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How the UK Train Network is Going Digital

The United Kingdom’s transport infrastructure is never far from the headlines – whether its new runways, new trainlines, or smart motorways, Dennis Rocks, Traffic Management Offering Manager, DXC Technology.

Train Network is Going Digital
Dennis Rocks

Advances in digital technology offer many opportunities to rail operators, a recent blog from the World Bank lists, “…5G, big data, the Internet of Things, automation, artificial intelligence, and blockchain” as leading a “profound transformation” of global rail. When it comes to the UK’s railway network, though often maligned, we are seeing rail systems finally undergo the digital transformation process that many in the sector have been talking about for several years.

Cleaner and greener

The Thameslink line, for instance, now runs 24 trains an hour – that’s an increase of 50 percent in its capacity on previous years – and it takes a lot of work at the back-end to make this progress possible. Increasingly, rail carriers are consolidating control centres and building computerised, modern facilities with data analytics at their foundation. This allows rail companies to gather intelligence and apply insights about on-time performance, delays, and overall ridership per time-of-day and season – improving planning and operations.

Digital Enterprise Asset Management (EAM) systems are another process improvement that rail carriers are deploying in a bit to reduce maintenance time and improve productivity – as well as reducing costs. EAM systems can identify precisely what asset or facility requires attention, and provide an immediate and accurate status of rail stock and parts to maintenance crews, as well as tracking progress centrally, giving those off-site an easy way to monitor repair status. EAM technology can also monitor an inventory of trains in rail yards more efficiently, ensuring more predictive maintenance as opposed to simply repairing trains when they break down.

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Electric trains have also been a big area of investment for rail companies – these sleek trains offer a cleaner option that companies seek and increasingly, rail service users demand. Electric trains run faster, with fewer carbon emissions, and are easier for drivers to manage. Developments in areas like regenerative braking technology are most welcome; regenerative braking captures the energy expended by trains as they slow and reuses it. This delivers passengers a smoother ride – through fewer stops and starts – but has the added benefit of improving energy efficiencies and further reducing pollution.

Passenger benefits deliver growth

Digital technologies also offer major benefits to the most important railway stakeholders – passengers. Mobile ticketing, the ability to book tickets or check schedules via Alexa and other digital assistants, and automatic refunds when trains are late or offline, have all made a notable difference to rail users. The cumulative results are impressive; data from the UK’s Office of Rail and Road shows rail passenger journeys in Great Britain in 2018-19 reached a “record high” of 1.759bn, increasing by three percent overall compared to the previous year. Increased train usage can be attributed to a number of factors, including changing consumer attitudes toward rail’s eco-friendly advantages, or time and cost savings compared to car travel, but it’s also clear that digital transformation is making traveling by train easy, cost-effective and gentle on the environment.

Focus shifts to cybersecurity

One significant impact from the ongoing digital transformation of the industry is the resulting shift to focus on cybersecurity. The move away from paper-based systems to digital infrastructure requires that rail carriers take a much more pointed look at their cybersecurity postures. Operators must put in place security awareness programs for the rank-and-file staff, while also communicating clearly with passengers on ways to protect their digital identities as they purchase train tickets online and increasingly grow to depend on mobile phones and devices to manage their busy travel schedules.

On the ‘back-end’ IT staff side, similarly, rail companies need to ensure robust defences are in place. For example, making sure that solid patch management programs in place so the back-end software runs securely, and threat actors have fewer opportunities to inject malware. Patch management can be thwarted by misinformed workers who will decline a security patch without realising its importance, so automation is key. Most security experts will say that with a solid patch management program and basic security awareness around email phishing, organisations can prevent the vast majority of cyberattacks

A new roaring twenties

Airlines and rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft may be leading the way when it comes to digital transformation of the transport sector, but rail carriers, though not moving as quickly as the aforementioned, have made some great progress in recent years. We’re entering a new era of investment in the UK when it comes to the rail network, and the continued focus on challenges to the environment will mean train travel remains front and centre.  Change comes slowly, but with developments the industry has made in back-end technology and analytics, mobile apps and electric trains, we’re about to turn the track into the digital future and a new roaring twenties of train travel.

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CBR Staff Writer

CBR Online legacy content.