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Shift2Rail partners with Digital Rail Revolution: A Q&A with S2R Executive Director, Carlo Borghini

Posted: 8 October 2019 | | No comments yet

Ahead of his participation at Global Railway Review’s Digital Rail Revolution conference being held in London on 7 November 2019, Carlo Borghini shares his opinions on automation in mainline rail networks, the opportunities of artificial intelligence, and how digitalisation in general is providing a step change in the way rail activities are performed.

Do you think there are still areas of the rail industry that lack a deep understanding of how digitalisation can benefit the railways?

The railway is no different to any other sector, or mode of transport, when it comes to digitalisation. On the contrary, the railway plays a vital role in creating a smart and connected multimodal transport system in which rail can be considered as the backbone. Digitalisation is about coding in computer language current practices and approaches; it can be considered as an add-on/support to people and companies to perform operations in different ways. But it is more than this. It opens up the possibility of advanced analysis and integration for increased system and subsystem efficiency. It is becoming clearer that for the railway, as for any other sector, digitalisation is providing a step change in the way activities are performed and a catalyst for a re-think to optimise the benefit for the overall community.

The Shift2Rail (S2R) initiative places research as a core element – how are research centres and universities helping S2R meet its goals?

In sectors such as rail, where safety is paramount, research centres and universities are essential in identifying challenging perspectives and transferring ideas from other sectors to explore new ways to perform activities. S2R is a platform – a ‘digital’ space with concrete funding where we can explore and push boundaries beyond the short-term. The overall objective is to identify long-term answers to address short-term issues. Research centres help industries test and validate new technologies and processes; universities provide capabilities in terms of fundamental research and wider knowledge that can be applied towards higher TRL research through a successful partnership approach.

S2R wants to see the automation of mainline rail networks – what are the main barriers to making this a reality and can they be conquered?

The S2R stakeholders’ willingness to deliver sustainable digital/automated service-oriented rail systems to European citizens is a unique strength which translates in the work of researchers, engineers and staff with different roles and expertise who work towards overcoming specific barriers.

Today, rail systems are safe, effective and serve billions of travellers around the world. Nevertheless, in many cases, capacity boundaries have been reached and there is a need to rethink the way systems are operated to maximise the existing infrastructure. Automation requires a joint effort that has an impact on existing business models, meaning disruptive innovation. Providing automation tools is nothing new, provided that processes are already digitalised. It is already a reality in many rail systems, although it is different when applied at a system level, managing a diverse fleet of trains in open and heterogeneous network conditions. Automation in mainline rail networks requires an integration of systems operated by different actors so that they are synchronised for the overall benefit of the system itself and finally the user, passenger or freight business. There are some barriers in terms of operational rules, technology compatibilities, integration with traffic management systems, updated safe and stable communication networks, cyber-security considerations, etc. Nevertheless, the S2R stakeholders’ willingness to deliver sustainable digital/automated service-oriented rail systems to European citizens is a unique strength which translates in the work of researchers, engineers and staff with different roles and expertise who work towards overcoming specific barriers. From a technological point of view, there are already examples of systems where such integration has been achieved, and the railway is on the way to building it.

To what extent do you think digitalisation will realistically tackle rail network capacity and service reliability problems?

If we embrace digitalisation in Europe in a harmonised way with a clear opportunity, there is no doubt that we can realistically tackle the industry shortcomings; not only for today, but for tomorrow, and for our planet.

As previously mentioned, we should address short-term issues with a long-term, sustainable vision. If we concentrate only on the short-term, we will have solutions that do not bring systemic benefits. And if we concentrate on a long-term vision, nothing will happen for years. So, we need to combine them together. Consequently, ‘digitalisation’ and ‘automation’ are not the way to deploy digital tools taken from the automotive industry to rail. We may achieve some progress this way, but at the same time we will have failed. It is the sector move within S2R to look at how the rail system needs to be operated in the future so that it delivers the combined network capacity, cost efficiency and reliability that is needed. We need to take stock of the progress in all the other sectors and understand how to embed it, if bringing benefits, in rail operations. Resources should be focused on working together for the benefit of the users, passengers and people, considering that every year in the European Union alone, approximately €40 billion of public money is invested into running rail services. Do we really need 28 separately managed networks in Europe? Are physical rules across the borders of a geographically similar region so different that we need different engineering rules? If we embrace digitalisation in Europe in a harmonised way with a clear opportunity, there is no doubt that we can realistically tackle the industry shortcomings; not only for today, but for tomorrow, and for our planet. 

Is artificial intelligence all hype, or should the rail industry be proactively embracing this strand of digitalisation – what are the benefits of AI?

AI seems to offer opportunities to elaborate big sets of data, and learning (optimising) while doing it. It is not for the rail industry to work on the undergoing AI algorithms as such, but it rail should start looking at where to integrate them. With the huge amount of data at their disposal and the support of AI, complex problems that limit the capacity of railways to provide better services for its users at a faster pace could be addressed.

To what extent do you think there is a skills shortage for technical roles within the rail sector, and how can the sector attract a more forward-thinking, diverse and modern workforce?

A large part of the rail sector will be affected by a workforce reaching retirement age within the next decade.

A large part of the rail sector will be affected by a workforce reaching retirement age within the next decade. The gap created by this skilled workforce will be huge but, at the same time, there is a huge opportunity to take stock of the existing know-how and ensure a transition process introducing digitalisation. Attracting digital engineers and bringing them together with the railway’s skilled workforce will allow managing a major risk. But this change will not happen without opening up the key questions on how the rail systems are operated, without going back to the competitive advantage of rail, in terms of safety, climate change, space occupation, energy efficiency, etc. To attract a new generation of engineers, we need to give them an opportunity to look into rail and give their opinions, with the courage to accept that any changes proposed will be at the very core of the way in which rail currently works. I believe U-space in aviation would not exist without such an approach!

What do you think will be the next biggest digital trend to disrupt the rail industry over the next decade?

I think the industry will move away from research and innovation and focus on deploying deep digitalisation and automation on railway networks.

I think the industry will move away from research and innovation and focus on deploying deep digitalisation and automation on railway networks. This will not be painless and it will carry a cost. Repeatedly I have heard about cost reductions, but without being explained for what purpose. Are budget cuts needed, or it is time to re-think where we invest our resources? Say various countries were to run projects bigger than the overall funding allocated to Shift2Rail, spreading across more than 100 projects to address local issues, ultimately you still would not have addressed the system. Possibly several stations would have a better service, but the network will continue to be of the same quality and limitations we see today.

Today, rail is an incredibly effective, environmentally friendly and service-oriented system, but it is reaching its limits, or in some cases, is already beyond its limits. Optimisation and re-engineering bring solutions that will require harmonised deployment of digitalisation and automation in Europe. To harvest the highest benefits of digitalisation, rail operation ‘re-thinking’ and ‘re-designing’ might be the next frontier leveraging the existing rail infrastructure.

Carlo Borghini is responsible for the overall management of the Shift2Rail Joint Undertaking activities since he took up the position as Executive Director in February 2016. Prior to this posting, Carlo held senior management positions in different domains in private and international organisations, at corporate level. He was the Deputy Executive Director for the SESAR Joint Undertaking (SJU) in Brussels from 2008 to 2014, and prior to this was Director and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), a specialised Agency of the United Nations based in Rome. Carlo holds a Master’s degree equivalent in Business Economics and speaks Italian, French and English.

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