For more than two centuries, railroads have been a critical component of the transportation network – and an integral link in the global supply chain, stretching from the movement of raw materials to bulk shipment of finished products. In today’s world, the rail industry still has a vital role to play in the movement of people and goods. In fact, demand should increase for rail transportation given that the trucking industry is hampered by rising fuel prices, increased government regulation, and the expanding mandate for sustainability in logistics (rail is one of the greenest modes of transportation).
Rising demand is always welcome – but making the most of this opportunity demands a new commitment to optimization, agility, and performance. The most successful railroads of the future will be those that embrace the technological innovations created by digitalization. As an old-line and often highly regulated industry, many rail companies are slow to change and still use legacy IT systems, limiting resource efficiency, undermining reliability, and preventing companies from responding quickly to changing needs.
Wipro expects to see more railroads leverage digitalization, artificial intelligence, and data analytics to significantly reduce costs and improve efficiency – critical to taking advantage of new demands and to growing returns in this capital- and asset-intensive industry.
Digital Technology and Railways
Many of the traditional functional necessities of the rail industry can benefit from digitalization and artificial intelligence, including traffic planning, operations management, power supply and infrastructure management, maintenance and support, station controls, communication networks, and rail-facility information management. In particular, advanced digital communication and on-train processing will enable greater precision when it comes to tracking the speed and location of trains and improves efficiency and performance.
More recent technological innovations include:
- Automatic train control systems reduce technical errors and improve traffic flows.
- Autonomous vehicles will improve the loading/unloading process and cargo management in general.
- Internet of things (IoT) technology is enabling condition-based monitoring that minimizes delays resulting from track and train failures.
- Artificial intelligence is improving traffic planning, control, and optimization of railroad operations.
- Some rail companies are using drones for remote inspection and robotic systems for infrastructure cleaning and maintenance.
In addition, 5G networking technology will be a major catalyst for transformation of the rail industry. It will enable “smart trains” with more efficient safety and signalling systems, and, when combined with IoT technology, can automate predictive and preventative maintenance. This improves service reliability and extends the useful life and productivity of high-value assets.
Wipro expects to see many more use cases that combine 5G with artificial intelligence such as machine vision-based obstacle detection systems and machine vision-based rolling stock inspection, greatly reducing the need for human attention. Digital twin technology can help railroads address the challenges of derailment, rail breaks, and fasteners.
Digitalization and data analytics can also give railroads new ways to improve passenger experiences and to understand delays.
It’s worth noting that efficiency and performance improvements will also make railroads that much more sustainable, further increasing their viability in a time of urgency with respect to climate change.
Given the enormous complexity of the rail business – the need to track and manage assets and cargoes anywhere, anytime, and managing a geographically dispersed workforce – the potential impact of digitalization in terms of efficiency and flexibility is enormous.
The fact that the rail industry has been slow to adopt digital technologies is itself an opportunity. Embracing digital technologies will foster an open and transparent environment and also help in moving towards a faster, more process-centric approach. Implementing digital technologies for resolving business problems holds the key.
Rail industry participants can gain real competitive advantage by using digital to optimize their infrastructure, their ongoing operations, and the experiences for their freight customers and passengers.