The title for the world’s fastest train currently belongs to the Lo Series in Japan, which set the record in 2015 with a top speed of 373mph. While the train is not currently ready for passenger use, it gives us a good indication of how consumer travel is likely to evolve in the coming years. The advances in passenger trains are seeing more than just faster speeds however; we are moving towards a fully ‘digital train’, which could become a reality as soon as 2020.
For passengers, a fully digital train would primarily offer improved safety on-board, along with an enhanced experience through better infotainment on board. Benefits for train operators would include improved routing and configuration, smart city integration and decision automation for scheduling maintenance. In addition, it could provide connected navigation to alert operators of potential network delays, journey changes and live weather situations.
Leading the train revolution
Across the world, advancements in rail are taking shape in many ways. Japan may boast the fastest train to date, but regions such as Germany and Sweden are leading the charge in train manufacturing and providing a digital rail experience for passengers. For example, Deutsche Bahn in Germany recently unveiled plans for a new train, named “Ideenzug” (“Idea Train”), which will be equipped with exercise bikes, a fitness studio, spaces with gaming consoles and noise-cancelling chairs. In addition, Swedish rail company, SJ, began trialling biometric chip implants in June 2017 as a replacement for paper train tickets. Passengers can have a microchip implanted in their hand which uses NFC (Near Field Communications) to display the ticket when scanned by the train conductor. These concepts are very much in the early stages, but give us a clear indication of innovations that the rail industry is aspiring to.
Embedded intelligence: giving rise to cognitive systems
The technology behind embedded intelligence is providing systems with the capability to collect and analyse important data to make intelligent decisions. It is already being used to allow digital trains to monitor their own operational performance, usage load and environment. Embedded intelligence enables digital trains to make simple decisions on the go, such as guiding passengers to avoid certain facilities (for example: a specific door or toilet not in service) and showing what other facilities are available.
How data will build the digital train
The data architecture of digital trains will play an essential role in providing valuable and actionable insights for operators. Raw data collected from multiple sources will include external (weather, prices, suppliers) and enterprise (service histories, warranty status). These will connect with the smart train (gathering location data, condition and usage) to provide diagnostic, descriptive, predictive and prescriptive recommendations.
From an operational efficiency standpoint, we can already see how IoT data can be used for train maintenance and crew information and decision systems. This will have the ability to integrate with smart cities of the future. The concept of a fully connected passenger experience while on board trains, that are already connected to every corner of major cities, is a welcome idea for the high portion of the public that already rely on their devices for entertainment during travel.
Elsewhere in the data-driven train, the decision automation experience will be enhanced for operators and engineers. It has the potential to bring driverless trains to more cities, with trials and projects currently underway in cities, such as Dubai. By allowing the automation of transportation grids, cities can focus on the passenger experience and improving the intelligence of systems running the railways. For example, the scheduling of crew and maintenance engineers can be automated and connected to data being fed back from sensors on the rail tracks.
Passengers will also see the benefits of decision automation, through real-time updates on train schedules and possible delays, as well as ticketing systems. Moreover, the implications for passenger safety provided by digital trains is a strong driver for implementing them across railway networks. The real-time insights provided by intelligent systems can improve the signalling and scheduling of trains in the network. In turn, it increases the safe running of services by delivering alerts to engineers and train workers faster, as well as automated systems programmed to monitor train and railway maintenance.
The digitisation of rail presents both opportunities and threats to the industry. It will enable us to generate data about previously unseen elements of the rail journey, providing a holistic picture of every part of the journey taken by a train. Detecting the real-time health of trains and tracks will improve the reliability of trains and the passenger experience immensely. Nevertheless, increasing digital connections brings more security loopholes to be exploited. Industry standards must be shaped before rail operators make the move towards implementing elements of the digital train and journey. By sharing best practices between governments and operators from different countries, we can all move towards a safer, connected train together.