Engineering A Successful Digital Future For The Rail Sector

Keeping the industry on track for growth and innovation


Rail is one of the few sectors currently enjoying sustainable growth. Experts predict that it will see 2.6% growth year on year until at least 2020, with the market expected to be worth €180bn by this point.

Distributed equally across rolling stock, signalling control, infrastructure, and services segments, the growing traction across Europe and particularly the Asia Pacific region is being driven by increasing demand for passenger rail services and the need to revitalise the freight sector. The campaign to offer a more user-centric experience, coupled with the need to reduce the carbon footprint and improve operational efficiencies, is encouraging the industry to adopt new technologies and processes. The outcome of which would be to optimize design, manufacturing and more importantly, rail operations.

However, the chronic skills shortage is hindering rail’s ability to capitalise on these technologies. The lack of skills is a universally recognised issue. The next five to 10 years will therefore be critical in delivering a flow of talent to manage railway innovation and capability as the market continues to grow.

A digital future for rail

On a global scale, the increased investment in infrastructure that is being made by governments is driving much of the innovation in the industry. Given rail’s reputation as an energy efficient and time-saving form of transportation, not to mention costing upwards of 65% less than shipping goods by air, it’s no surprise that so many are choosing to plough resource into making improvements to their networks.

Indeed, the demand for more services is on the rise, particularly where overcrowding is an issue in cities like Tokyo, Beijing, Mumbai, and London. The electrification of railways allows for faster, greener, and more reliable services, which paves the way for new trains to be added to lines at a low cost and minimal disruption to services. The fuel costs of a diesel train are 47p per mile, compared to almost half the amount (26p) for electric trains. If we couple this with usage of concepts such as smart propulsion and regenerative braking, among others, the gains will be further compounded. The lowered footprint and savings in energy costs means that there are few reasons not to roll out further electrification of lines across a country’s railway services. In addition, a unified approach to electrification and signalling can reduce complications of train travel between different countries.

The speed to market for new rail routes is still substantially different in certain regions, however. For example, in the UK, development of the HS2 phase 2 is expected to take around 20 years to complete. In contrast, the new Silk Road in China is seeing a speed to market that is five times faster than that of the HS2. Speed of development relies heavily on the investment being made, as well as the technology and talent pool being made available to manage the projects.

As the sector looks to improve the experience and reliability of services, we must go further than electrification and digitalization of the industry. The first wave of widespread digital investment was seen in 3D design and manufacturing to produce components and products such as grab rails and door control systems, followed by drones to maintain railway tracks and mandated vehicles. Now we are testing and trying technologies such as driverless trains, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality/augmented reality (VR/AR) and machine learning. For example, VR engineering has already been used in the field of product design by engineers at Balfour Beatty Rail for planning and prototyping. And the technology behind autonomous vehicles – IoT and machine learning – are said to be making their way into rail, bringing the possibility of connected mobility to life.

Addressing the skills shortage to avoid de-railing progress

Despite this wave of new technologies, the rail industry cannot take full advantage of them because it’s facing a significant skills shortage. This challenge beckons a more liberalized and globalized supply-chain approach by respective governments or infrastructure managers, to enable relevant skills, technologies, and materials. Crucially, there is a need to build up talent availability in niche skill sets for the development or renewal of rail infrastructure projects.

This need could be met through initiatives such as tailored training programmes and increased activity amongst consortia and academia to bring more graduates and new talent into the industry. For example, this is already happening in Morocco where a joint venture between Moroccan National Railways (ONCF) and French National Railways (SNCF) has seen dedicated training provided to employees to build and operate a modern railway; a high-speed line between Casablanca and Tangiers, opening in 2018. With thousands of training days already completed, it demonstrates the importance of tailored programmes in a constantly modernising sector. It also reduces risk when executing projects because project workers are fully trained on what they need to do and how to manage the technology.

While we see this approach happening in isolated pockets within the ecosystem, when layered with the huge demand across the globe, it is evident there is still a long way to go. Picking up the pace, along with liberalizing supply chain, is essential. This has been demonstrated in the past by industry sectors such as automotive, aerospace and medical technology. In Germany, apprenticeship programmes offered by the likes of automotive company, Daimler AG, have helped the country’s car industry bring young people into the trade more effectively. There is scope for the railway industry to adopt best practices in the supply chain from the success that these industries have enjoyed.

A sector on track for new developments

The global rail industry is aiming for rapid transformation and the speed at which it can make change is heavily dependent on both the technology to deliver the experience and the skills to manage and capitalise on it. Its success to date has been a result of the industry’s capability to adopt and enjoy the benefits of new innovations. The investment in graduate programmes and sponsoring school initiatives to attract new talent is essential to build a sustainable talent pool. However, the scale and speed of the projects across the globe will also warrant a seamless resource and knowledge-sharing across skill bases of the world.

Technology is having a profound impact on driving service efficiency, user experience, and automation, and subsequently, new talent must be introduced right across the industry to better manage this revolution. Indeed, growing government investment is a huge opportunity, demonstrating how far the industry still has to go, thus defining areas of attention required across the rail community. 


Read next:

Last Week In Digital - 29th August 2017