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Technology: transforming railway transportation

Railway transportation has a long history. Although the basic concept of low-friction wheels on rails remains the same, the implementation has undergone significant changes, buoyed by multiple technological interventions.

Technological innovations are expanding the capabilities of railway systems and helping to achieve faster speeds, greater capacity and better safety to compete with other forms of transportation. Technology has transformed the way the industry works globally, fuelled by railway operators’ eagerness to reap benefits by making their operations more efficient, safe and profitable.

Technology has the potential to impact five key dimensions of rail transportation (see figure below right).

Safety enhancement

Technology can make train operations safer by detecting flaws in the tracks, remote monitoring the tracks, digitising and automating maintenance, and improving basic processes such as welding and grinding. Improvements in signalling and telecommunication, crash safety of rolling stock, and surveillance of human operations can reduce errors and lessen the impact of accidents.

Infrastructure upgrades

Mechanised construction can enhance the speed for infrastructure upgrades (track laying and electrification) while improving cost-effectiveness.

Train operations effectiveness

The effectiveness of train operations is best measured through asset reliability, utilisation, and employee productivity. Technology can help improve asset reliability through sensor-based condition monitoring and data-driven predictive maintenance. Decision support systems can play a strong role in enhancing asset utilisation and employee productivity.

Passenger experience improvement

The passenger experience is formed at each step of the journey – from planning a trip and booking a ticket to travelling to the railway station, arriving at the station, and travelling on the train.

Technology can affect each stage of the experience. Seamless availability of information for planning, omnichannel ticket booking, smart railway stations, value-added services such as Wi-Fi and infotainment, and accurate train tracking based on GPS are just a few examples of ways that technology can enhance the passenger experience.

Organisational capability enhancement

Technology can have a powerful impact on an organisation’s capability through effective training and assisting in decision-making. With the introduction of virtual reality (VR) and gamification that can simulate real-life scenarios, training has been revolutionised. IT dashboards and management information systems have been used extensively across industries to enable data-driven decision-making.

In a recent joint report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and American global consulting firm, Kearney, they aimed to analyse the technology solutions and best practices used by global rail systems to understand how Indian Railways can improve the effectiveness of its operations.

Technology has the power to improve five dimensions of rail transportation. Source: Kearney analysis

These solutions and practices can also be used in a South African context. The solutions are structured across the five dimensions mentioned above. Following are some of the study’s key insights and recommendations across these dimensions:

1 | Safety enhancement

Four recommendations focus on achieving zero fatalities:

  • For track-related interventions, introduce B-scan ultrasonic rail flaw detection (both non-stop and stop-and-verify systems) and track inspection with automated high-speed test trains.
  • For signalling-related interventions, invest in the European Train Control System (ETCS) level 2 for high-density routes to increase network capacity and maintain the required safety standards.
  • For rolling stock, fast-track the switch of passenger rolling stock to Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches to minimise fatalities.
  • Increase view of personnel with interior and exterior locomotive-mounted video surveillance to improve monitoring.
2 | Infrastructure upgrades

Three recommendations can lead to faster and more robust infra-structure upgrades:

  • Invest in track-laying machines for mechanisation of construction.
  • Increase the rate of electrification through machines such as the self-propelled overhead electrification laying train (SPOLT).
  • Proliferate use of prefabrication for construction elements.
3 | Train operations effectiveness

Four recommendations are designed to increase asset availability and utilisation:

  • Invest in technologies such as complete train scanners for improved diagnostics and maintenance.
  • Use operations optimisation tools for better management and performance of trains, rakes, locomotives and crews.
  • Digitise processes to enhance work quality and lower costs, thereby reducing reliance on labour-intensive processes.
  • Use distributed power to improve the efficiency of train operations with coordinated acceleration and deceleration.
4 | Passenger experience improvement

To retain the passengers that the railway carries, enhancing the passenger experience will be crucial:

  • Establish smart railway stations by implementing access control at entry points, provide accurate real-time information, and put interactive solutions in place.
  • Upgrade the ticketing experience with seamless integration across platforms and open-loop smart cards.
  • Enhance the train experience with services such as infotainment and app-based systems.
5 | Organisational capability enhancement

Two recommendations aim to enhance capability and improve management reporting:

  • Use training simulators and virtual reality training systems to improve personnel capabilities.
  • Enhance decision-making by improving information management with management reporting dashboards.

Implementing these technology solutions will be essential for rail transport in South Africa to get closer to the world-class standard for train operations. However, selecting and implementing technology as well as obtaining the optimum economic benefits will require adopting innovative procurement models.


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