The Internet of Things; promising to drive major changes into rail transportation

3 mins read

With global passenger traffic expected to double by 2020, the railway industry worldwide faces pressure to improve the passenger experience. To passengers, that might mean improved on-time performance, more on-board amenities, and more timely information. For railway operators, however, the most important part of the experience is getting passengers safely to their destinations.

Among many of the initiatives to update the world’s aging transportation, the introduction and use of train management systems (TMS) is a key priority. In a TMS, trains become interconnected communication hubs, transmitting data among themselves and to network control centres, and receiving instructions from the control centres. Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, centrally managed in a cloud-based architecture, enables operators to utilize equipment, tracks and stations more efficiently, while dramatically reducing safety risks. With operational criteria much like other M2M projects, such as those in the industrial automation markets, many of these projects are evolving into IoT-based applications. Safety is the primary requirement of IoT applications and solutions for a TMS. For example, one critical application is on-board train location and detection systems that enable trains to be “aware” of the positions of other trains. This reduces the risk of collisions while enabling trains to operate safely in close proximity to one another, thereby making more efficient use of track capacity.

Speed monitoring and control is another important safety application. Systems have been developed that can display train velocity for drivers and report speeds back to central control systems. When onboard monitoring systems are interconnected with wayside signalling systems, they can regulate train speeds or even command trains to stop based on track conditions, the positions of switches, the presence of other trains on the track and other factors.

Once the monitoring and communication infrastructure is in place to connect safety applications, it can also be used for non-safety critical applications, enabling operators to leverage their investment. By transmitting real-time, system-wide location data to control centres, onboard systems help operators optimize the deployment of equipment and allocation of track capacity to avoid bottlenecks and congestion. Metro and commuter trains can utilize train data to relay departure, arrival, or train delay information to customers via mobile apps.

Besides bringing greater safety and efficiency to the movement of rail traffic, the IoT can also help keep equipment performing reliably while maximizing time on the tracks with preventive maintenance. Onboard sensors monitor equipment for signs of wear and alert operators when critical parts are in need of attention. This cuts costs and helps optimize asset utilization by reducing the need to take trains out of service for routine inspections and preventive maintenance – or for costly repairs after a failure has occurred.

More than operations and maintenance, though, the IoT has the potential to alter the prevailing business models that rail system operators and their suppliers have traditionally run on. Instead of selling equipment to operators, manufacturers or distributors can lease it based on usage metrics that remote sensors can track – for example, distances travelled or weight of cargo carried. This gives the manufacturer a steady source of revenue while turning the operator’s cost from a capital to an operating expense. This fundamental change in business model, from a product-based approach to a service-based model is having a major transformative effect across many different industries, not only that of rail transportation.

A barrier for many operators, however, is that they have a substantial investment in legacy systems and equipment that have performed independently and were not designed for connectivity. While operators may be keen to reap the economies, efficiencies, and opportunities that the IoT promises, they also have an understandable interest in protecting that investment. The challenge for developers of IoT solutions is to find ways to connect these previously unconnected systems so that operators do not have to rip out and replace their entire infrastructure in order to realize the benefits of IoT. And in addition that needs to be achieved with the utmost attention to systems security.

Clearly, the Internet of Things creates many opportunities for those involved in rail transportation. Not only does it enable many aspects of operational management as well as improving the overall customer experience but the very transformative nature of IoT changes the traditionally capital-intensive approach that has stifled the growth of the global rail industry for decades. Use of IoT sensors, actuators and systems can also provide economies of scale as embedded devices; connectivity modules and operating software are suitable across many different and diverse industries.

To embrace this approach engineers need to address the issues of safety, connectivity and security. This can be achieved with an end-to-end vision that links every part of an overall solution from the smart devices on trains that generate data, to the gateways that aggregate it, to the applications in the cloud that analyse it. This encompasses everything from the embedded software running edge devices to the systems used to monitor and manage those devices remotely. The use of pre-integrated, pre-validated components can significantly accelerate and streamline the development process, while more efficiently complying with the rail industry’s stringent safety certifications. Security from edge device to the cloud is crucial as is the ability for developers to combine components so they can skip the long and difficult process of building their own infrastructure and custom-coding software, and to focus their energies and resources on perfecting their solutions. This adds up to substantial savings for both developers and their customers, and speeds the delivery of solutions so that rail operators – as well as their passengers – can start realizing the benefits of the IoT.

As they say, “there is nothing so constant as change” but these changes are really significant for rail transportation and other mass transit systems. And that’s good news for all of us.