location. These items are then stored in a temporary depot near the construction site and transferred according to the installation requirement. Prefabrication has numerous advantages over on-site construction, including less construction time and lower manpower costs, improved structural integrity as a result of specialized construction equipment, and streamlined operations at the construction site, which reduces hazards.

Most of Indian Railways’ construction is outsourced to third-party contractors, which manufacture elements on the construction site itself, potentially leading to substandard construction. Metro line construction, however, has been swift to adopt this practice because of a constraint on construction spaces as most of it takes place on traffic-ridden roads in India’s metropolitan cities. Indian Railways has taken some steps to adopt prefabrication, but this practice could be included as a standard operating procedure for all construction works.

  • Train Operations Effectiveness

The key objective of train operations effectiveness is increasing asset availability and utilization. Multiple existing and new technologies are in play that can help Indian Railways achieve this. Key technologies are highlighted below.

  • Overall Asset Performance Management: Overall asset performance management systems are designed to enhance the reliability of operations and increase availability of assets. In such systems, deploying sensors along the entire network provides data that is fed into a predictive maintenance tool, which can provide an advanced warning of a potential failure and allow for planned maintenance. Such systems have been deployed by several railways across the globe, including the Russian Railways, Canadian National, and BNSF.
  • Operations optimization: Operations optimization tools help ensure maximum asset utilization by making sure the locomotives, rolling stock, and crew are available at the origin and changeover points when required and trains run efficiently across the network. Given the vast nature of rail networks, it is very difficult to optimize train movement manually. Rail companies can make use of a number of optimization tools for either planning or taking decisions on a real-time basis.

Operations optimization measures are required to cover four aspects:

  • Trains: Optimizing train scheduling and tracking in real time to enhance capability in unscheduled services.
  • Rakes: Ensuring availability of rakes for scheduled services and using idle rakes for unscheduled services for maximum utilization
  • Locomotives: Locomotive optimization is similar to that of rakes and has been successfully adopted by a number of railway transport system.
  • Crew: Optimizing roster preparation so all regulatory requirements are followed and personal preferences of crew are also considered.

Following are four examples of operations optimization tools:

image 3
Technological Innovations: Expending the capabilities of Railway Systems 3

Optym’s locomotive optimization tool, called LocoMAX, is a fully functional mathematical model that considers all business rules, operational constraints, and cost terms. The interactive system provides output in the form of tables, graphs, and charts and has shown a 3 to 5 percent reduction in locomotive operating costs.

Biarri Rail’s crew optimization tool, BOSS, is a comprehensive cloud-based optimization tool. Its powerful algorithms and modern design enable integration within the complex TMS and ERP systems and allows for dynamic scheduling by providing real-time tracking.

A freight transportation company in Greece, TrainOSE, has come up with an RFID-based solution for better freight scheduling. RFID tags are applied on each wagon, and scanners are placed at key locations along the tracks. These give the company greater visibility into wagons, including detecting any errors. These scanners can alert authorities if any wagon arrives at the wrong destination or there is a schedule change. This tool helps in optimization as the company is aware of the location of all its wagons at any given point of time, thereby ensuring better utilization.

Siemens has developed a method to use analytics to improve operations of railways. The company has been able to reduce spare capacity in railways and aims to reach 100 percent train availability. Siemens records data points such as mileage, brake and compressor performance, and the load being carried by the train and then uses this data to optimize rail operations.

Indian Railways has an opportunity to identify and choose the right set of optimization tools, which can enhance the efficiency of its network through optimal use of existing resources. The need for such optimization tools will become more essential as Indian Railways proliferates time-tabled freight services (scheduled railroading).

  • Process Digitization: Digital is now a buzzword that has ubiquitous applications, especially in processes dominated by manual operations. For Indian Railways, digital can be used to significantly augment employee productivity, improve the quality of work output, and reduce the cost of execution. Process digitization is common across most industries and is a natural progression for Indian Railways.

Global railways have adopted process digitization in a big way. For example, Network Rail undertook a seven-year program called Offering Rail Better Information Services (ORBIS) to digitize and transform maintenance of the UK rail network infrastructure. The deployment was carried out in three stages:

  • Information capture : Development and use of mobile applications such as My Work, Fault Code Lookup, and Close Call apps were undertaken to report information related to the asset and update status of work orders. Additionally, as a part of this stage, a LiDAR-based imagery survey was conducted in 2014 to capture images of track and terrain.
  • Data integration : During this stage, tools were deployed to create a rail infrastructure network model, which provided an asset-wide picture of the entire network using the LiDAR input. Decision support for asset management. Proactive maintenance management was enabled using the linear asset decision support tool, which provided the maintenance engineers a view of and data about the 32,000 kilometers of the track.
  • Decision support for asset management. Proactive maintenance management was enabled using the linear asset decision support tool, which provided the maintenance engineers a view of and data about the 32,000 kilometers of the track.

The entire digitization exercise reaped significant benefits for network rail with more than 3.5 million work orders closed, a 40 percent reduction in administrative requirements, and improved operational efficiency.

Some other examples of process digitization are the implementation of the Indian Railways e-procurement system for catering to tendering and order placement as well as Indian Railways’ integrated material management system for demand generation, receipt and acceptance, and inventory management of stock items.

Going forward, Indian Railways could identify labor-intensive processes that can benefit significantly from digital interventions, build digital prototypes, and iterate the solution on the go. The old philosophy of drawn-out requirement gathering and then long development cycles has been replaced with quick fixes that improve iteratively.

  • Distributed Power: Distributed power refers to distributing multiple locomotives across the length of the train with coordinated acceleration and deceleration to improve stopping time by 22 percent and reduce stopping distances by 30 percent. It also improves safety as there are fewer instances of train separation (break-in-two). Up to four radio-controlled locomotives per train can be controlled, enabling longer and heavier trains and improving the network throughput. This technology, which is owned by GE Transportation Systems under the name LOCOTROL, has been adopted by CN, BNSF, SNCF Freight, and Chinese Railways.
  • Right powering through locomotive spec improvement: For efficient freight and passenger train movement, it is important to provide the right power to the trains according to the axle load. This helps achieve a good average speed, which in turn improves the use of the rail network by increasing throughput. In Russia and Finland, the horsepower-to-trailing-ton ratio can be as high as 3.2 for freight operations. While these are exceptionally high, the norm in major railway systems is to have a ratio of at least two for freight operations.

One simple way to achieve this is to expand the number of locomotives powering a train to increase the horsepower. However, this lengthens the train and puts a strain on other infra-structure such as the loop lines, which may no longer be able to accommodate these trains, resulting in slower movement across the network. A better way to ensure the right power-to-load ratio is to use locomotives that have high power per axle. This will address the issue of right powering without impacting the length of the train, thereby substantially increasing network capacity.

In case of electric freight locomotives, Indian Railways’ continuous power rating is only 0.75 MW/ axle (1007 HP/axle) with WAG-9 and 1.16 MW/axle (1500 HP/axle) with WAG-12. The norm in Europe is 1.5 to 1.6 MW/axle (about 2000 HP/axle). Similarly, China has implemented configurations such as 2xBoBo (13,500 HP), 3xBoBo (20,000 HP), and CoCo (12,888 HP) in the past 15 years, achieving a continuous power rating of 1.25 MW/axle (1678 HP/axle) and 1.6 MW/axle (2148 HP/axle) within 22.5-ton to 25-ton axle load limits.

Similarly, for the electric passenger locomotive fleet, Indian Railways is severely underpowered compared with major rail corporations around the globe. While a continuous power rating of 1.5 to 1.6 MW/axle (about 2000 HP/axle) and starting tractive effort of 75 to 85 kN/axle is the norm globally, Indian Railways’ continuous power figure is only 1 MW/axle (1340 HP/axle) with WAP-5 and 0.75 MW/axle (1007 HP/axle) with WAP-7, and starting tractive effort is not more than 55 kN/axle.

Therefore, Indian Railways could consider focusing on improving the specifications of its locomotives to ensure right powering of trains without reducing network capacity.

  • Passenger Experience Improvement

Railways are such an integral part of the common man’s life that a small change in experience is easily recognized and appreciated. Also, to keep abreast with Indian consumer’s rising expectations, Indian Railways must transition from a traditional railway station model to a smart railways system. The tenets of the smart railway stations include seamless connectivity and enhanced passenger experience.

Below mentioned are the major areas where Indian Railways is continuously working to enhance passenger experience:

  • Railway Stations: Major developments are addition of enhanced and new features like Access Control, Real-Time Information Systems and Interactive Solutions to Railway Stations. Access control is an important addition to railway stations to ensure that unauthorized personnel are not permitted to use station facilities and to provide a better experience for passengers, who are the rightful users of these facilities.

Access control can be established through manual or digital means. Manual access control involves deploying security personnel at the station gates to verify tickets of each person entering the station; digital involves a digital entry system that can only be accessed by using QR codes or contactless cards. Unique QR codes can be integrated into each ticket. Entry through contactless cards could be established using open loop smart cards. These codes and cards unlock the automatic entry gates at stations. Countries such as China and Canada have successfully implemented access control on a large scale at mainline stations.

For Indian Railways, full digital access control could be one of the major goals. However, it will be very challenging to establish right away given the changes in the ticketing system and the level of passenger know-how that are required. Access control can be implemented in a phased manner starting with a partly digital and partly manual solution wherein security personnel are deployed alongside automatic gates to educate passengers about the new technology. Many global rail systems use GPS positioning and footpath mapping to track trains in real time and relay the information to passengers. These systems can automatically and accurately measure any delays in operations. Using such systems goes a long way in enhancing the passenger experience and optimizing the use of resources. Even though some delays are unavoidable, it is important to keep passengers updated, thereby improving system reliability. GPS systems can provide data to a central control center that then relays the information to displays at the stations as well as to passengers’ phones. Such systems are used by rail networks such as JR East, JR West, and SNCF. Indian Railways could consider fast-tracking the implementation of the Real Time Intelligent System project to support passenger convenience and provide inputs to analytical systems.

  • Ticketing : Major features include incorporation of new technologies like Omnichannel Ticketing Experience & Open Loop Smart Card in ticketing and fare collection systems.
  • Train Experience : Wi-Fi, Infotainment, App-based Systems are new innovations to give passengers a whole new passenger experience.
  • Organizational Capability Enhancements

Technology can improve the organizational capability enhancement in railways, especially in personnel training and leadership decision-making. Several technologies such as virtual reality and training simulators enable recreation of real-life scenarios, leading to hands-on training as opposed to basic classroom-based training. These technologies are particularly relevant for roles with significant manual intervention.

Additionally, technology and digitization interventions such as management information systems and dashboards are widely used across industries to improve visibility of the organization’s performance to the top management and enable sound decision-making. They also assist in centralized management of current projects and planning of new projects based on tracking of key performance indicators and availability of resources.

  • Training: Rail systems around the world have adopted technology to train personnel, including drivers and maintenance crew. Simulators and VR-enabled training help impart more hands-on training by recreating lifelike scenarios. For example, simulators can help familiarizing drivers with specific routes and emergency conditions. Also, VR can create awareness among the maintenance crew about required safety procedures while executing various tasks.
  • Management Reporting Dashboards: Management reporting dashboards are information management tools that help organizations capture, process, and visualize information across functions to support planning, decision-making, and transaction processing at various levels. The dashboards can be specialized to support different organizational functions such as manufacturing, logistics and supply chain, personnel, finance and accounting, marketing, sales, and customer relations.

Dashboards are useful not only to top management and decision-makers for enhanced visibility of the organization but also for middle and lower executives to track day-to-day activities and plan tasks. Additionally, they can be a key decision-making tool that provides insights across functions using the organization data. Dashboards allow management to view consolidated information from across the organization and from different software applications. They are useful in monitoring progress of key projects and undertake timely interventions to ensure fulfilment of organization goals. They also simplify the complexity of running organizations by prioritizing access to vital information.


Over the last five decades, Rail transport has faced major headwinds. The transformation of global supply chains has made the logistics business more challenging than ever, with increasing pressure to deliver fast and flexible services at a lower cost. In that quickly-evolving context, freight rail is grappling with fierce competition from road transport—a trend that will only intensify under the effect of disruptive technologies like autonomous trucks and on-demand mobility services.

In addition, railways around the world have been hit by significant government budget cuts, limiting their ability to invest in infrastructure or maintain high service standards. Stiff competition from roads, which have the door-to-door delivery advantage has offered added pain.

At the same time, railways are in the midst of a profound transformation, driven by emerging digital technologies like 5G, big data, the Internet of Things, automation, artificial intelligence, and blockchain. It is hard to overstate the impact of digitization on the railway sector. In fact, digital technology is pretty much impacting every component of railway operations:

  • Rolling Stock: Advances in automation, self-diagnosing, or real-time geolocation tracking mean that trains are becoming considerably smarter and safer.
  • Control and Signalling Systems: Digital systems can radically enhance the reliability and performance of operations. From an infrastructure/asset management standpoint, they also eliminate the need for outdated railway signal boxes and heavy copper wires.
  • Railway Infrastructure: Internet of things sensors and devices are opening new possibilities for obstacle and damage detection, preventive maintenance, linkages with other systems, Government agencies, logistics providers, and transport modes.
  • Revolutionary Communications (5G, LTE), and cloud infrastructure (backend) will offer attractive solutions for handling large volumes of data and avoiding bulky rail-side infrastructure.
  • Faster self-learning algorithms in Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) systems make for more efficient dispatching, routing, and maintenance scheduling.
  • Smart monitoring and surveillance systems are changing the way operators manage hazards, intrusions, railway crossings, and driver behavior.

With these breakthroughs, digital development provides a unique opportunity for railways not just to stay relevant, but also to increase their share in the overall logistics market, and to become an integral part of the transition toward greener, more sustainable freight transport. The potential benefits of digitization include:

  • Performance: Automated and predictive systems will lead to fewer delays and breakdowns, optimized dispatching, routing and scheduling, increased capacity with trains running closer together, lower costs, and more.
  • Competitiveness : Digital solutions can substantially improve journey times, reliability, cost recovery, traceability, and coordination with other modes—all of which will increase the competitive edge and the modal share of freight rail.
  • Increased efficiency, less red tape, and lower transaction costs, especially with the integration of blockchain into rail operations. Russian and Kazakh railways are already looking into blockchain to streamline operations and reduce paperwork. IBM and Maersk have implemented successful pilots as well, and major universities around the world are conducting research on blockchain applications in the railway sector.
  • Improvements in safety and security thanks to track obstacle detection, intrusion detection, and other similar systems that are allowing railways to address various types of risks in a smarter, more systematic way.
  • Smaller environmental footprint: By optimizing train operations and giving rail a competitive edge over both road and air transport, digitization is poised to lower the climate impact of logistics.

Despite its many promises, the digitization of rail also comes with a number of challenges, ranging from concerns over privacy and security to regulation, issues related to the ownership of data and proprietary systems, public acceptability, the impact on jobs, and the fear of investing in stranded assets.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.