PERSONALISED passenger information, predictive and condition-based maintenance, and automated operations are all hailed as game-changing technologies which are transforming the railway sector.

For a vast multi-national railway operator like German Rail (DB) changing decades of working culture to embrace the opportunities new technologies are providing is no easy task. However, the company recognises that it must innovate and change in order to stay relevant and to remain competitive.

DB’s 2020+ strategy, released in 2012 and updated in 2016, is emphasising the use of new technology and working practices throughout the organisation and is prompting a step-change in DB’s working philosophy.

DB wants to become a profitable market leader, a top employer, and an eco-pioneer by 2020. It is also striving to offer its customers top-class, eco-friendly mobility and logistics solutions, which are made possible by dedicated employees and digital expertise.

RolfHardiDB’s chief technology officer, Mr Rolf Härdi, is tasked with overseeing the deployment of new technologies that will achieve these goals, and he says there is a straightforward objective in this process.

“Technology has to feed a purpose, and that purpose is to bring the passenger from A to B as fast, economically, comfortably, and safely as possible,” Härdi says. “It is important that whatever we do with technology, that it is something good.”

Härdi says DB’s technology strategy is emphasising sustainability, with the goal of improving energy-efficiency and becoming carbon neutral. It is also holistic, which is helping the company to better understand the relationship between its various systems.

Driving this process is of course digitalisation. Indeed, Härdi says the fast development of digitally-supported working practices has impacted DB significantly in recent years and these will continue to have a major effect on the company’s activities.

“What has changed in the new digital world is the possibility to analyse the performance of our systems as we never have before,” Härdi says. “With data analysis on performance and different subsystems, we are going to have a far better grasp of where our weak points are and where we have to improve. We can measure passenger flows, energy use efficiency, reliability and so on and so on. The information and technology we now have makes it far more practical to focus on sustainability and efficiency. We simply didn’t have the means to do that before.”

There is, however, a trade-off for railways to truly reap the benefits of digitalisation: a faster innovation cycle.

While DB and other operators have previously purchased rolling stock with an intended lifecycle of 30 years, which at best would have a mid-life overhaul, this is no longer sufficient. Härdi says because passengers demand that trains offer the level of service that they are getting elsewhere, railways need to update their trains and services more regularly to match the trends of the time, whether this is next-generation mobile networks, or enhanced onboard services.

He adds that the additional costs of doing this are more than compensated by increases in reliability and train performance provided by new rolling stock as well as the capability to offer more services to more passengers.

“The new Berlin - Munich high-speed line is cutting the journey time between the two cities to four hours,” Härdi says. “For four hours from city-to-city, a business person can sit and work and have meetings. By continuously enhancing our onboard offer, we can realistically compete with airlines by making the train a more attractive place to be.”

DB has identified 18 core technology projects supported by 10 base technology fields within its TecEX technology initiative, which aims to enforce the technology strategy among its 300,000 employees working around the world (see table).

Härdi says more than 50 projects are underway across the company, including a project in the vehicle element to solve issues with the coolants used in air-conditioning systems. “The un-environmentally-friendly cooling fluid R-134A is going to become increasingly restricted,” he says. “We have to look for alternatives, but the industry is not quite ready for that. So, we are working hand-in-hand with them to find substitute coolants or different systems.”

Some projects are designed to offer a snapshot of what the future might look like. For example, DB Regio and Bavarian Railway Company (BEG) recently presented a full-size mock-up of their Idea Train which demonstrates innovative product and service concepts for regional trains. Passengers will test new interiors, including various seating options, and digital information and entertainment services such as games consoles and a children’s “play paradise.”

DB is also engaged in various research initiatives. As part of the wheel-rail interface element it is conducting trials of steel in order to identify the optimum hardness. Both DB engineers and university partners are working on the project. Similar initiatives to curb noise and vibrations, and trial optical fibre sensing applications are underway.

The railway is similarly a key partner in the Shift2Rail research programme, something which Härdi says is a key enabler to homologised systems, which railways must embrace, particularly with ever-increasing cross-border operations.

“Today we have the situation where there are numerous CBM systems available,” Härdi says. “Every train builder is building one, every subsystem supplier is building one, and every railway is building one. Yet if we are operating a train to Paris, we must be able to service that train in Paris. We have to come up with a common solution here. If we don’t do that we won’t see the benefits in the industry.”

Härdi says DB is partnering with various European and Japanese railway companies on this issue. He also says DB is working hard to forge partnerships with different industry players. For example, Härdi is regularly attending events and meeting with suppliers around the world to promote DB’s cause, discussing the challenges it faces, and the ways they can find solutions together.

“Do we have ways where we can actually try those technologies on a train?” Härdi asks. “Very often the industry has an idea and builds a prototype, but putting it onboard a train is a lengthy process. DB won’t be manufacturing these solutions, but we can help the industry to fast track the development and validation of these products.”

Fresh ideas

The advent of digitalisation is leading to new and different suppliers entering the railway market with fresh ideas. Many of these companies are start-ups with very different working philosophies, something which DB is attempting to foster among its own workforce in order to promote greater innovation.

For example, DB management and executives are able to attend “start-up” safaris where they work alongside a start-up for a week and are exposed to alternative working techniques and their spirit of entrepreneurialism. Project managers are also free to visit DB’s Campus 4.0 in Frankfurt to work on problem solving. The campus employs a lab working environment in an effort to encourage innovative thinking.

While encouraging internal innovation, DB is also looking outside of its organisation and is actively investing in upcoming trends. DB’s Digital Ventures subsidiary has €100m in capital available to support new ventures and foster an environment in which innovation can flourish.

In July, DB invested a seven-figure sum in a Berlin taxi and ride-sharing start-up, Talixo. It has also invested in US start-up Connected Signals, which uses real-time traffic data and artificial intelligence to network vehicles and urban infrastructure, and could become the foundation of future automated driving solutions. DB is similarly partnering with Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Hyperloop One.

Some of these funds are supporting the open-innovation platform, Beyond 1435. DB has formed a partnership with Plug and Play, United States, one of the world’s largest tech accelerators, for the initiative whereby Plug and Play is sourcing leading mobility and logistics start-ups to come and work alongside DB and various industry partners (see panel) in Berlin.

Beyond 1435 is hosting a series of three-month accelerators at the Mindbox at Berlin’s Jannowitzbrücke station. The programme provides financial support and dedicated office space for start-ups to further develop and test their business ideas, products and technologies that meet the industry’s digital transformation needs.

Topics covered so far include the future of maintenance, innovative construction, and customer experience. In addition, the Mindbox regularly hosts hackathons using DB’s open data portal, and challenges where start-ups and individuals are invited to solve some of the company’s pressing problems, the latest being automated cleaning solutions.

Some of the companies and products to emerge from the accelerators include: Trylikes, an innovative customer feedback platform; Kinemic, which developed wearable devices which support maintenance practices by streamlining the use of PCs and terminals; and Machines with Vision, which can precisely measure the track surface to identify a train’s location.

“Beyond 1435 and the Mindbox are providing the room for creativity without the burden of a big organisation,” Härdi says. “They are also acting as a beacon for the rest of the organisation to show how we could work if we break down borders and silos.”

DB digitalWhile its technology strategy is taking hold, compared with its contemporaries working in other industries, DB is at a disadvantage.

The rail industry’s unique legislation requirements and safety approval process, as well as DB’s status as a state-owned company, mean that it cannot select and implement new technologies at the same speed. “If my colleague from BMW sees something that is great, he goes and buys it. I can’t do that,” Härdi says. “I need to make sure we adhere to the laws of the tender process and so on. And rightly so. But it does make it more difficult.”

While it might be holding rail back, Härdi says DB is doing its upmost to overcome these challenges. This is epitomised by the work in the Mindbox, and in gradually changing attitudes at the company both on the ground and in the board room. There is also a strong willingness at the executive level to follow the strategy through, which given the progress made so far, for Härdi is very encouraging heading into 2018.
“I think we are on a good path,” he says.