How the rate of technological change is vigorously advancing customer experience on the railways. By Justin Southcombe

The rate of technological change is faster than ever and shows no sign of abating. If anything, the pace of transformation is accelerating. Just over a decade ago mobiles phones were just something with which to make a phone call. Texting was the singular innovation. The launch of the iPhone in January 2007 changed all that and now the device in everyone’s pocket is a miniature computer. And it’s not just phones. Everywhere you look technology is changing the environment and the way people interact with it. The rail industry has, historically, lagged behind others in embracing new technology, at least as far as passengers might have been aware. Outwardly at least, the consumer experience today is very similar to that of a decade ago. But the latest innovations promise a quantum leap that will revolutionise rail travel making it not just safer and more reliable, but truly transforming customer culture.

The digital transformation has had a marked impact on the way Swedish operator SJ runs its fleet. Last year it introduced the Swish payment service, an app allowing customers to purchase tickets directly from their mobile phones, so speeding up payment and improving customer satisfaction. It is also a pioneer of the use of the biometric chip to for rail travel when last year it became the first travel company to allow passengers to travel using a chip implanted in their left hand. Around 3000 Swedish people now have the microchip inserted so they don’t need to carry keycards or ID – or indeed some train tickets. Once passengers have paid for their ticket, the tiny chip, which has the same technology as an Oyster card and contactless bank cards, can be quickly scanned to speed up service.

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), better known as drones, is also improving the rail customers’ experience. These are a cost-effective method for surveying the railway and are particularly good for close-up examination of difficult to access structures such as bridges, the roofs of buildings, and overhead wires. The use of a drone avoids the need to shut track in order to send engineers onto lines and thus enables rolling stock to keep running. When Network Rail wanted to survey a cliff face at Teignmouth where the railway runs directly beneath, they used drones to do so. The detailed information from the drones allowed Network Rail to create a 3D model that enabled them to add options for different interventions. This operation was both much safer and less intrusive to the local community than traditional methods which might have entailed aerial examination by helicopter or engineers abseiling down the cliff face. It also allowed the track to remain open.

Robotics on the railways is also beginning to recast the travelling experience. It has been three years since Japan’s Keikyu Railway introduced a 1200 mm high humanoid robot attendant, Pepper, to greet passengers at Tokyo Haneda Airport Station. Now Eurostar has introduced the same robot to the Departure Lounge at London St Pancras. Designed to recognise principal human responses and adapt her behaviour accordingly, Pepper features an inbuilt tablet, where travellers can find an interactive station map, information about the on-board experience, as well as tips on their destinations. But such customer facing robots are only one aspect. As with the mining industry and other sectors where repairs and maintenance can be hazardous, industrial robots can do much of this work quicker and safer; a robot can venture onto track without the need to switch off the current. Robotics are also driving efficiencies in factory production and thus the delivery of new rolling stock in a timely manner. Mirroring the long-established use of robotics in automobile manufacture, robotics supplier ABB has been providing welding units and spray painting booths to help manufacturers to drive efficiencies in raw materials consumption, and deliver stock more swiftly to market.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), digitalisation, Big Data and the Internet of Things are further shaking up the rail sector. With sensors installed in almost everything, more data than ever before is available for analysis. Had this data been available in the past, operators would have struggled to make sense of it. But now, through advances in processing power and AI analytics, it can be harvested and analysed effectively. AI can run complex algorithms to make accurate predictions and the promise for passengers is a marked change in efficiency and service. Even the most basic aspects of rail travel will be transformed by such innovation. Sensors recording footfall and capacity will be able to advise passengers in real time which carriage is emptiest and where a seat might be found; smart refrigerators and snack trolleys will not only know when perishables are in short supply, but order replenishments. Safety will also be much enhanced. Sensors could monitor a driver’s fatigue, and driverless trains are indeed a distinct possibility. Similarly, maintenance will be streamlined. The days of rolling stock needing to be taken to a yard for inspection, and thus out of circulation, with all the attendant knock-on effects to the rail operator’s service that might entail, will be few and far between. Instead, most maintenance analytics will be conducted onsite while the train is in service.

A good example can be seen in Perpetuum’s Remote Conditioning Monitoring (RCM). Perpetuum, which recently won the coveted European Railway Clusters Initiative (ERCI) Innovation Award for best SME, combines self-powered, wireless sensing technology, with vibration engineering expertise and rich in-depth analytics, to provide real time information on the condition of rolling stock, including its bogies and wheels, and the track it travels over. Perpetuum’s ‘in-flight’ maintenance solution analyses rolling stock in real time while in use, and alerts operators to any wear and tear that might need addressing before they become an issue. At 2018’s Innotrans, the company signed letters of intent with a number of other corporations including Knorr-Bremse RailServices, the global leader in rail braking systems.

Perpetuum has also partnered with German engineering conglomerate Schaeffler, which manufactures rolling element bearings, with the aim of offering a mileage/kilometre – based payment system for axle box bearings.

At the beginning of 2019, the company also announced it has won its first contract in the Middle East with The Saudi Railway Company (SAR). The two-year contract for track condition information services covers 1250km from Riyadh to Qurrayat. Conditions in Saudi Arabia are some of the most extreme in world railways, operating in a predominantly desert environment and excessive temperatures that can often reach over 55 degree Celsius.

Perpetuum is an example of the innovation that is driving change throughout the rail industry. From UAVs and robotics, to digitalisation, IoT, Big Data and AI, the rail industry is rapidly being transformed. The passenger experience has remained the same for a very long time but it will soon look vastly different. It truly is an exciting time for the rail industry, its passengers and users, and the innovators who are identifying and seizing the opportunities cutting edge technology can provide.

Justin Southcombe is Commercial Director of Perpetuum, a global leader in the provision of information to maximise safety and reliability and reduce costs. Its award winning, self-powered, wireless sensing technology, combined with its vibration engineering expertise and rich analytics, provides real time information that enables the rail industry to optimise railway operations.