Putting smarter rail transportation on the fast track
In regions throughout the world, the public and private sectors recognize the need for a better transportation infrastructure. And increasingly, they see the potential of smarter railroads to address that need. But how do we get there?
Through the vagaries of history, geography, economics and politics, some continents (such as Europe) are much farther along in optimizing their transportation infrastructure for train passengers, even as others (especially North America) outpace them in the use of rail for freight transportation. Each could learn something from the other. We've reached an historic point—whereby technological advancements now meet the societal, environmental and financial demands for a more efficient and intelligent transportation system. An instrumented, interconnected and intelligent transportation infrastructure—and smarter railroads, in particular—could make the global economy stronger, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, make highways safer and reduce road congestion. A smarter planet, in other words, needs smarter railroads.
Japan's Tokaito Shinkansen, the world's most heavily traveled high-speed rail link, has an annual average delay of only 30 seconds.
Amtrak operates on 22,000 miles of track-97% of which is owned by freight railroads.
In the next five years, an estimated $300 billion will be spent globally on railway development and upgrades.
The smarter railroad: an opportunity for the railroad industry
In 2009, the global rail industry struggled to meet the increasing demand for freight and passenger transportation. While it is natural for business to brace itself during difficult economic times, this is actually the opposite of what rail executives need to be doing today. This report explains why now is the time to invest in creating real innovation for an industry that needs to launch itself forward to meet the needs of the 21st century.
Railroads have always been part of a wider ecosystem—in the early 20th century, railroads even helped pave the roadways that connected farmers, commodity merchants and travelers to the rail lines. In the 21st century, rail companies will continue to collaborate with and extend their networks across an even wider array of the transportation infrastructure, including travel partners, suppliers, logistics service providers, intermodal carriers, regulatory agencies and customers.
IBM researcher Laura Wynter discusses how IBM is working to build smarter railways in some of the most complex transit systems in the world, partnering with Netherlands Railways, the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation and Guangzhou Metro in China to improve the commute of millions of travelers every day.
Each year, rail lines carry 21 billion passengers and 10 billion tons of freight worldwide.
Rail carries 6.25% of all intercity passenger traffic in Europe, comared to 0,3% in the United States.
However, only 18% of intercity treight travels by rail in Europe, compared to 47% in the United States.
Note: For intercity freight by rail, air and pipeline transport is excluded. All percentages are estimates.
Railroads need to become even more instrumented. Already, trackside devices monitor acoustic signatures and heat and wheel impact at most North American and many European railroads. RFID tags, read by fixed infrastructure along the wayside, help identify rail cars, while wireless networks and video systems provide monitoring of assets in rail yards. But new business models and practices are also coming into use. Passengers can be charged based on actual usage. Maintenance can be initiated based on accurate need predictions, rather than regulated schedules. And advanced cameras and video systems can provide better security for passengers, rolling stock and freight.
Rail networks are one of industry's earliest examples of an interconnected system, but vast opportunities exist for improvement today. Block train scheduling can create greater utilization of assets and capacity for both passengers and freight. Broader networks of high-speed passenger rail—with integrated systems of schedules, ticketing and services—are in development across Europe and in China, even as European and Canadian rail system manufacturers are looking beyond their more mature markets to ambitious rail projects in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Putting all this data and process to work will require a transportation infrastructure that is measurably more intelligent. The benefits, however, make rail the transportation option of the future. Mobile condition-based monitoring systems will provide railroads with more intelligence through continuous real-time capture and analysis of critical data, such as the health of rolling stock, as well as operational data, from manifest verifications to freight condition and intrusion detection. Sensors on cars will trigger messages based on decision modeling and analytics. Autonomic routines will then distribute the information appropriately, dispatching service, ordering parts, scheduling maintenance and performing remote diagnostics. Eventually, such mobile technologies could reduce the need for fixed infrastructure along the wayside and give railroads the flexibility and responsiveness they need to make decisions to optimize crew schedules, add or remove cars, and integrate passenger and freight transport more seamlessly, with far fewer delays.
It won't happen without investment and clear priorities. But smarter railroads can create competitive advantages in the ecosystem of transportation infrastructure for rail companies. Smarter railroads can reduce the costs of adding new lines and rolling stock even as they increase customer service in a capacity constrained environment. And by taking on more freight and passenger traffic, smarter railroads can reduce congestion and improve safety on highways—which will also reduce carbon emissions.
In the 19th century, railroads provided transportation for the industrial revolution. Now, poised to become instrumented, interconnected and intelligent, they're an important part of building a smarter planet.
Smarter transportation means better systems for rail, air, public transit and freight. These can improve our cities, our economy and our daily lives.
Improving mobility for the 21st century