AFTER enduring Covid-19 travel restrictions for so long, getting back out to see the best rail has to offer has been a welcome experience. It has been especially encouraging to see that innovation has not been hampered by the restrictions imposed during the pandemic. But what has not been so welcome is the reminder that travelling by rail still brings with it many of the frustrations and problems that were present before we were asked to stay at home.

Having travelled to a number of shows and site visits in the last few months, I’ve had the privilege of seeing a range of new technologies that promise a new era of more efficient and convenient rail travel. In this utopia, automated trains will reduce headways, allowing greater frequencies and more journey options. Tickets will be cheaper and more flexible, allowing me to adapt my travel plans to suit whatever meetings I may have. When my plans change, either due to my circumstances or due to issues with the rail service such as disruption on the line, seamless passenger information systems will alert me to the next available service, and transfer my ticket and allow me to select a seat on the new train.

If I am delayed, then a refund will be automatically paid back into my account. I may not even need to buy a ticket, as my Mobility as a Service (MaaS) account will automatically charge me the cheapest fare for the journey I have taken, including the first and last mile of my trip.

But step out of this futuristic world and back into the present, and the rail network that is being promised is very different from the one that passengers experience every day. In my recent travels, nearly every journey has been beset by delay, disruption, and limited information, requiring a fair bit of guess work on my part and no small amount of luck to reach my destination.

Travelling to IT-Trans in May, my issues with rail transport began even before I left for the event. Looking to use the mode we cover day in and day out, I researched travelling by rail from our head office in Falmouth, Cornwall, in the southwest of Britain, via France to Karlsruhe. This journey, which would have required an overnight stay in London, would have cost more than £300, while the alternative, substituting the international section of the journey with a flight, instead came to £76.18.

When talking to people outside the industry about my job, easily the most common question I am asked is “why is it so expensive to take the train?” This is not something that is lost on the sector, with more low-cost alternatives beginning to enter the market across Europe, but it is certainly one of the biggest barriers to attracting more passengers to rail.

While the train journey from Falmouth to London’s Stanstead Airport and the flight from Stanstead to Karlsruhe were uneventful, the challenge began when I landed at Karlsruhe Baden-Baden Airport at 22.30, 40km from my destination.

Providing up-to-date information is vital during disruptions, ensuring passengers are still able to make it to their destination as quickly and comfortably as possible. Photo: Shutterstock/ Yau Ming Low

There was little information available to advise passengers that the best way to travel into Karlsruhe itself was by first taking a bus to Rastatt, before transferring to the S8 S-Bahn line. Armed with this information from Google, I caught the bus only to find out that Rastatt station was closed overnight, possibly for repairs, with no trains stopping until the morning. With Google unable to provide an alternative to the route that it insisted was still possible, I and the other passengers were forced to mull over our options including taking a taxi for the 27km journey from Rastatt to Karlsruhe before being told by a friendly local that there was a bus we could take instead, which would be leaving from a nearby street corner. However, this turned out to be a local stopping service that proceeded to take in every town and village along the route, with no information on what the next stop was or the expected time of arrival.

Karlsruhe is known as the birthplace of the Karlsruhe tram-train model, an innovation that has allowed LRVs to operate on the wider regional network, and this ensured that travelling around the city by public transport was simple and efficient.

However, my travel issues continued when leaving, as my train from Karlsruhe to Stuttgart was cancelled just as I entered Karlsruhe Main Station. Here I was alerted to the cancellation by a notification on my phone, alongside an announcement on the large passenger information screen. However, there was no further information about whether my ticket was valid on another service. After queuing up at an information desk and consulting a member of staff, I was directed to take an earlier ICE. Without the presence of station staff, I would have been left to guess whether or not I risked a fine by taking the earlier service, and this was not the digital passenger information service that the IT-Trans conference promised me was readily available for operators to adopt.

Another recent journey from Heathrow Airport to Falmouth resulted in an 11h 30min journey time instead of the 6h 30min it was supposed to take. A fatality on the main line between London Paddington and Reading brought all services to a halt. This again was a situation out of the railway’s hands, and an issue that is sadly all too common on railways around the world. But there was little information available on possible alternatives, and while staff were as helpful as they could be during the delay, they could only offer the limited information they had themselves.

In the end, it took a detour from Slough via Windsor, including a light run past Windsor Castle between the town’s two stations to make the connection, to make it to Reading where I was then able to catch a much-delayed train to Cornwall. Again, it was a situation where the technology to rebook and redirect passengers has been developed and is available, but has not yet been implemented.

My experiences are not restricted to travelling in Germany or Britain, or limited to a specific operator, but reflect the daily experiences of some passengers across Europe and around the world. I’m not alone in experiencing the frustration of turning up at a station late at night to find it’s closed, or of realising my train is cancelled and being unsure about what service I could take instead. It is disappointing to hear passengers complaining that they were unable to find out which service their ticket was valid on, or to find the seat they had booked was already occupied. If the technology is available, why are we not accelerating its implementation?

The need to maintain a high level of safety is often touted as the biggest reason why the rail sector is slow to change and adopt new technologies, and this cannot be lost. Safety must always be a priority, coming before all others. But other modes appear to be able to balance the need for safety while also implementing new technologies at a rate faster than rail.

Passengers flying between destinations are now able to compare ticket prices at the click of a button and can easily purchase fares for multiple-leg journeys with different operators, while receiving regular updates on their smartphone if their flight is delayed.

Industry challenges

To better understand why it can take so long for new technologies to be introduced in the rail sector, I asked International Association of Public Transport (UITP) senior project strategist, knowledge and innovation, Mr Umberto Guida, and rail unit manager, knowledge and innovation, Mr Corentin Wauters, about the challenges facing the sector.

One of the biggest issues, Guida explains, is that the product development timelines and the product lifetimes in the rail system are so long that what may be cutting-edge when a project is started can often be superseded when the project is completed a few years later.

Another contributor, which is both an advantage and a drawback, is that a railway is a closed and complex system. While this has allowed breakthroughs in areas such as automation, which has been introduced years ahead of other modes such as road transport, it also requires all parts of the system to work together.

“It’s just not like putting a new bus or a new bike or a new car on the street, you really need to think about all the aspects,” Guida says. “Like in aviation, if you want to change one bit, you need to ensure that safety and operational performance remain the same. And this, as you can imagine, requires time and a level of maturity of innovation which is quite important.

“Because if you have a brand-new autonomous metro that is not working, I can tell you that the passengers don’t care if it is automated or not. They first care about whether the train is coming on time, and then maybe about whether it’s overcrowded or not.”

This interconnection between systems requires a high level of collaboration within the industry, and between operators, manufacturers and suppliers.

“The operator, the manufacturers, industry, all those involved need to collaborate because in the end, you need to identify the right needs to design a system that is doing what it is expected to do,” Guida says. “This is a task for the manufacturers, they really need to stay in contact with the operators to understand their needs. You cannot effectively do everything by yourself today.”

Safety must always be a priority, coming before all others. But other modes appear to be able to balance the need for safety while also implementing new technologies at a rate faster than rail.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) have an important role to play as they can be more agile and dynamic. Wauters adds that this is particularly evident when it comes to digitising asset maintenance, which has undergone a gradual revolution driven by SMEs that have played an important role in developing and installing sensors, as well as developing the tools to make sense of the data collected.
Guida recalls one example where an operator’s internal IT department conducted a study to develop a new software solution, which found that it would take two years for the system to be implemented. The operator instead turned to SMEs, who were able to develop the software within two months, at a cheaper rate.

There is also a need for multi-national collaboration and funding, which is being met by the new Europe’s Rail initiative and its predecessor, Shift2Rail. However, while these programmes are developing numerous technologies that could provide a step change in quality on the rail system, such as the Digital Automatic Coupling (DAC), more of the research undertaken needs to be implemented. It will do no one any favours if the technologies and best practice that emerge from the research programme simply end up in research papers or student textbooks.

There are always risks associated with introducing new technologies, and these must be either removed or mitigated as much as possible. It must also be clear who bears responsibility for the risk, including the financial risk associated with a product failure, which could lead to disruption or delays. This requires clear agreements between all parties involved before innovation is put into use.

“You need to assess the impact on the whole system, and this means assessing the technical effects and safety impact, but also the legal impact such as liability because if something goes wrong, then you need someone to pay for it in one way or another,” Guida says. “The important thing is that the design is going in the direction that users need.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology in many facets of our day-to-day life. Think of virtual and hybrid meetings, the adoption of which has now become standard for many people. The same has happened to some degree in the rail sector, Wauters says, with technologies introduced to improve safety and comfort during the pandemic now in regular use on some railways.

“Covid has accelerated the demand for passenger counting and demand modelling,” Wauters says. This has allowed passengers to select a coach that might be emptier than others, making it easier to social distance, but this is also useful for passengers who are simply looking for a coach with more seats available to make their journey more comfortable. “Often this information is available but we need to make better use of the data by providing it to the passengers through apps and through other information systems,” Wauters says.

Rail is a complex “system of systems,” and as such innovation is more likely to come in incremental developments, rather than major leaps. “There is a lot happening that is maybe not as visible, which is improving and optimising [technology],” Guida says. However, while it is always important to look towards what could be done, passengers cannot be kept onboard with promises of how rail travel might look in five, 10 or 20 years. The technology that is already available needs to be implemented for passengers travelling today.