Automation and efficiency can be game changers, propelling a mode of transport born almost 200 hundred years ago into an efficient, twenty-first century one that has never been in more demand, writes Rahul Prabhakar, head of transportation practice, global services at Nokia.

With the increasing demand for passenger and freight capacity, the rail industry has two major focuses for the coming years – to improve safety and efficiency.

Neither of these goals is easy to achieve due to operational expense considerations, as well as an increasing skills gap and expensive workforce on contract. The rail industry has to compete with airlines and road transport by providing the best customer experience – the constraints of a massive asset base, legacy operations procedures, and multiple uncontrolled variables make any improvements challenging.

Reading the newspapers, it’s clear that delays are one of the biggest issues that affect people’s opinion of railways. One of the greatest factors is the sheer number of assets involved, all of which need maintaining. If an asset fails, the consequences aren’t just felt by customers – but any down time directly translates into lost revenue affecting safety and efficiency.

In the UK, the number of trains using the rail network over the past 10 years has doubled (according to Network Rail) and 35% of delays are caused by failure of either train or track components. The question is why inspection is still manual and time-based? With the Internet of Things, this can change – inspection can be condition-based, and maintenance costs decreased by over 30%. With inspection of rail conditions currently consuming 1.3 million person hours per year, according to Network Rail Telecom, automation and extreme efficiency are the smartest investments rail companies can make.

Greater connectivity opens up great opportunities

Continuously monitoring trains and trackside infrastructure quickly highlights any patterns and allows for predictive maintenance and improved operational efficiency. Greater connectivity can also play an important part allowing systems to be linked for faster repair and intelligence sharing. When implemented across track, trains, and stations, the benefits are significant.

Smart connected sensors allow for real-time monitoring of everything from rail deflection to actuators and even door mechanisms, and can be used to forecast deterioration and suggest preventative maintenance measures. This in turn reduces the workforce intensity of maintenance and decreases delays to service.

Imagine if workshop technicians had the power to know which trains need maintenance that same evening to guarantee service tomorrow. With data shared from locomotives and rolling stock, this is easily achieved, while potential service disruptions can be detected through continuous track, overhead power line and level-crossing monitoring.

This isn’t about preparing for the far, or even near future. Rolling stock manufacturers are already building innovative smart systems in the next generation of trains and railway companies need to consider how these can and should interact with smart systems on platforms to improve safety and customer experience across the board.

Automation and analytics drive extreme efficiency

Of course, connectivity is only half of the equation, with automation being the other critical component. What automation enables – from switching on lights as a train enters the station to warning someone when they get too close to the tracks, or informing personnel to empty rubbish bins – may sound obvious and straightforward, but it relies on a range of systems that need to work together without human intervention.

Video analytics in particular open a wealth of opportunities as they can provide automated monitoring of crowded platforms or trains to detect any issues as they arise. Such a system can monitor thousands of camera feeds and alert control room staff of potential problems so action can be taken.

Rahul Prabhakar

And let’s not forget about the passenger experience – analytics can similarly be used to greatly improve it. Based on ticket sales, CCTV information, live train times and car parking capacity, passengers can be advised on the best times to travel to enable them to better plan their journeys.

Working together and avoiding silos

Connecting and automating railways is a multi-dimensional view that needs thinking about in a holistic manner. There are multiple stakeholders in rail networks so the systems and services they adopt need to interact and work together if efficiency, safety and customer experience goals are to be met.

And in any case, silos need to be avoided – vertical solutions are difficult to scale, challenging to manage cost effectively and hard to secure. Securing the connections between applications and connected devices is critical to prevent attacks and preserve passenger safety. A centrally managed horizontal IoT platform will always have the latest security patches and firmware updates, eliminating the risk of some systems not being updated regularly.

Any solution implemented on a station, track or rolling stock should be easily built upon to address the needs of the other two. The answer to this is to create scalable, modular solutions that allow use cases to be quickly added as the need arises and new sensors and technologies are deployed – ultimately keeping the entire rail network on track.

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The author of this blog is Rahul Prabhakar, head of transportation practice, global services at Nokia

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