The rail industry is taking strides in preparing for the digital world. VISHWANATH MACHIRAJU discusses the latest developments and talking points to emerge from InnoTrans 2016

InnoTrans is the world’s largest dedicated rail exhibition, and this year’s event truly was a global spectacle. It witnessed almost 3,000 exhibitors from 60 countries showcasing their offerings, an impressive seven per cent increase year-on-year. Moreover, it played host to more than 140,000 visitors from 140 countries over its five days. In other words, it really was bigger, better and more global in its scope than ever before.

The success of InnoTrans represents an important fillip for the rail industry, as it provides a global platform to exhibit some of the most pioneering and cutting-edge innovations, creating a forum where the most promising concepts are assessed and transformed into reality to benefit the passengers. This year, a huge number of companies made their debuts at the show – many from adjacent and emerging trends and technologies around digital convergence. Moreover, the quality of the exhibits was more visionary than they had been at previous events, with a number of world firsts showcased.

Digitalisation at the top of the agenda Conversations were dominated by one specific theme for the immediate future: digitalisation. As the industry becomes increasingly globalised (and by extension, standardised), the appetite for efficiency and scalability within networks was clearly evident, with many operators and equipment companies seeking to address the challenge of becoming more digital-ready. This digitalising influence spanned all segments, including rolling stock, operations, maintenance and signalling, and is relevant to all markets where infrastructures are being set up or renewed with digital at the core of their operations. Creating a more consolidated, universal view of systems was therefore seen as critical to achieving widespread digitalisation across borders.

Digitalisation within rolling stock was discussed both from an operational and passenger-centric perspective. The major OEMs were all keen to emphasise scalability and modularity of operations, by advocating the need to create customisable, reusable platforms that can be adapted to multiple different locations. Much of this narrative fitted into a wider discussion about operational efficiency and conversations around how to make trains lighter, usually through the use of carbon fibres and software systems to help reduce costs. Passengers also featured prominently in this discussion, with many OEMs stressing that improved passenger experience remained at the core of their design innovation, even in their pursuit of increased efficiency. Personalisation and mobility, as ever, were their key messages in this regard.

The digitalisation narrative also extended to maintenance and operations, a services-driven segment that forms a substantial part of the industry. Largely this was through the concept of predictive maintenance, with many discussing how they could overlay their existing condition-based monitoring systems with predictive maintenance – powered by the Internet of Things – to make operations more slick through automation. Networks struggling to meet capacity were often the focus of this discussion, with predictive maintenance positioned as a powerful tool in reducing delays, and by extension improving passenger experience.

Signalling – the core block for automation
One of the most common topics discussed at InnoTrans this year however, was how to make core signalling more digital-ready via increased automation of signalling applications, equipment and components. In other words, enabling automated stop and go signals, and the acceleration and braking of trains in accordance with these signals. Such a development would be hugely beneficial to operators, as trains would be able to communicate with one another more effectively, scheduling would become far more accurate, and the scope for human error would be markedly reduced, helping to improve safety across entire rail networks.

The key to making these efforts successful is ensuring that digitalisation is consistent across the three critical layers of signalling – rolling stock, passengercentric and safety-critical systems. In order to do this, communication infrastructure across the industry needs to be revolutionised. At the show, significant emphasis was placed on the need to scale current 2G-based communication networks to either GSM-R, TETRA or LTE/Wi-Fi based frameworks to secure more, robust and reliable bandwidth that can accommodate the dynamics of digital revolution. This future standard of communication protocol needs to be implemented as soon as possible to ensure the fast track the revolution. Whether GSM-R, TETRA, LTE or W-LAN based, the world needs a de facto standard on which communication services providers or equipment manufacturers can base their products to help achieve desired outcomes of such a revolution.

Inhibiting factors to signalling advances
While the case for the digitalisation of signalling is compelling, a number of inhibiting factors are currently holding it back. In some countries, budget remains one of the biggest barriers to widespread digital adoption, particularly in those where rail networks are publicly owned. Many struggle because their funding is heavily scrutinised, and any investment must be proven to enable operators to do more with less in order to be considered worthwhile. This sense of frugality amongst customers is increasingly prevalent in an uncertain economic climate, and many operators therefore face problems in pushing the envelope when it comes to innovation.

Nonetheless, the appetite for innovation is still widely apparent, and there is currently significant demand for infrastructure upgrades, especially in Europe, US, and the Asia-Pacific region. For instance, many exhibitors were also keen to explore the possibility of moving their signalling platforms into the cloud to help centralise processes across large geographical areas, but at the moment this move is still very much in its infancy. This could be due in part to the lack of individuals with the skills required to affect the type of transformation they envisage. Many operators and equipment companies are also demonstrating an undue sense of urgency in trying to implement these upgrades, and fail to consider the amount and quality of skilled resource and supply required to make them a reality.

An integrated approach
Ultimately, organisations that take an integrated approach to rail engineering are going to profit in the future by placing digital at the heart of their innovation sooner rather than later. Many are now beginning to consider partners who can help them to implement a digital revolution within their operations, by working to ensure that the three core processes in rail – design, build and maintain – are all approached with a digital-first mindset. Whether it be signalling, rolling stock or asset management, the rail networks globally can deliver superior passenger experience by adopting a digital mindset to help create a new standard worldwide.

Vishwanath Machiraju is account director and strategy lead – transportation business at Cyient