The Future of Intelligent Trains Through Smarter Tracks & Rail Infrastructure: Improve Everything by Aaron Allsbrook

January 21, 2020

Remember information superhighways? As the Internet exploded in the 1990s, there was a lot of talk about the digital paths made possible by high-speed networking, as trillions of dollars poured into IP infrastructure – from fiber-optic subsea cables to fiber rings in smart cities, creating a new super-fast and resilient system for transmitting data, thanks to the early work done by ARPA and others in the decades previous.

What some may not realize is that there has been a strong and strategic between physical infrastructure developers (including rail), and the implementation of twisted copper in the beginning, and advanced fiber optic cabling today which has been increasingly embedded into construction projects. Telecom companies like British Telecom (BT) have for many years leased space from rail operators. A pioneer in this space was British Rail Telecommunications, created in 1992 by British Rail (BR). It was the largest private telecoms network in Britain, consisting of 17,000 route kilometers of fiber optic and copper cable which connected every major city and town in the country and provided links to continental Europe through the Channel Tunnel, which helped establish one of the largest Internet communications companies in the world, Vodafone, by laying a resilient figure-of-eight fiber-optic network alongside Britain’s railway lines.

BR Telecommunications Limited (BRT) was created in 1992 to grow, maintain and manage not only the leased right-of-way but one of the largest voice, data and radio networks in the world at that time, also associated with the operational running of the railway and its business needs.

Fast forward to 2020, and we’re now in an incredibly exciting time for rail service providers to fully leverage the fiber that is literally embedded into its physical infrastructure to further “digitally transform” operations, improving safety and service to passengers.

Today, intelligent IoT architectures and analytics software like the ClearBlade platform is solving layers of challenges through real-time connectivity across many domains, including rail crossing safety, traffic, and congestion management, route and schedule optimization, and of course passenger experience.

The rail industry is massive, and growing, especially as urban centers expand.

In 2018, passengers traveled around 28 billion passenger-kilometers on railways in North and South America. Worldwide, passengers traveled around three trillion passenger-kilometers on railway networks in that year.

In the New York City metro area alone, the Metropolitan Transit Authority logs more than 3.4 billion passenger trips each year with over 12 billion miles traveled.

Europe’s rail system, meanwhile, carried 9.3 billion passengers and traveled 583 billion kilometers.

In the US, we’re in a growing economy, and this is further driving the need for public transportation, and rail companies are scrambling to update their infrastructure after decades of under-investment.

The good news is, in the process of upgrading physical infrastructure, the most successful rail companies in North America are investing in embedding IoT and Industrial IoT applications into their upgrades including to address enhanced safety regulations, including Positive Train Control (PTC), mandated after a series of tragic and deadly accidents, including preventable accidents at train crossings.

According to a UIC report (a must-read for those who are passionate about the modernization of the rail industry), the rail industry needs to develop better ways “to increase punctuality, safety-security, and capacity, improve performance at a system level, and remove barriers to seamless intermodal transport and railway interoperability.”

The report recommends:

  • Enhanced automation: Focus on full integration of intelligent communication technology (ICT) and applications between the user, the vehicle, traffic management services, and operation.
  • Adaptability: Allow operators to respond in a flexible manner to changes in users’ demands and constraints.
  • Resilience: Focus on ensuring service levels are maintained even under extreme operating conditions.

There are so many IIoT technologies can do to improve across all three of these domains, which we are actively proving out in over half a dozen implementations among top rail operators in the US. With a number of “use cases,” what we have experienced generally is that the use of secure edge devices managed by advanced IoT architectures like ours can work both locally (“edge computing” for real-time automation, robotic process automation, and more) while also leveraging gateways that can aggregate data from these devices and send that data into the cloud to enrich business applications. With the right approach, the gateway layer can also execute real-time actions and rules, which is 100% required when it comes to reliable safety applications that can have life or death consequences.

Intelligent IoT systems like ClearBlade allow communication among edge devices, the cloud, and the back office or data center allows a business to perform analysis at the right place and right time, in near-real-time or even real-time, when milliseconds at the edge make all the difference. Not only are rail operators improving operations day-to-day, they are leveraging historical data for predictive analytics which means better, more cost-effective maintenance – which also makes transportation safer and more reliable.

Smart transportation systems, including rail infrastructure, will continue to be a major focus of ClearBlade in 2020 and the years ahead. To learn more, feel free to reach out via our website.

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