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Rail
Railways get on track for the digital era
From the Financial Times of Sun, 19 Oct 2014 12:30:45 GMT
,The train for the Intercity Express Program (IEP) by the Department for Transport in U.K., which will be manufactured by Hitachi Ltd., sits in a station in this handout illustration, provided to the media on Wednesday, July 25, 2012. The U.K. awarded a 4.5 billion pound ($7 billion) train order to Hitachi Ltd. and John Laing, more than three years after the suppliers were named as preferred bidders for the contract. Source: Hitachi Ltd. via Bloomberg EDITOR'S NOTE: NO SALES. EDITORIAL USE ONLY.©Bloomberg

As the train pulls into the station you board the first carriage because your smartphone told you that was where the only vacant seats were. Your app scoured social media for the latest information on any delays so you avoided hold-ups, and as you settle into your seat you touch the window, transforming it from transparent glass into an interactive display of travel information.

This journey has yet to arrive, but is on its way. Recognising that technology has the potential to improve train journeys, the government has shifted innovation up its priority list to become an essential part of what companies must include in bids to win rail franchises.

“There is an opportunity for rail as an industry to go through the sort of transformation other industries have already been through – it is a huge opportunity,” says Patrick Bossert, director of asset information at Network Rail, the body responsible for the upkeep of Britain’s track, signalling and stations.

It is undertaking a wide-ranging railway upgrade to transport it into the digital age – improving signalling and introducing technology to improve efficiency and squeeze more trains on to a busy network.

Smart ticketing and reliable WiFi onboard trains are two examples of technology being rolled out over the next few years.

But the question for many is why it has taken so long for innovation to feed through to the everyday train journey.

“The industry is really struggling to up its game and move ahead,” says Andrew Payne, of the Transport Systems Catapult centre, part of a government-sponsored network aimed at encouraging industry advances. “Innovation is the real opportunity to help transform this industry.”

The average research and development investment in UK industries is about 1.7 per cent of turnover, according to the centre, compared with estimates of 0.1 to 0.3 per cent for rail operators.

The centre says a fragmented industry where margins are wafer thin is part of the barrier to innovation.

Here are four areas where technology is changing the passenger journey.

Apps

When a train packed with commuters comes to a sudden and unexplained halt, it is not long before irate travellers start to fire off frustrated tweets.

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Once a mass of amorphous data, those tweets are now being turned into a means of pinpointing delays – before the train company has even put out an announcement.

The CommuteClub app scans the estimated 240,000 tweets a week about London’s train services, filters them and alerts passengers to where the problems are. Its algorithm pips National Rail Enquiries to providing the information by up to 20 minutes, says Delta Rail, its developer.

Later, the app can help crowdsource knowledge from commuters to build a picture of a route so others know what time the station car park fills up, or during which periods the most crowded trains are. A beta version is being tested and CommuteClub will launch this autumn, covering all UK train companies.

Network Rail and Transport for London, the capital’s transport authority, have opened their data banks in the hope software developers will conjure up ever more useful technology that can take the uncertainty out of travel.

One such app is Realtime Trains, used even by railway managers, which details the status of every train on the network. “This is an app that gives you more information than the man on the platform,” says Roger Ford, analyst at the Rail Business Intelligence newsletter.

Screens

Gazing at the scenery rolling past the windows will soon not be the only distraction for rail passengers. Manufacturers are developing new ways to capture attention.

Glass company OSG has launched liquid crystal display screens seamlessly embedded within windows that can be used to display travel information, advertising and videos, something yet to come to the UK.

With its space-saving benefit, the screen was originally made for the military and used inside armoured vehicles. For the future, OSG is developing a touch-sensitive version and a screen that can switch from electronic display to transparent window.

French train maker Alstom has made prototypes of tables that double as tablet screens and can be used for reading news and ordering food.

But just as airlines have recognised that passengers prefer their smartphones, tablets and laptops to cheaper seat-back screens, trains companies face the same issue.

FirstGroup installed seat-back touch sensitive screens on some First Great Western trains, showing television programming and a moving map of the journey. But the operator is not planning to introduce more because of passengers’ preference for their own devices.

Interactive devices will become more useful as trains are progressively connected to fast WiFi. Augmented reality is next – with passengers being able to explore destinations before they disembark from the train.

Predictive technologies

Storms wreaked chaos on Britain’s railways last winter after a deluge of water caused embankments to subside, resulting in severe disruption in the south of England.

To combat this, Network Rail has been placing sensors in the soil that will send a warning when they detect tiny movements which might mean the ground is becoming unstable. Repairs can then be done early, cutting the risk of disruption.

The use of this type of technology is being extended by Network Rail to keep tabs on the condition of much of its infrastructure. Knowing when a part is about to fail allows it to be replaced early, again minimising delays. Railway points are now monitored for the amount of power they use – a surge indicating they will soon need replacing.

Virgin Rail’s Pendolino trains on the West Coast main line have toilets that can send a message to the train operator when they are blocked, and doors that dispatch an alert when they are about to fail.

Alstom, which made the trains, is now trialling this approach for fleet maintenance. On their journey, trains pass through a structure equipped with precision lasers and cameras. Wheels are measured, the thickness of brake pads monitored and pantographs – which carry power from overhead wires – are checked. Based on their conditions, algorithms predict when each part is likely to fail and the train can be booked in for maintenance.

Smart ticketing

One piece of plastic could in the future take you from your door to a destination somewhere in Europe. Smart ticketing, such as London’s successful Oyster card, offers convenience. It allows for integration of journeys across different transport modes – because the same smart card can be used to pay for trips by buses, underground and some overground trains.

Smart cards are set to be a part of rail franchises. Govia, which runs the Southern rail franchise of commuter lines out of London to the Kent and Sussex coasts, was the first to introduce a smart card – called the Key.

But smart cards are offered by only six of 29 train operating companies.

“There is a frustration that it [smart ticketing] has been slow,” says Antony Smith of Passenger Focus, the watchdog body.

Marrying technologies together has been challenging, because it involves operators abandoning commercial rivalries to collaborate. In the southeast of England, where most UK commuters are, there is a programme under way to launch smart cards across the region.

Smart cards offer other benefits. National Express, which operates the c2c line out of London’s Fenchurch Street to the Essex coast, will use smart cards to allow passengers to claim automatic compensation when trains are delayed, starting next December. For the operators, smart cards should be much cheaper than traditional paper tickets, which cost the rail industry £500m each year.



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