What is the future of rail?

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As part of our Future of Rail project, our research gives a few insights into the future of our sector and more importantly how we should respond.

We don’t know what will happen, but the major trends appear to be: 

  1. There will be more demand for public transport 
  2. There will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events

Reducing carbon from car and air travel and getting passengers to their destination as efficiently as possible is exactly what we want to be doing, but it is right to assume that more passengers and more trains will provide challenges for our rail network.

More maintenance crews could be needed to deal with the increased wear and tear of the track, more trains could mean a need for quicker turn arounds in cases of incidents on the track, extreme weather incidents or maintenance. Platform staff will need to be on hand in stations to improve the passenger experience, keep everyone safe and provide information in the case of journey changes, lost property or station information.

Control rooms will be key to providing drivers, operations and platform staff as well customer services information with real time information and staff with experience helping passengers will be invaluable to translate this data into a useable form for passengers and staff to use, whether this be straight to their phones or in person. The increase in data will need to be analysed to influence decisions about how to allocate resources and improve the railway infrastructure.

Even if more people buy their tickets online, any increase in passengers will mean an increase in questions and support provided by our members in many forms.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is the current and developing environment in which disruptive technologies and trends such as the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the way we live and work.

Technology/Automation trends

Britain is investing in major infrastructure schemes worth more than £600bn over the next decade. This will need training and skills of new and existing staff to deliver the labour to make these projects real. These are our members, and we need to ensure their voice is heard in this transition.

Following an underinvestment in research and development, the UK is behind our counterparts in the creation of new technologies. But going forward Digital Rail will allow more trains to travel faster and closer together and passengers are more and more using their phones to buy tickets and get real time travel information.

We want our workforce to be skilled up to manage the change and be at the cutting edge of this internationally staffed industry. The most effective and cost-efficient way of doing that is to ensure existing staff are up-skilled or re-skilled over a planned period of time.

Here are some of the changes that staff could cover in the future.

  • Intelligent Apps. In 2018 seven in ten commuters reported using their smartphone on their journey. Apps can be built that use both historical and real-time data to make predictions and decisions and deliver a personalised experience for users. More than just booking tickets, for organising travel and making the user aware of changes or delays to schedules. They could also be a part of on-board for both passengers and staff offering a real time and accurate view of the journey and improving our passengers’ experience. These apps will need people to feed in information and answer questions, given the skills to do so, there is no reason why these should not be our members.
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) enables metros, passenger and freight services to use sensors and Machine2Machine learning, to gather and analyse information from a wide variety of sources and data streams. For example, trains have onboard monitoring devices that can monitor the state of the track and feed it into maintenance teams. This can be applied to engineering, maintenance, signalling, communications, ticketing and the on-board experience.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are already being used. For example Bombardier is developing its ‘virtual manufacturing’ technology which allowed designers to create a 3-D model of a product and to also virtually test the efficiency of its performance and Greater Anglia has been showing passengers what they might expect from their incoming train services with an interactive virtual reality headset that lands people in a simulated train carriage, visualising a £1.4bn investment slated for 2019.
  • Cyber breaches - Rail and metro operators are susceptible on two fronts to cyber threats; losing control of the operational aspect of the trains themselves and of the increasingly large data they harvest be it of a technical, passenger or financial nature. Network Rail, the owner and operator of most of the UK rail infrastructure acknowledged the threat stating; “We know that the risk of a cyber-attack will increase as we continue to roll out digital technology across the network.” These vulnerabilities are coming from a wide variety of sources, it’s estimated that 90% of our devices are unsecured. We will need skilled staff and investment to keep on top of our cyber security.
  • Alternative technology disrupters Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Who knows what could turn up in the rail industry? The trick is to be innovative and to employ creative and diverse problem-solving teams.
  • Increase in big-data partnerships. The Rail Delivery Group has a sustained campaign to simplify rail fares. This would be much easier under public ownership, but how Train Operating Companies (TOCs) react to this call for regulatory changes can deliver benefits for passengers. Like an up-to-date, easier to use system where they have more control over when they travel and how much they pay. Apps from Trainline, Great Western Railway and Virgin Trains already mine countless terabytes of information from their user bases; it’s ripe for sharing with brands like Uber, who can offer further travel bolt-ons within the same application.

Is that what we want? 
Or do we want to use the technology to make bus and train timetables link together for a joined up public transport network for the many not the few? Big Data is out there, but who it benefits is currently up for grabs. By collecting real-time reports of passenger volume, network faults, repair schedules and weather forecasts, organisations can predict where a delay might occur and minimise debilitating hold-ups for passengers.

The case for a just transition
We know that whatever the technology, the railways will be driven by our members, we need to make the case for a transition where our members’ voices are listened to and their views are included in decisions about where investment goes and how it is used. The danger of not doing this could be damaging for our sector and ultimately for passengers.

Rail organisations need to look at how they are project managing change and how existing staff can be upskilled or re-skilled to fit into that fairly. Ultimately it will save money and improve the speed at which change can happen. I am on board to sit down with as many industry leaders as necessary to work through this with them. We have armies of reps with a wealth of experience who can see the pros and cons of all the changes. We set these structures up for a reason, they keep our industry motivated, safe and skilled. Going forward our voices must be heard.

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Manuel Cortes

Manuel Cortes is the general secretary of TSSA, trade union for the transport and travel trade industries.