A few disruptive thoughts about the evolution of the railway system

Tortoise or hare?
It is clear that the railway sector is evolving but is the pace fast enough?
Some would say it is too quick and that the sector is not able to cope. Others would say that the pace of change is not quick enough and that rail transport is losing market opportunities to the road and aviation sectors. Somewhere in here is the happy median that needs to be reached.
Far from being slow starters in the digital revolution that is embracing us all at the moment, the railway sector has been making regular progress in innovating the railway system. With developments that moved the system from mechanical to solid state signalling, remote monitoring of assets, automatic train protection, much lighter-weight and faster trains, interactive passenger information systems and so on, the railway of today is a lot different to what it was a decade ago.
Of course, there will be commentators that will suggest that even that is very slow progress when one looks at the pace of innovation in other sectors, so what is it that makes rail different?

How is rail different?
One has to start with the life cycle of the assets that rail manages and the cost versus benefit ratio that needs to be calculated in order that investment decisions can be justifiably taken. Rail has some very large fixed assets like the track, the track bed on which the tracks sit, the bridges, stations, tunnels, noise barriers etc, notwithstanding the movable assets such as the actual trains, the rolling stock. All of that needs to work together via a series of critical interfaces in order for the railway system to be safe and efficient.
Innovation in rail therefore needs to be about collaborative forward planning, identifying which assets need to be changed when and taking account of the technological evolution along the way.

A dose of realism
It has to be done in a cost-effective manner that takes account of the affordability factor for the stakeholders involved and it has to be realistic. It must be done within the capabilities of the suppliers to supply enough of the right equipment, the infrastructure managers to fit it to the railway, the railway undertakings to fit equipment to their rolling stock and for the personnel of both RUs and IMs to be properly trained, whilst at the same time trying to keep trains running, costs controlled and customers satisfied.

An opportunity to be seized
Digitalisation provides the sector with a series of opportunities that it needs to embrace with both hands.
With rail being a system that must remain whole and integral, the focus must be on collaboratively harnessing the transformative technologies that are being either developed within the rail sector or which can be adapted from other sectors.
There is a strong need to be focussing on those technologies that will drive down cost so that secondary lines can continue to serve the maximum population, that make taking the train more attractive to the customer and that make maintaining the system cost-effective.

The here and now but also over the horizon – carpe diem
Shift2Rail is an excellent vehicle for tackling some of these topics but it will only ever be able to scratch the surface of what is really needed to be done. The UIC has created the Digital Platform that is setting out the embrace good practice within the sector and share that with other stakeholders. It is also encouraging start-ups and SMEs to engage with rail and help the sector to benefit from new thinking in this digital revolution.
A team of companies from the railway operating community (ROC) is developing, and will very soon publish, a series of capabilities that the operators with the sector to be developing.
The time is now to take the initiative, use the catalyst being generated by Shift2Rail and develop a programme of innovation that is encouraging the best ideas to come forward and which will create a rail revolution. Only then will there be a real shift to rail as the preferred mode of land transportation. Only then will we see a significant reduction in congestion of our towns and cities as the train really starts to take the mobility strain in Europe.

Contribution by:  

Simon Fletcher

Coordinator European Region, UIC (the International Union of Railways)

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