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How digital innovations are heralding a new golden era for rail

Posted: 8 November 2021 | | No comments yet

Scott Kelley, Managing Director, Signalling and Global Rail Market Lead at Atkins, explains how harnessing digital innovations in aspects such as ticketing, digital twins and digital signalling could enable the data-rich, technologically driven rail industry of the future that surpasses all expectations.

Rightly or wrongly, the rail industry has, for decades, suffered from the perception that it has been slow in its adoption of technology, siloed in its data usage and hampered by legacy infrastructure. The upshot? The industry has been overshadowed by seemingly more dynamic and agile transport and logistics sectors.

…there are several key digital innovations that, if embraced with imagination and commitment, have the ability to completely transform the rail sector…

But that could radically change in our better connected, data-led near future, especially with rail forming a key part of the infrastructure relied upon for COVID-19 recovery in many global markets, and as passengers gravitate towards more sustainable travel options.

With demand for low carbon transit and more effective ways of dealing with congestion at an all-time high, a multitude of ambitious rail projects, including Crossrail in the UK, Réseau express métropolitain in Canada, and Sydney Metro in Australia, are on the way to being realised. And with them, we’re seeing a sudden resurgence in interest in rail as an attractive – even visionary – option.

Our industry now has an opportunity to capitalise on the best practice we’re seeing globally and incorporate smarter ways to build and manage rail infrastructure in local markets. Over the next decade, we believe there are several key digital innovations that, if embraced with imagination and commitment, have the ability to completely transform the rail sector with data-rich, virtual and collaborative technologies that will revolutionise rail design, customer, and operational experiences.

This exciting era of innovation couldn’t have come at a better time either. Globally, rail’s pipeline is thought to be worth US$5.83 trillion, according to GlobalData’s Construction Intelligence Data Centre. Meanwhile, in the UK market, new delivery body, Great British Railways, is set to shake up the way we see train travel, representing a real opportunity to do things differently and redefine it in the public consciousness.

So, what are these digital innovations and how might you adopt them in your own operations to reap the benefits?

Enhancing the passenger experience

Ticketing systems need to become more intuitive…and the railway a more welcoming environment, with passenger experience at the heart of both journey planning and payment.

Since the early days of rail travel, passenger access to railways has started with – and been defined (and constrained!) by – paper tickets, accompanied by a complex and archaic pricing system that has made access difficult and become increasingly incongruous in today’s digital age.

The advent of contactless payment has now made things far more convenient and Visa announced in 2020 that more than 500 cities around the world are using its ‘tap to pay’ systems on public transport. However, paper tickets are still prevalent in many parts of the world and there’s progress to be made on other fronts too. Ticketing systems need to become more intuitive, for example, and the railway a more welcoming environment, with passenger experience at the heart of both journey planning and payment. A new era of smart ticketing has the potential to free passengers from old fashioned ticketing systems and the significance of this shift cannot be overstated.

digital innovation passenger rail

If we embrace it, rail travel, long associated with time intensive planning, could become adaptive, instinctive, and even spontaneous, with passengers free to plan their journeys, pay for their travel and even compare prices in the moment. Greater flexibility also opens up the means to move passengers between routes before and during travel, to avoid congestion, and to use pricing mechanisms to manage demand more effectively. Data will also become available on the spending habits of rail system users, allowing for much more tailored services and solutions to be offered to customers, along with the promise of integration with other (non-rail) services.

A new era of smart ticketing has the potential to free passengers from old fashioned ticketing systems and the significance of this shift cannot be overstated.

Alongside this access to data and information, the resourcing efficiencies and sustainability benefits for operators are obvious. Schedules and pricing can be updated instantaneously, tonnes of paper and time are saved, resourcing unpredictable ticket queues becomes a thing of the past, and access could become seamless and automatic, thanks to the removal of gated access systems.

What’s more, this, in turn, will have a bearing on the way we design and use stations in the future. Spaces can be better focused to create more profitable services, with enhanced usability and accessibility features, rather than simply being areas for people to wait while they are served at the ticket office. Operators will also be far better placed to understand and accommodate customers’ current and future expectations.  

Design transformation

Just as the passenger experience has historically been defined by paper, the rail design and planning experience has been defined by an unwieldly design information review process, with operational constraints being difficult to envisage ahead of the construction of a physical asset. 

By leveraging the advantages of new digital design and modelling tools, optimising the construction and operations of the railway in a virtual environment will allow for a more precise and efficient railway to be built, operated and maintained.

However, widespread adoption of digital design and modelling tools are now creating the ability to model construction and operational phases very early on in the design process, using virtual models. In the UK, for example, projects such as East West Rail and HS2, are heralding a new era of digital design, combining the best of UK construction with advanced data software, to enable more ambitious and responsible design than ever before.

A digital twin philosophy now also underpins our design work. The premise is simple: by building a virtual environment before we undertake any construction, we enable clients to predict challenges and even model and minimise the emissions footprint of their projects, before any commitment is made, or irreversible impact has been felt.

With the success of infrastructure projects increasingly measured by their environmental and social impact, as well as by their delivery of new opportunities and greater efficiencies, the advantages of this approach are clear. The ability to model a whole swathe of issues, from carbon usage to energy consumption in contraction and operation, material delivery and lay down strategies, as well as the contingency required in the event of forecastable issues – such as plant failure or inclement weather – means that a project can be significantly optimised before it ever reaches site. And with well-developed mitigation strategies in place.

In fact, it has been so successful that with current Atkins projects such as the Canada One line in Vancouver, we are now rolling out the digital twin philosophy into operations. By simulating train pathways, potential issues and recovery plans, we can deliver immeasurable passenger and operator benefits, minimising future disruption and delivering significant efficiencies.

By leveraging the advantages of new digital design and modelling tools, optimising the construction and operations of the railway in a virtual environment will allow for a more precise and efficient railway to be built, operated and maintained.

Digital signalling

Another exciting development is the adoption of advanced technology into the train control field. Aspects, such as digitally controlled, electronic signalling systems have the potential to optimise the use of the existing assets, while also creating a much safer environment to maintain and operate the railway. By understanding exactly what trains are on the network, the new systems have the potential to flexibly adjust the speed and direction of trains, depending on the prevailing conditions – similar to variable speed limits on motorways. With the ability to securely and safely transmit information directly to drivers and trains, these new systems could offer huge efficiency benefits. These include enabling operators to safely run more trains on the same set of tracks and use the system’s capabilities to mitigate performance problems and issues, in a way that is simply not possible with the existing fixed block signalling systems.

Moving away from existing conventional life expired assets will also reduce the maintenance burden and deliver a far more reliable service. By introducing different aspects of this new technology – such as traffic management and advanced train detection – in a phased way, we can bring forward the benefits offered by a transition to full digital signalling to both passengers and operators, at the same time as providing incremental improvements.

How digital innovations are heralding a new golden era for rail

Digital Project Management Offices (PMOs)

The railway sector now has a golden opportunity to embrace the full potential offered by digital innovation and use it to radically improve the passenger and user experience, offering more efficient and competitive services to system users.

With access to better and more detailed data and information comes the ability to predict and forecast outcomes and trends. This will allow the design, build, operation and maintenance of railways to be clearly understood and much more accurately forecasted. It is something that SNC Lavalin, supporting Turner and Townsend, has tapped into on the Inland Rail programme in Australia, with its PMO office, as a result, enabling far more proactive control and decision-making.

Importantly, the in-depth data that digital PMOs generate, not only allows systems to be maintained in a more efficient and less disruptive manner, but will also empower rail businesses to thrive in a new era of accountability, enabling them to constantly demonstrate their performance against key accountability metrics. The improved prediction and forecasting that comes with better access to, and analysis of, data offers the prospect of less disruption to users and the more efficient delivery of services through the entire project lifecycle.

The world outside of railways is evolving at pace, with ever increasing opportunities as a result of better use of digital technologies, and as a consequence of the growing demands being made on our transport systems. The railway sector now has a golden opportunity to embrace the full potential offered by digital innovation and use it to radically improve the passenger and user experience, offering more efficient and competitive services to system users.

By seizing this opportunity, the rail sector can not only meet increased customer expectations, but surpass them, enhancing the passenger experience and minimising environmental impact, while running a safer and more efficient network than ever before. It’s all to play for. All that’s needed is vision and commitment.

atkins scott kelleyScott Kelley is Managing Director of Signalling and Global Rail Market Lead at Atkins, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group. A Chartered Mechanical Engineer with a Master’s degree in Construction Engineering from the University of Cambridge, Scott has extensive experience in overseeing major infrastructure programmes, including the West Coast Route Modernisation in the UK, Doha Metro Gold Line in Qatar and Jeddah Airport in Saudi Arabia. Prior to joining Atkins, Scott held senior roles within UK government rail and transport delivery departments.

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