‘No longer science fiction’: Digitalisation heralds new era for railways
Rail operators are backing a shift to digital technology to remove barriers to cross-border journeys, a move in line with EU goals to double the share of rail freight and high-speed rail traffic by 2030.
Considered one of the EU’s more traditional industries, rail companies were seen as reluctant to uptake digital solutions compared to their aviation counterparts.
But recent years have seen a shift in mindset. Policymakers and industry professionals alike have put forward digitalisation – the use of data points and artificial intelligence to solve problems in real time – as a key pillar of making the rail sector more competitive and reliable.
Technical checks, such as the need to manually adapt brakes to differing national rules, currently pose time-consuming barriers to cross-border journeys.
However, digital technology is seen as a way to harmonise such checks, ensuring they are completed with minimal delays.
Under the declaration, train companies agree to use new technology to “overcome national operational specifications” and to support the “Europe-wide rollout of harmonised technical solutions”.
This includes supporting the removal of national rules that hinder interoperability.
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Building better infrastructure
A recent EY report commissioned by major rail industry bodies found that tripling high-speed rail across the bloc would drastically cut transport emissions while bolstering European economies.
Under the proposal, every major city in continental Europe would be linked with a high-speed connection, slashing rail journey times and providing an attractive, and greener, alternative to flying.
To meet this ambition, EY estimates some €550 billion in infrastructure investment would be required.
According to Steve Cockerell, industry marketing director for rail with US-based infrastructure company Bentley Systems, a “digital twinning” approach to high-speed train infrastructure can cut costs before construction begins.
Digital twinning sees the creation of a virtual model that mirrors real-world conditions. This model is fed with large quantities of data, allowing it to accurately reflect environmental characteristics.
“Digital twins in rail are no longer the stuff of science fiction,” Cockerell told EURACTIV.
By connecting the physical and virtual worlds, they give decision makers improved insights into potential challenges, Cockerell explained.
To create these sophisticated models, data is gathered in a variety of ways, such as sensors placed along rail tracks and on rolling stock, and through the use of laser-scanning drones.
Once sufficient data is collected, engineers can test new infrastructure options within the digital twin, observing potential consequences.
This allows companies to better understand problems before bringing in construction crews, avoiding cost overruns and delays.
Digital technology can “cut hundreds of manual planning hours”, according to Cockerell.
While questions of price abound, Cockerell says that the long-term savings offered by the technology offset the upfront price.
“The cost, or more particularly, who will pay for the creation and ongoing maintenance of digital twins is a question we are often asked, but in comparison to the benefits they provide, I think it will soon be seen as insignificant,” he said.
The technology can flag potential maintenance requirements before they develop into serious issues, said Cockerel.
“In an industry where safety is paramount, I feel that investment in, and use of, digital twin technology will soon be demanded by governments and simply become business as usual.”
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Last week, Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean announced that the EU will throw its support behind 10 rail pilot projects, expanding cross-border train options across the continent.
One-stop rail app
In addition to improving infrastructure, digitalisation is seen as a way to encourage passengers to choose trains for longer journeys – a key part of Brussels’ plans to reduce transport emissions.
The EU’s Multimodal Digital Mobility Services (MDMS) regulation proposal, born out of frustration with the slow progress of the rail industry to offer simple cross-border ticketing, is designed to make it easier to book a journey across Europe using varying transport modes.
It is expected that the EU regulation will lead to the creation of an app that gives a digital overview of travel options. In addition to the departure times and cost of each journey, passengers will be presented with the carbon footprint of each mode.
While similar apps exist, they are generally limited to individual travel sectors. Within aviation, apps such as Skyscanner show competing flights on the same route, even combining offerings from competing carriers as part of a return journey.
While the train sector is not devoid of such apps, they are considered more limited than their aviation counterparts.
The European Commission’s announcement has sparked the interest of platform operators, with private sector interests vying to create the go-to EU travel app.
To make such an app work, operators must provide third-parties with masses of data, including their flight schedules, pricing, and seat allocation.
However, rail operators have generally been disinclined to give this data, leading to friction between rail operators and travel tech companies over the provision of journey data.
The European Commission is planning to table the ticket purchasing proposal within the first quarter of 2023.