GERMAN Rail (DB) had a tough time in 2018. Poor service reliability coupled with worse-than-expected half-year results put the railway’s performance under intense scrutiny.
CEO Dr Richard Lutz admitted in September that DB had instigated emergency spending controls as the company sought to avoid another profit warning and slow the increase in its debts, which are nearing €20bn. Domestic media reports in December found that despite increasing turnover, DB was set to increase its debt ceiling to e24bn as profits continued to slow.
However, behind the scenes, DB is working hard to prepare itself for the future, and ultimately deliver the high level of service that passengers and other railway users expect.
This is emphasised by the DB 2020+ strategy. Issued in 2012 and updated in 2016, among the document’s priorities is the adoption of new technologies and working strategies throughout the organisation. A dedicated technology strategy was subsequently adopted in early 2018 and the catalyst for this work is the TecEX technology initiative.
TecEX consolidates the group’s technology expertise and maps out how new technologies will affect rail operations. The programme consists of 11 core projects transferred from the strategy, which range from improving existing processes to developing and introducing brand new solutions. Examples include adopting alternative drive systems, finding a substitute for glyphosate used in HVAC systems, and the introduction of condition-based maintenance practices, all of which are designed as group-wide programmes, and not just for one operator or specific situation.
Digitalisation is the foundation of many of these projects. And the importance of the strategy, and digitalisation, to DB’s future is reflected in the appointment of Professor Sabina Jeschke as the first DB board member for digitalisation and technology in 2017.
Jeschke specialises in transport and mobility, the Internet of Things, robotics and automation technologies, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). She previously served as director of the IMA/ZLW & IfU Cybernetics Lab at the RWTH University of Aachen from 2009-2017, as a professor within the department of electrical engineering at the University of Stuttgart, and at TU Berlin as a professor in the university’s media centre.
Jeschke also has extensive industry experience through various projects and partnerships with renowned companies. For example, she established a think tank for the use of AI at Volvo in Gothenburg during a sabbatical in 2017.
At DB, Jeschke says the goal for her division is to expand the group’s technological and digitalisation expertise to help the railway develop smart, integrated mobility solutions that make it easier for passengers to arrange their daily commutes and simplify their lives.
In the past, Jeschke says the railway was the driver of change in society, describing it as the preeminent startup during the Industrial Revolution. However, with society on the cusp of another technological shift, she believes rail could play a major role again as part of the upcoming connected mobility revolution.
“As the most transport-efficient, energy-efficient and eco-friendly mode, rail serves as a pillar, and many new forms of mobility and mobility services are making a place for themselves around it,” Jeschke says. “We need to take the unique technical expertise we have gained in our 180 years of railway experience and tie it into technology in today’s 4.0 era. We are a mobility services provider and logistic specialist, but we are also a tech company and we have to be absolute experts when it comes to our technology.”
To achieve this, DB is embracing digital technologies such as sensors, connectivity, robotics, data lakes, blockchain, cloud computing and AI, and establishing in-house innovation networks. These are interdisciplinary, span business units, are rooted in technology, and use agile working methods.
DB is also working closely with national and international partners to harness these new technologies, including other railways. For example, DB is extending its long-term collaborations with JR East and Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) into new areas, and is partnering on digitalisation specifically with French National Railways (SNCF) and Sweden’s SJ. DB is similarly engaged in Europe’s Shift2Rail research programme, working alongside railways, manufacturers and research institutions, and has a close relationship with the association of German university railway research departments.
At home, DB is engaged in the Berlin start-up scene. The Mindbox incubator has been running for three years, providing young entrepreneurs with the space to develop their ideas for service enhancements for rail customers. Participants receive 100 days of mentoring, coaching, and access to work spaces, as well as €25,000 in start-up funding and a start-up manager who serves as a liaison between the startup and the DB network.
“Eight hundred start-ups from 30 countries have applied to work with DB since Mindbox was established,” Jeschke says. “Over 50 start-ups have participated in the programme so far and we are currently working with around 30 companies on specific products and innovations relating to train travel. Around half of the start-ups that go through the Mindbox continue to work with us after the programme ends.”
Among the products from Mindbox which DB is currently developing for implementation is an illuminated platform edge. This will help passengers as they board trains and will enable shorter stops, stabilising on-time rates. DB is also benefitting from digitalisation and new technologies from the work conducted by new business units in both rail and road.
This includes the first autonomous buses used for public transport in Germany, the world’s first truck platoons operated in regular traffic, and the first use of multicopters for track, bridge and station surveys. In addition, the company is equipping switches, escalators, and elevators with sensors for predictive maintenance. “Many of these digital solutions are still in the pilot stage, but prototypes are providing us with the valuable experience and information we need to expand their use,” Jeschke says.
In 2019, DB is targeting continuing improvements to Wi-Fi at stations and is set to test seamless mobile internet access for passengers. This will enable customers to stay on the DB network after they leave the train without having to login again.
DB is also planning to develop more Blockchain applications having established a 28-strong blockchain team at its IT organisation in 2018. In addition, teams are hard at work to develop AI applications, which Jeschke expects to become an overarching theme of upcoming development efforts.
For example, she highlights the opportunities to utilise AI in the event of a tree falling on the track. While she says it is conceivable that the track could be fitted with a weight sensor to detect the tree, and the track or even the tree could inform the control centre or an approaching train of the situation, AI could take control by triggering actions, such braking the train even before the driver is able to see the tree.
“In the future, trains will communicate digitally with other trains as well as signals and points,” Jeschke says. “It’s still a vision but we are working hard on making it a reality.
“This falls under our Digital Rail for Germany programme. The goal of the programme is to increase the capacity of the existing network by up to 20%.
It will take some time for us to feel all the effects, but we will be laying the crucial technological groundwork in 2019 to achieve these medium and long-term goals.”
At the core of Digital Rail for Germany is the development of digital signalling and specifically the deployment of ETCS. DB has been a slow starter with ETCS but is finally changing course - the system is already deployed on the high-speed line between Munich and Berlin, which opened at the end of 2017, while the company established its first digital signalling facility in Saxony at the beginning of 2018 with a second entering service in northern Germany recently.
Jeschke says ETCS is the foundation for future technologies such as highly-developed sensors for object recognition and powerful real-time tracking systems, which will enable fully digitalised rail operation in the future. DB is also targeting automated operation.
“Preparations are underway in Hamburg to launch the first highly-automated S-Bahn in Germany,” Jeschke says. “By October 2021, four trains and a 23km section of S-Bahn Line 21 between Berliner Tor and Bergedorf/Aumühle stations will be equipped with digital ETCS control-command and signalling technology. This will provide the technical basis for highly-automated operation on this route section.”
A crucial challenge facing DB is harnessing the array of data it now has available. Jeschke says DB should merge its data structures and is touting a “data lakes” strategy pioneered by tech giants such as Google and Facebook, as well as young “digital native” companies from around the world.
Jeschke says the storage concept used by data lakes is fundamentally different from that used by traditional relational databases, which DB has relied on since the 1980s. Here the user decides what the ultimate goal is, but the database is unable to respond to new questions not considered when the structure was built. In contrast, through data lakes, companies collect the data and users decide later on, through their queries, what questions or analyses they want to use the data for.
For DB this might include combining geodata, data from vehicle maintenance activities and other data in a raw form in a data lake where it is used to create forecasts for arrivals. “With data lakes we achieve the flexibility to store and process different raw data for different applications and departures of trains,” Jeschke says. “The same data lake may also be suitable for other IT applications. AI can play a role in this by going beyond surveying the data to automating decisions and processes.”
The market is currently awash with new digital technological innovations which promise to improve rail companies’ performance in all areas. Selecting the right technology or solution has become a major challenge of the digitalisation revolution. For Jeschke it is critical that DB is able to determine how relevant certain innovations are to the business in order for it become a technology leader in the rail industry in its own right.
To do this she says DB itself must be “absolute experts” when it comes to its technology. For instance, she says it essential for DB experts to have the understanding to critique what they are offered - if one supplier says that a certain alternative drive system cannot exceed 150km/h, it does not mean that all systems are limited to this speed.
To bridge the gap with the supply chain, Jeschke says that from spring this year, DB will make its Advanced Train Lab available to the industry as a laboratory for road testing high-speed train components. Jeschke also highlights DB’s work alongside other European railway transport companies to establish the Initiative Round Table Rail, which is designed to advance both the railway and suppliers’ objective to improve quality, delivery times and ordering processes, to cut costs and save time. “Our purchasing organisation gives companies the chance to qualify as a supplier for DB in a clearly defined process,” Jeschke says. “Thanks to our expertise we are also able to assist with vehicle projects and we recently signed a working paper with CRRC to ramp up collaboration between our two companies.”
Testing new technologies is a major challenge for any railway, which unlike car manufacturers, only have a single live system to work with. DB effectively has 5 million daily testers, with every disruption becoming public knowledge through social media, and the conventional media all too ready to criticise the railway’s performance.
Rail then is in a unique, and some might say, disadvantageous position compared with other modes. However, new technology might again provide the answer to this conundrum.
Quantum computing processes could soon enable DB to create a “digital twin” of its entire system, enabling the company to run multiple experiments on its system concurrently and offer brand new information for timetable planning, fleet management, and predictive maintenance. “Computing power is extremely important to DB,” Jeschke says. “However, if we break it down to the business unit level, its benefits are still too vague. We need the right team and, above all, we need to cooperate with industrial and scientific partners who will handle it.”
Many established big companies have been criticised all too frequently in recent years for failing to respond to new trends in a rapidly changing business climate. The rail industry in particular has a track record for being extremely slow to adapt to new innovations and ways of working. Indeed, tech companies and start-ups, which are nimble in their approach and are willing to take risks to reach their objectives, are regarded as a new gold standard in modern business.
However, in this new era, Jeschke says she is increasingly seeing larger companies embrace data lake strategies and AI. They have also formed new partnerships, including with startups, which have led to different and unconventional ways of working, and is producing positive results.
DB, through TecEX, is among these companies. And as it heads into 2019, Jeschke feels the railway is on course to thrive in the new digital world and become a technology leader in its own right. “This comprehensive reorganisation is a major challenge for traditional companies, but it is also a great opportunity,” she says.