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Beyond the Digital Buzzwords

The New European Rail Supply Industry’s Vision on Digitalisation

By Tommaso Spanevello, Public Affairs Manager, UNIFE

In recent years, digitalisation has been advancing at increasing speed across all industrial sectors, public entities and society at large; and the rail sector is no exception. While sometimes perceived as being conservative, the truth is that rail transport has always been a frontier of technological progress, with the supply industry leading the way. With digitalisation, the pace of change in the sector has moved up a gear. There is a tangible confidence and optimism, shared by all rail actors, in the way digital technologies have the potential to create new growth, more efficient transport networks, strengthened safety, more efficient logistics and better use of the existing infrastructure.

Back in September 2016, UNIFE launched its first ‘digital manifesto’ for European railways, outlining the necessary steps for the rail sector to keep pace with disruptive technologies and services. Three years on, the most recent advances of rail in the digital arena have certainly shown that there is a remarkable level of engagement by the whole sector. Therefore, a new digital vision from the European rail supply industry – with new priorities and ambitions – was deemed necessary in order to embrace the latest digital concepts & trends. On 15 April this year, UNIFE released its new Vision Paper ‘Digital trends in the rail sector’, highlighting once again how vital it is for rail transport to maintain its commitment to making digitalisation not merely an objective in itself but rather a means to achieving more ambitious and overriding goals.

Concurrently, we continue to pay a high degree of attention to the initiatives taken at EU-level by the European Commission, European Parliament and Council. The European rail supply industry is confident that EU legislation and regulations shall support and facilitate the process of digital transformation in transport and the rail sector in particular, whilst also providing the necessary tools to safeguard this process.

A Comprehensive Look at UNIFE’s Vision Paper

In order to present the Vision Paper, we must start with the end-customers, namely the final user of the rail transport chain – either the individual passenger or the freight load. UNIFE believes that the ultimate benefit of the ‘final transport user’ remains at the heart of every digital transformation within the rail sector. That is the core around which the European suppliers and manufacturers have built their new digital vision.

Five majors interrelated ‘focus areas’ have been identified as key for enabling Europe’s rail sector and its supply industry to achieve the ambition of enhancing the experience of rail passengers and optimising logistics and boosting capacity for carrying freight:

  1. Big Data

  2. Cybersecurity

  3. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

  4. New mobility services

  5. Digitalisation of freight logistics services

The first two subjects, Big Data and cybersecurity, can be assessed together due to their strong mutual interlink. On the one hand, the importance of effectively collecting, managing and processing data is being increasingly acknowledged in the rail sector. In fact, the huge amount of data produced by the rail system can be turned into relevant information which, subsequently, can be used for targeted, effective decisions. Data gives actionable insight, providing the business intelligence to enhance performance and optimise strategies. On the other hand, if processing data contributes to making rail transport safer and more efficient for both passengers and freight, it also exposes it to cybersecurity risks. Indeed, as rail exploits the benefits of digitalisation, cyber-attacks become ever-more sophisticated, versatile and dynamic.

Arguably, understanding how Big Data and cybersecurity interrelate can lead the rail sector to assess how it can take full advantage of the available data, whilst also protecting that data effectively. First and foremost, we believe that increased transparency regarding the categorisation of data in the rail sector is necessary, therefore promoting a more collective view about which data may be shared among stakeholders. Moreover, adequate rules to provide a framework for data and information-sharing across the whole sector should be established, in order to fully harness the benefits of Big Data. At the same time, UNIFE considers essential the development of targeted cybersecurity-related skills, notably when it comes to the detection of and response to cyber-threats, as well as increasing the cyber-awareness regarding cyber-threats within each company and organisation. Eventually, security-by-design would be another crucial element for an effective cybersecurity strategy. In practical terms, this means increasing the focus on security aspects during the design process of a product, giving them the required priority and ensuring compliance with relevant regulations and standards at an early stage.

Following further across UNIFE’s new vision, as the ongoing changes in land transport systems enter the next phase in their evolution, few emerging technologies offer as many opportunities for the future of rail transport as Artificial Intelligence (AI) promises to do. In this context, UNIFE believes that rail should become a priority area for strategic investments in Artificial Intelligence. Arguably, given that rail is the most efficient mode of land transport – providing low-carbon mobility combined with high levels of energy efficiency, safety and capacity – we consider that rail transport offers unrivalled potential for realising the societal benefits of Artificial Intelligence. As a matter of fact, AI-related applications can be employed in a number of different segments of rail transport systems. European rail suppliers and manufacturers identify, in particular, enormous potential for AI-based technology to be applied in the areas of train operations & autonomous driving and mechanisation & robotisation.

The implementation of AI solutions in the area of autonomous driving is of particular importance for the European rail supply industry. Autonomous trams, metros and trains (passenger and freight transport) can indeed contribute to significantly increasing the capacity of rail networks. Assessable and certified AI-based technologies for safety-critical applications will be necessary to unlock the potential for autonomous driving – notably, this step would be carried out through new standardised certification processes and the possible creation of extensive open benchmark data sets. Furthermore, the European rail supply industry sees a significant scope for further mechanisation and robotisation in the building and maintenance of rail infrastructure. In this regard, AI-based technologies, fostered through machine-learning, could be used during maintenance execution and eventually become an essential element in multi-purpose equipment.

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