A digitalised and integrated rail system with connected trains is the future, but collaboration and coordination are required to make it a reality. REUTERS PIC

“DIGITAL railways” — it doesn’t have quite the romantic ring of the great train services of the past — the Orient Express, the Canadian Pacific or the Trans-Siberian.

But, digital is the next big wave in the railway sector, and train users can look forward to higher service standards, more timely information and even better ticket pricing.

Digital signalling and digital technologies, in general, will have a huge influence on the evolution of rail services.

They are just the latest developments in an industry that has a great track record (pun intended) of technological innovation.

From steam to diesel to electric power, the railroad’s evolving technologies have unleashed economic potential and social mobility wherever the rails were laid.

Today, we are entering an age where digitalisation allows operators to have real-time information on train movements and analyse overall performance — ultimately reducing costs by streamlining processes and improving efficiency and reliability.

Railways have been part of the urban landscape for so long that networks in many countries have become extremely dense, especially on commuter lines in major cities, making it difficult and costly to implement major upgrading projects.

Instead, the kind of improvements in efficiency that digital technology excels at can have massive operational impacts.

In fact, digital technologies hold out the promise of true transport integration, linking main-line rail services with other urban transportation modes, enhancing efficiency and passenger convenience.

The introduction of information and communications technology, intelligent transport systems and open-data or open-source transport applications are transforming urban transportation, optimising the efficiency of existing and new urban transport systems, at a cost much lower than building new infrastructure from ground up.

New transport data collection technologies are also being deployed to provide information about delays, downtime and predictive maintenance which could lead to huge improvements in service standards, safety, and unlocking the potential of railways.

Passengers will also be able to make real-time decisions about their journeys based on the features that matter most to them such as reliability, safety, travel time and cost.

Rail industry leaders agree that digital is the next big wave of development in this industry.

According to an article in International Railway Journal, the same economic and technological forces that made smartphones so affordable have turned locomotives into sophisticated communication devices. This feeds into the concept of “self-aware” trains.

The notion of the self-aware train connects the locomotive, the train, the freight yard, and the infrastructure, allowing monitoring of the entire integrated rail ecosystem.

Other positive aspects of railway digitalisation highlighted in a European Railway Review interview include the opportunities digital technology offers for cleaner air as well as the tangible benefits to travellers of increased flexibility and convenience.

Enhanced safety, predictive maintenance and automated driverless operation are all part of rail’s future.

From the passenger’s perspective, access through online apps to real-time information on travel times, potential service interruptions, ticket prices, seating arrangements and even on the least crowded places to wait on a station platform, will enhance convenience and reduce the stress of travel.

What’s more, railways today offer a connected service all along the passenger journey with on-board WiFi for Internet and entertainment options.

Passengers are able to experience these services using their own mobile devices — laptops, tablets and smartphones.

This approach to train connectivity can unquestionably deliver a significantly improved passenger experience.

The path to digitalisation will not, of course, be entirely smooth.

The “Connected Trains” survey by management and technology consultants BearingPoint found that a digitalised and integrated rail system with connected trains is the future, but it will require collaboration and coordination to get there.

Despite the challenges, the railway sector’s move to digitalisation is clearly unstoppable.

Digital technology in the railway sector will see a shift from the traditional emphasis on heavy engineering to software and data-handling skills.

In the future, once the hardware is installed, upgrading a signalling system will no longer require hundreds of workers on the tracks.

It might be more like upgrading the software on your phone.

With new ways of working and new technologies deployed on the rolling stock, signalling and track, industry collaboration and effective business change will be more important than ever.

Rail operators should take this digitalisation opportunity to integrate different mobility options into their existing offering and consequently focus on value creation through innovation.

Without a doubt, it is the quiet efficiency of digital technology that will take rail systems and their passengers into a new age of rail travel that is safer, more convenient and comfortable, more economical, and more climate-friendly.

Jean-Francois Beaudoin

Senior vice-president,

Alstom Digital Mobility