Adapting to change is particularly difficult for rail transport with its long history, assets which last for decades, the dominance of large organisations which tend to react slowly, and its close links with government. Adapting to change is not an option but an imperative if rail is to survive and prosper. The good news is that rail is already ahead of the game in some areas as it has the technology at its disposal that other modes are still developing.
Speakers at several recent conferences expressed concern about the rapid development of autonomous driving cars, which could become commonplace a few years from now, provided promoters can convince legislators that it is safe enough to warrant changes to driving laws and car insurance. Driverless cars could change the face of road transport especially if enough people are willing to give up their own car and switch to using cars on demand. This would cut the cost of motoring and avoid the problem of where to park as the car would either transfer itself to the next user or find somewhere to park.
But we already have autonomous metro trains thanks to communications-based train control. Mr Sarwant Singh, senior partner with Frost & Sullivan, speaking at Hitachi's recent social innovation forum in London, believes all major urban high-capacity transport networks will have switched to automatic operation within the next 15 years.
We are also starting to automate urban heavy-rail lines, so the next step will be to automate more complex mainline rail networks. German Rail (DB) is already making a start on this as Mr Josef Stoll, DB's chief technology officer, revealed at the Smart Rail conference in Amsterdam in May: "We will run an autonomous train on the track this summer," he told delegates. Stoll fears that the combination of electric cars, car sharing which is gaining in popularity through organisations such as BlaBlaCar, and automatic cars, could lead in a shift from rail to road.
Mr Rohit Talwar, CEO of Fast Future, also speaking at Smart Rail, questioned how prepared we are to manipulate data effectively. "In the next 20 years, 20% of jobs will be automated," he predicted. "Our inability to handle data could be a killer for some organisations."
Singh believes North America and Europe will be the largest markets for big data in rail transport. "Spending on big data could reach 1.5% of total rail spending by 2021," he says. Big data is a broad term for data sets that are so large or complex that traditional data processing applications are inadequate. But Singh says that the ability to handle big data is developing so rapidly that by 2017 people will be using visual data analytics and NoSQL databases, which provide a mechanism for storage and retrieval of data, followed a couple of years later by predictive, video and audio, and mobile business analytics. By the end of the decade complex event processing, machine learning and artificial intelligence should be within our grasp.
Mr Frank Sennhenn, chairman of DB Networks, told delegates at the IAF track conference in Münster in May, that digitalisation can be both a risk and an opportunity for rail. On the one hand automation of services can mean losing contact with customers as has happened in the hotel industry through the widespread use of on-line booking agencies. On the other hand, the ability to connect with passengers through their mobile devices will make it much easier to offer new services, automate ticket sales, and guide passengers throughout their entire journey, and not just the rail element.
Sennhenn expects digitalisation will lead to changes on the network. "There will be more and more measurement of infrastructure," he says. "We will be able to diagnose the situation of a switch in order to repair it more effectively."
"Big data can do a lot for maintenance," Sennhenn says. "We sent a team to Silicon Valley for two weeks. We are looking at an 'emergency button' for maintenance staff to use when they don't know how to repair something."
As far as rolling stock is concerned, Singh predicts that over 40,000 European rail vehicles will have internet connectivity by 2020. He says connectivity will be the most critical component in developing the smart trains of the future. Elements of the smart train are already here, as CBTC enables operators to adapt headways to changes in demand quickly, with train crew only taking charge during failure recovery. CBTC allows decentralised processing of data with the majority of functions transferred from the track to the train. But in future information and entertainment on trains will be more comprehensive and ubiquitous, while passengers will be better connected though satellite networks.
Exciting developments from the ambitious Shift2Rail research programme could revolutionise the way railways are operated and maintained. We need to look at future technical developments as an opportunity to enhance and reshape rail transport rather than a threat to its existence. Time for cool heads and clear thinking to prevail.