THE rail sector faces huge challenges. New competitors from Asia are challenging historical European leadership, and the railway industry must take steps to improve its competitiveness. Low-cost airlines and long-distance buses are becoming a credible alternative to rail transport, while the increasing success of new business models such as Uber is having a major impact on urban transport.


The needs of citizens are also drastically changing. Commuting mobile apps and real-time information are becoming part of everyday life, encouraging passengers to ask for the same level of services for their end-to-end journey.

The digital transformation is affecting the way the transport sector deals with user information, payments, integration and automation. Well-established in metro systems, automation is now being developed for cars, buses and trucks. Big Data, the Internet of Things, Industry 4.0. and robotics, as well as smart infrastructure are all contributing to rapid change.

Unife says it can identify at least six disruptive trends that the transport sector will have to master:

  •  transport networks will become integrated and intelligent and they will be able to sense loads and demand, adjust capacity, measure performance, and monitor and identify maintenance requirements of physical assets
  • freight and passenger transport will become more user-centred forcing operators to respond to users’ choices, priorities, and data flows; real-time information will become personal; new mobility services will create new markets; and multi-modal journeys will become more integrated which will require a change in existing business models, data access and availability
  • automation will impact infrastructure capacity while road safety could increase significantly thus challenging rail even more
  • pricing and payments will be transformed thanks to rapid changes in the financial sector, with digitalisation of tickets and payments becoming the norm
  • new private transport entrants will use different peer-to-peer models, digital and mobile technology, and benefit from low costs and the availability of open data to scale regionally and globally, while new services and applications will continue to emerge rapidly based on new data-driven business models, and
  • cyber-security issues will become one of the main challenges, as the intensive usage of digital data and communication links will increase the vulnerability of systems.

For rail transport, this digital transformation is both a threat and an opportunity. It is a threat because it transforms roles and business models. But there are huge potential benefits. A study by Roland Berger estimates that rolling stock maintenance costs could be reduced by 20% if digitalisation is properly understood and implemented. Digitalisation will only become an opportunity if rail is able to transform itself by responding better to user needs, becoming more agile, and using and sharing all the data generated by operations, fixed assets, and the passengers. The deployment of IT and enabling technologies in rail is still at an early stage and sometimes slower than in other transport sectors.

NR trackDigital technologies are already being used in areas such as ERTMS and CBTC, traffic management systems, maintenance, passenger information, apps, and e-ticketing, while more developments will come from the Shift2Rail initiative.


European Union (EU) legislation and regulation should support digital transformation in transport, while providing the necessary safeguards. The digital single market is one of the 10 European Commission (EC) political priorities according to the EC’s digital single market strategy for Europe published in May 2015. The e-transport chapter stresses that “digitalisation and better integration of existing tools can significantly improve transport and traffic management and open up a wide range of opportunities.”

Unife fully agrees with the Commission that deployment of ITS technologies in transport has the potential to create new growth, more efficient networks and logistics, and make better use of existing infrastructure. Unife has been working with DG Move to define a new EU Strategy for a digital single European railway area. But Unife wants the EC to establish an overarching platform on digitalisation that would incorporate all railway stakeholders.

In order to better respond to a need for greater cooperation within the industry, the Unife Digital Platform has identified a number of priorities. One is the improvement of information exchange for rail users by implementing the telematics applications for freight and passengers (TAF/TAP) TSI according to standardised messaging generated by infrastructure managers and/or operators. Standard messaging is provided through a common interface with defined attributes. Starting from this raw TAF/TAP TSI format, the market can develop digital services and user-friendly applications for installation on smart devices and laptops. The objective is to improve the availability, accessibility and accuracy of such information and in real time. In addition, the interconnection of TAP/TAF TSI with standards from other modes must be developed to foster multi-modal real-time information and services, as proposed in Shift2Rail IP4.

Unife believes that rail must maintain high reliability, safety and operational continuity standards, and focus on a better resilience against cyber-attacks. This can be achieved by improving information security requirements, increasing system integrity, establishing a zone-models-based approach with boundaries and gateways to segment critical data and control data flows from non-critical ones, and by establishing monitoring and event-detection methods, as well as technology based on gateways and frameworks to become aware of potential attacks.

To achieve this, Unife has identified a list of actions:

  • foster a common understanding of cyber security threats and countermeasures to create approaches with a good chance for interoperability
  • develop international information and exchange networks of cyber security experts
  • enhance collaboration
  • explore the need for specific EU regulations, standards and policies for signalling critical infrastructure, and
  • railway operators should be considered by the EC as operators of essential services.

Unife believes better use should be made of existing infrastructure with two main objectives: developing ERTMS and predictive maintenance. Unife wants more funding to support the deployment of ERTMS in Europe. It wants the mid-term review of the EU’s multi-annual financial framework to be used as an opportunity to increase the grants available for ERTMS in the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF).

On the technical side, 2016 marked a turning point for the rollout of ERTMS with the adoption of the second release of ETCS Baseline 3 specifications while the rail sector agreed not to issue any further formal release of the ERTMS specifications until at least 2022. The ERTMS long-term strategy, adopted by Member States in February 2016, details additional game-changing features needed to boost capacity, reduce maintenance costs and energy consumption, and optimise traffic management. These comprise:

  • ETCS Level 3 which should increase capacity and reduce trackside life cycle costs by removing or reducing track-based train detection systems
  • automatic train operation (ATO) which will allow optimal train speed setting and provide greater robustness in operation
  • next-generation communication systems which will allow non-dedicated railway radio communication technology/network models and/or potential use of capacity increases due to increased spectrum efficiency, and
  • satellite positioning which has the potential to reduce the deployment and maintenance of balises and improve performance by using more accurate odometry.

The second key objective is to improve predictive railway maintenance which according to Unife currently suffers from several deficiencies. A huge number of monitoring and measuring information systems are currently available, which are designed as independent tools, each dealing with individual and isolated areas of the maintenance process which make it difficult to fuse information and exploit big data analysis. Typically, maintenance is still periodic and preventive, based on good practices established long ago, with targeted interventions when faults appear. Useful information for prognosis is often never used and hence the development of the predictive capability has been moderate. The environment is becoming increasingly complex due to the increasing number of parties, often with conflicting priorities, involved in infrastructure operation and maintenance. Research and innovation results show that maintenance performance is linked to many heterogeneous parameters, most of them not yet taken into account in the maintenance process.

It is therefore clear that a step change in asset management has to be delivered through innovative technologies, new economic models, and enhanced standards, and the following interlinked steps are necessary:

  • design and develop software to achieve a seamless interface with existing maintenance information between different railway stakeholders
  • the digitalisation and integration of the different sources of information shared between data producers and data users should be the basis for exploiting the increased possibilities of analysing big data sets for nowcasting and forecasting asset condition and diagnosis towards risk-based predictive maintenance, and
  • remove the drawbacks of current decision-making procedures by adopting an integrated system fully exploiting information and knowledge extracted from available data, moving from reactive and preventive maintenance to predictive maintenance based on nowcasting and forecasting of asset condition and diagnosis, and moving to risk-based decision-making.

In order to guarantee efficient management of this information and make good use of the data available, the railway industry needs a harmonised framework and an appropriate mechanism to support the digitalisation of information and knowledge exchange. Unife believes there should be better access to data in the rail sector. Ownership, access and usage of data must be clarified. There needs to be a railway agreement and adequate rules for data sharing, and the EC should take a leading role in this process. The EC says it wants to encourage access to public data to help drive innovation.

Unife believes the only way to achieve digital transformation in Europe is to have common priorities, common and individual objectives, a sector roadmap, and a shared deployment plan. To achieve this, Unife says it is willing to establish a permanent dialogue with stakeholders and decision makers which includes the other railway associations such as EIM, CER, UIC, and UITP as well as the European Union Agency for Railways and the relevant EC Directorates-General.

In the short term, Unife wants to cooperate with other rail stakeholders on cyber security threats and access to data to achieve greater efficiency.

Unife wants the EC to build a clear digitalisation road map and to support the establishment of a railway digitalisation platform to allow the discussion of vital topics such as objectives and priorities, and a shared deployment plan, having a consolidated view on data ownership and finding an agreement on data sharing, and clarifying railway standardisation, research and regulations.

While the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) has provided significant financial support for railway digitalisation through the deployment of the ERTMS, Unife points out that after the first two CEF transport calls no grants are currently foreseen which does not bode well for the future. Unife wants other EU funding and financing instruments to be mobilised, including the European Structural and Investment Funds, the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), as well as the European Investment Bank’s lending facilities to support railway digitalisation. Unife also wants the EU to allocate more funding for railway research focused on digitalisation in the future Research Framework Programme (after Horizon 2020) and to ensure that there will be a second Shift2Rail programme which will address railway digitalisation priorities not covered by the current programme or other European research projects.