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Digital railways: Interoperable exchange of information in the railway system

Posted: 10 November 2021 | | No comments yet

Maria Price, Dphil, Expert in the Technical Interoperability Department of the Intergovernmental Organisation for International Carriage by Rail (OTIF), writes about the unique information exchange in rail transport and logistics and the intracacies of balancing data management along the supply chain.

Digital railways: Interoperable exchange of information in the railway system

On 4 October 2021, the world went frantic when Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram went down. I was one of the two billion users wondering what was going on, can I send or receive instant information, and will my other apps on my smart phone be affected as well? Should I uninstall them to avoid any possible domino effects and loss of data. I was even wondering if I should disconnect completely. I am sure I was not the only one having such thoughts. Moments such as these make us realise how dependent we have become upon having access to instant information.

Sharing of information has become a daily necessity in our personal lives and in our daily work. We sit around the table and behind virtual screens promoting buzz words such as ‘data sharing’, ‘exchange of information’, ‘access to data’, ‘connectivity between registers’, ‘cyber-security’, ‘data on the move’, and ‘open data for passenger and freight customers’. Digitalisation, seen as the means to sharing real-time data, is increasing its relevance in the railway sector and for the national and international authorities who have launched the race towards implementing innovative information and communication technologies and who are transitioning to electronic transport documents (including e-ticketing) in order to achieve objectives for smart mobility, smart transport systems, and optimisation of route planning and traffic flows.

A stable legal framework enables interoperable exchange of information in the railway system and across borders

The potential for digital railway and multimodal freight and passenger transport corridors can only be achieved with the sharing of the same goals and having a common understanding of the legal and technical ecosystems…

The current legal framework under the Convention concerning international carriage by rail (COTIF) enables these new opportunities. The potential for digital railway and multimodal freight and passenger transport corridors can only be achieved with the sharing of the same goals and having a common understanding of the legal and technical ecosystems, allowing compatibly and interoperability of data and data exchange along the supply chain and across borders.

Information exchange in rail transport and logistics is unique in that data can be collected, accessed and processed, while a vehicle and a full train for that matter, is transporting passengers and goods from one place to another. The spectrum of data stretches from monitoring and alert systems on performance of the vehicle, to receiving updated information on the estimated time of arrival of the cargo to the terminal, or on the next connecting train on the passenger’s travel app. Seamless rail traffic flow is enabled by efficient information flow that should correspond to the use of standardised contracts and the application of defined uniform rules, requirements, and harmonised procedures.

COTIF offers different contractual, regulatory and technical interoperability provisions for the transport of passengers and freight (including dangerous goods) across borders. The impact of these provisions and their integration in the digital transport ecosystem can only be understood when they are implemented along the whole transport chain. To follow are some examples of what these provisions offer:

  • The ATMF Uniform Rules set out the obligation of the ATMF Contracting States (CSs) to establish and implement railway vehicle registers, and extend to the possibility of setting up regional vehicle registers, such as the single European Vehicle Register (EVR) in the European Union (EU), as long as the information in such registers is accessible to other CSs
  • The Uniform Technical Prescriptions for Telematics Applications for Freight (UTP TAF), which is aligned with the EU TAF TSI, represents the minimum legal requirements for the exchange of information for international freight services. It also refers to a list of technical documents on standardised processes, message and data models, common interfaces and operational and reference databases. In the case of intermodal transport, information on intermodal units should also be provided. These technical documents are updated regularly at working group level at the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) to reflect developments and feedback from the railway sector on its experience
  • The UTP TAF also makes direct reference to the ‘Uniform Rules concerning the Contract of International Carriage of Goods by Rail (CIM UR/Appendix B to COTIF)’ on consignment note and the ‘Uniform Rules concerning Contracts of Use of Vehicles in International Rail Traffic (CUV UR/Appendix D to COTIF) and valid national rules’
  • In June 2021, the OTIF’s Committee of Technical Experts adopted UTP for Train Composition and Route Compatibility Checks (UTP TCRC), which defines the legal requirements and responsibilities for infrastructure managers and railway undertaking to exchange information
  • In the case of transport of dangerous goods, description of all required documentation is prescribed in the ‘Regulation concerning the International Carriage of Goods by Rail’ (RID/Appendix C to COTIF)
  • For the use of electronic documents for the transport of dangerous goods the RID/ADR/ADN Joint meeting, which is jointly organised twice a year by the Secretariats of OTIF and UNECE Transport Division, recently adopted common guidelines for rail, road and inland waterways.

The scope of COTIF provisions is limited to defining legal, technical and functional requirements for the exchange of information. However, it permits its Contracting States and the railway sector to develop and implement own technical solutions based on these requirements.

Successful implementation is a sign of a stable legal framework

OTIF is an intergovernmental organisation that has members in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In these different regions, the OTIF Secretariat has observed disparities in the level of development, and implementation, of digital solutions in railways.

OTIF is an intergovernmental organisation that has members in Europe, Asia, and Africa. In these different regions, the OTIF Secretariat has observed disparities in the level of development, and implementation, of digital solutions in railways.

The OTIF Secretariat is an observer in the Plenary and Subgroup 1 of the European Union’s Digital Transport and Logistics Forum (DTLF), which has the task to develop the functional and technical requirements for logistics data sources and platforms including the data model and the type of data that is used. A big challenge has been to understand the practices by the different actors along the supply chain in all modes of transport and at the same time to agree on the scope of data exchange, data management, data access rights, and development of specifications (without reinventing the wheel) to exchange of information electronically between businesses and authorities.

The OTIF Secretariat has also been part of an open dialogue during its participation in the ERA topical working group for Telematics Applications for Freight and Passenger Services and in the ERA topical working group on the Facilitation of Combined Transport. Railway actors, IT suppliers, booking companies, and intermodal terminal operators have joined forces to discuss the changing responsibilities and processes supported by innovative solutions that should provide better customer experience, increase the capacity of rail transport, and connect railway networks not only physically, but also virtually through digital platforms and electronic exchange of information across borders.

Another example is the establishment of vehicle registers, whose requirements have been recently revised in the Specifications for Vehicle Register 2021 within the framework of ATMF UR. The OTIF Secretariat has carried out several initiatives among OTIF Member States to understand the level of implementation, the problem areas, and to seek possibilities that facilitate the international search and retrieval of vehicle data from the vehicle registers. Some OTIF Member States already use well developed and sophisticated tools, while other states are still deciding on the appropriate approach, bearing in mind their limited funding and resources.

Don’t put the cart before the horse

It may sound impressive on how far the railway sector has come, but there is still work to be done when it comes to commitment, joint efforts, and mutual confidence in sharing of information.

It may sound impressive on how far the railway sector has come, but there is still work to be done when it comes to commitment, joint efforts, and mutual confidence in sharing of information. Data holds a high capital value, and for some actors it is still difficult to see the mutual benefit to open-source data. The railway sector can already be proud of its progress on smart tools, on-board and trackside sensors, AI solutions, and automated processes. The question remains whether such information is available, shared/interchangeable, accurate, secure, and compatible when it is shared between different digital platforms using a common interface. Common interfaces are particularly important for international transport to facilitate the safe and secure exchange of information between different digital sources regardless if they are centralised or de-centralised taking into account functions such as: message formatting (incl. use of different languages), access rights and verification of users, encryption and decryption of messages, and cyber-security.

For the railway system to function efficiently and effectively in any region of the world, railway actors…have to rely on accessible data sources to get the information they need.

Data sharing means also access to information. For the railway system to function efficiently and effectively in any region of the world, railway actors such as manufacturers, keepers, railway operators, infrastructure mangers, maintenance entities and relevant authorities have to rely on accessible data sources to get the information they need. Direct or indirect access to data enables businesses and authorities to make decisions and fulfil their responsibilities which would lead to better quality products, better services, and reliable travel information for their customers.

To guarantee its competitive edge to other modes of transport and to remain the sustainable mode of transport in the increasing Climate Change debate, the railway sector needs to be sure it does not put the cart before the horse. There is a risk that while the railways are digitalising, there is still an unclear answer as to how electronic and digital information can be interoperable along the supply chain and across borders.

OTIF recognises the increasing cooperation among the railway actors and national authorities towards finding sound solutions that can benefit the business-to-business, business-to-customer, and business-to-administration exchange of data.

A stable legal framework that promotes the provision of information requires political will to invest in solutions and resources, and a business case to implement such tools to their full potential to facilitate business processes and meet the demands and expectations of the customers.

OTIF recognises the increasing cooperation among the railway actors and national authorities towards finding sound solutions that can benefit the business-to-business, business-to-customer, and business-to-administration exchange of data. As an intergovernmental organisation working on continuously improving uniform railway law, OTIF can only benefit from this momentum and rely on the feedback and recommendations from the experience of its Member States and the sector in research and innovation, as well as from the implementation of digital solutions, processes and standards in data exchange and data sharing.

Maria PriceMaria Price has worked on rail related topics for over 15 years. She is currently an expert at OTIF, updating and revising the appendices to the Convention concerning International Carriage by Rail (COTIF) that deal with the technical provisions on harmonisation and technical interoperability. OTIF is an intergovernmental organisation with 51 member states from Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa. Maria works closely with the European Commission (EC) and the European Union Agency for Railways (ERA) with the view to establishing and maintaining equivalence between international and EU legal provisions. She also deals with cross-cutting activities between the Technical Interoperability, Law and RID departments on issues related to digitalisation and dangerous goods. Maria is educated in international law, diplomacy, international and public relations and holds a PhD in Transport from the University of Oxford and St Anne’s College.

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