Digital rail: "Strengthening infrastructure to increase customer satisfaction"
Rail can be a mode of transport of the future – providing rail operators invest in digital innovations now. umlaut expert Markus Jordans points the way.
The trains are still running – even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis. Nevertheless, there are a number of critical questions that Deutsche Bahn needs to find answers to – regarding punctuality, efficiency and their slow progress when it comes to modernisation. Is this what a mobility provider of the future looks like?
To me, the fact that rail operators are demonstrating their efficiency in the midst of the coronavirus crisis is proof that rail is an essential component of our mobility landscape. But I’m actually more interested in the long-term trends: the fact that people want to live more sustainably and reduce their personal carbon footprint – and are therefore switching to rail as their preferred method of transport. This is a development that will also help climate protection efforts on a European level. Recently, the “European Green Deal” was announced, a programme with the ambitious goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions completely by 2050. As a relatively environmentally-friendly mode of transport, rail can make an important contribution to the achievement of this goal – for both passenger and freight transport.
What changes are needed?
The rail network is close to its capacity limits. Even the smallest of disruptions can have far-reaching effects on operations. For passengers, this means delays, cancellations and sometimes very overcrowded trains. The efficiency of freight transport is suffering for the same reason. Investments in new infrastructure are urgently needed, but the digitalisation of the rail system can help to optimise the use of existing resources. The digitalised and intelligent control of operations allows shorter distances between trains and paves the way for a high degree of automation – up to fully automated operation without a train driver.
What are the challenges in automation and digitisation?
We are dealing with a series of different technologies: digital signal boxes, sensors, new video technology that makes it possible to detect potential obstructions on the tracks at high speeds, for example. These systems require a lot of data to be simultaneously transmitted and evaluated. What is missing at the moment, however, is reliable broadband connectivity – an access network that can rapidly transport all this information to wherever it needs to go. The system currently in use for this purpose is still based on a standard that was developed more than thirty years ago. This network, which is known as GSM-R, is simply not capable of transmitting the large quantities of data that are required for complete digitalisation.
How can this problem be solved?
With the new 5G networks and the transmission system for railway companies based on them, the Future Railway Mobile Communication System – FRMCS. This will make the reliable transmission of very large quantities of data possible. The first commercial 5G networks are currently commencing operations. Whether Deutsche Bahn will set up their own infrastructure or whether it will be possible for them to enter into collaboration with mobile phone operators has not yet been finally clarified. It is critical, however, that they ensure very careful planning of the network and equally careful expansion of the network along the rail routes to allow them to make full use of the potential that 5G offers for rail transport. Here at umlaut, we are well equipped to offer support in this field with our years of experience working in mobile communications and rail transport.
Will the introduction of a 5G network solve all the problems?
The changeover from the old to the new technology calls for a very cleverly conceived introduction strategy. After all, it is not only a question of switching on new applications, but also of transferring already existing applications that are still critical to operations and safety. And it is important that this doesn’t cause any additional disruption. The whole process is very complex and it is absolutely essential to ensure both good preparation and good management in the implementation phase. This applies both to the introduction of the new technology and to the implementation of new procedures in the existing Deutsche Bahn organisations. This will be a very important process running in parallel to the modernisation of the rail network in the coming years.
Markus Jordans is Managing Director of umlaut solutions GmbH. He and his team have accompanied Deutsche Bahn with countless projects related to the digitalisation of trains and the rail infrastructure. Their approach: think digital, end-to-end implementation.