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Cisco and NRT Take Smart Railways Beyond the Station

Gregory Butler & Simon Atterwell

Gregory Butler & Simon Atterwell

Compared to the automotive and aviation industries, railways can seem rather antiquated. But trains are actually vitally important for modern digital infrastructure.

Rail systems can provide high-speed Internet connectivity to rural areas. They can help cut carbon emissions. And they can provide a surprising array of services to local communities.

Take the Marsden train station in West Yorkshire as an example. When an impending disaster was expected to hit this area, companies like Cisco and Network Rail Telecom (NRT) teamed up to leverage government-owned fiber running through the station and third-party radios to provide communications and connectivity to the community. The UK National Health Service was then able to set up telehealth pods for remote consultations, testing, and diagnosis. And that’s only one way rail technology is used for the greater good.

In this podcast, we examine all opportunities that rail technology offers, smart rail benefits for both employees and passengers, and ongoing collaborations to improve rail operations and management.

Our Guest: Cisco

Our guests this episode are Gregory Butler, Industry Lead for Rail for the global technology company Cisco, and Simon Atterwell, Managing Director of NRT. Together, Greg and Simon are working to deliver a next-generation telecommunications rail network in the UK.

Greg has more than 25 years of experience in IT sales and business leadership roles. At Cisco, he focuses on the entire rail industry from consulting and sales to delivery and operations.

At Network Rail Telecom, Simon and his team focus on enabling an operationally safe railway through end-to-end management, maintenance, and support of wireless telecommunications.

Podcast Topics

Gregory and Simon answer our questions about:

  • (2:31) Biggest transformations in the rail industry
  • (4:44) How technology can meet new demands
  • (7:51) Importance of agile development and collaboration
  • (9:53) Rail technology benefits for both passengers and staff
  • (13:07) Smart rail possibilities from working with partners
  • (22:51) Using rail technology to reach carbon-neutral goals
  • (25:14) What global peers can learn from NRT and Cisco

Related Content

To learn more about advancements in rail technology, read Now Boarding: The Future of Smart Railways. For the latest innovations from Cisco and NRT, follow them on Twitter at @Cisco and @NetworkRail, and on LinkedIn at Cisco and Network-Rail.

This podcast was edited by Christina Cardoza, Associate Content Director for

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Kenton Williston: Welcome to the IoT Chat, where we explore the trends that matter for consultants, systems integrators, and enterprises. I’m Kenton Williston, the Editor-in-Chief of Every episode, we talk to a leading expert about the latest developments in the Internet of Things.

Today I’m talking about the way smart railways benefit communities. From providing high-speed Internet connectivity to cutting carbon emissions, trains are doing a lot more than just delivering people and goods. Here to talk about this is Greg Butler from Cisco and Simon Atterwell from Network Rail Telecom.

So, Greg, I really appreciate you joining us today.

Greg Butler: You’re very welcome.

Kenton Williston: And Simon, likewise, welcome to the show.

Simon Atterwell:  Thank you, Kenton.

Kenton Williston: So I’ll start back with you Greg. Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your role?

Greg Butler: My name is Greg Butler. I am the industry lead for Rail at Cisco for the UK What that actually means is my team is responsible for the entire rail industry and we cover everything from consulting, sales, through to delivery and operate.

Kenton Williston: Fabulous. Looking forward to getting into more of what that means in practice. So Simon, how about you? Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself and your role and what Network Rail does?

Simon Atterwell: Absolutely. I’m Simon Atterwell, I’m the Managing Director of Network Rail Telecom, and together with my highly capable team, I’m responsible and accountable for all of the operational effectiveness of the critical National Telecoms Infrastructure that forms part of a safe system for rail emergency call communications, operational voice, power, control systems, track worker safety, train movement, corporate connectivity, and many other things as well. Ultimately this is all about providing the fixed and wireless national infrastructure that supports delivering millions of passengers home safe every day, together with millions of tons of freight to its destination every day. And that helps both in terms of passenger movement, but also by getting cars off the road. It also helps with establishing credentials for achieving our Net Zero carbon agenda and targets.

Kenton Williston: Got it. I think this is a great chance for me to ask you then Simon, what are some of the biggest areas in which you see the rail industry changing at the moment?

Simon Atterwell: From a change point of view, it’s largely in response to the pandemic, which has decimated the UK railway and the industry. Our ridership and our revenues are significantly and dramatically reduced. But in saying that, we recognize that actually the opportunity is to make the railway a much more data-driven railway and a much more digitized railway, to actually fundamentally reshape the experience for passengers. So I think ultimately it’s about evolving a modernizing per our passengers’ needs, because we recognize that working habits are changing, and we need to respond to a slightly different passenger demographic. We really need to focus in and ratchet up the level of innovation and partnerships with industry in order to accelerate the testing of new technology, and also to deliver solutions that really make us much more of a data-driven railway. So digital rail corridor and data-driven railway are the two key changes we need to make. So passenger experience becomes supremely important.

And coupled with that, in terms of making an environment that is attractive to our passengers and safe for our staff, it’s about making sure that we have the right digital tools and capabilities to make the stations, the platforms, and the whole rail environment much more safe and secure. And examples of that would include things like face-mask detection, passenger-movement controls, looking at monitoring and managing queues, and many other rail use cases that can be enhanced through the use of digital technology.

Kenton Williston: So that is quite the laundry list. Greg, there’s a lot of challenges in there from Cisco’s perspective, I’m sure, on how to actually enable all these things and bring them to fruition. What are the ways that you are pushing technology forward to meet all these new demands?

Greg Butler: The world has changed for us as an organization as well, you know? There was a very quick shift from office workers to home workers for a lot of organizations, in particular Network Rail, and all of a sudden things that we hadn’t even dreamed of that would be what has become the norm. It was very clear in the early days when Simon’s and my teams all sat down together that we had to focus on a whole set of use cases, which we maybe wouldn’t normally take responsibility for before. We had to very quickly leverage our capabilities and might to support our customers, particularly customers that enact critical national infrastructure like rail. Simon and I have been very focused on not only encouraging passengers to come back to the rail as a mode of transport, but also to deliver a better passenger experience.

And to do that there’s a whole wider set of digital services that need to be created and developed and implemented in a manner that we’ve never seen before, and in the speed that we’ve never seen before. We’ve been incredibly successful so far in a lot of the work that we’ve been doing with Network Rail Telecom, identifying and now already deploying solutions that can do things like Simon said. For example, face-mask detection. And you know what? Six months ago, I think we all hoped that that was something that might go away, but it doesn’t feel like, to me, it’s going to go away any time soon. But of course those same technologies and solutions can actually deliver other use cases that use visual-center analytics to help crowds social distancing, but also non-COVID-related use cases such as abandoned luggage or suspicious packages, potential trespass or antisocial behavior or vandalism. And also be able to inform not just passengers, but also employees as well.

Kenton Williston: Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the things that I’m hearing here that’s really intriguing to me, and something that I’m seeing broadly across all industries, all market segments really, is how important it is for all sorts of players in these spaces to work together. So you have the service providers like a Network Rail, you’ve got the technology providers like Cisco, you’ve got the foundational technology companies like Intel.

And this is as good a juncture as any for me to mention that the program and this podcast are Intel productions. The technologies that are in play here are so complex and needing such rapid innovation, including in sectors that traditionally when you think of rail, a lot of people think of as sort of an old fashioned technology, something, especially here in the States, people picture UK rail as being Harry Potter with steam engines, but that’s not really accurate. But nonetheless it is still an “older technology” that is rapidly adopting I think a lot of new practices, and I’m seeing that same sort of trend everywhere across transportation. Public transit, whether it’s freight, passenger, rail, buses, everything, that there’s just—because of everything that’s been happening with the pandemic especially—just has been an urgent need for agile development of new technologies. And I think the only way we were going to get there is for this kind of collaboration you’ve been outlining to be really the driving force behind that. Nobody can really do it by themselves.

Simon Atterwell: We’ve had to respond in a very agile way in order to accommodate large swaths of our workforce now working from home. And therefore that’s meant a lot of collaboration, not just with industry, but also inside Network Rail. That learning from the pandemic, if we take any positive away from it, is about the holy trinity. And when I say holy trinity, I mean the need to work closely with our colleagues inside rail and also outside rail to really leverage and exploit the technology capability and expertise that’s available to better serve our colleagues across Network Rail, of which there’s about 40,000, as well as our passengers of which I’ve mentioned many millions alongside our freight customers. So yeah, it’s very much about collaboration Kenton.

Kenton Williston: Yeah. I think another thing that really comes to the surface in everything that I’m hearing is how these benefits are multifaceted in the sense that there’s benefits to the UK government, there’s benefits to Network Rail, there’s benefits to the passengers, there’s benefits to the staff. This is really a multifaceted set of challenges, but also opportunities that we’re talking about here. Greg, you did touch on this briefly. I’d love to hear a little bit more how you see some of these technological advances in particular improving the lives of the human beings who are actually on the trains in the stations. Tell me a little bit more about how you see technology benefiting staff and passengers in the rail industry.

Greg Butler: It’s probably useful just to go back to the previous point around collaboration. And it is really when you see the caliber of people around you when you have a crisis. And the pandemic, I think firmly sits in the category of crisis. And one of the pieces of work that we did early in the pandemic with Simon and his team was in West Yorkshire, in Marsden. We recognized there was going to be—there was an impending disaster around care homes, and in particular care homes in rural communities that have poor connectivity and less-than-average service. We actually went out to a fairly small, innocuous station in West Yorkshire, a place called Marsden, and we worked together with Simon and his team to tap into government-owned fiber that ran past Marsden and gave us a 10-gig link. And then using third-party radios, we were then able to beam out from a station mast into and around the community of Marsden. And that was a 1-gig link.

Now obviously there’s the connectivity piece, but the connectivity then enabled working with the National Health Service. We deployed effectively a telehealth pod, which meant that you could actually not just do remote consultations, but actually do remote testing and diagnosis as well. And of course, from a COVID perspective, the benefits of that are obvious. But of course longer term it’s a sustainable solution using Network Rail or government assets, using highways lamp posts to attach radios to light up these rural communities. But of course, the benefits beyond COVID are evident.

And then of course on top of that then we started to do things like deploy cameras into Marsden station, start to do the smart analytics. We also started working with a different type of partner. So organizations like Intel have been incredibly supportive of these initiatives, particularly in the UK with rail. We’ve done some quite tremendous things with them already, but I think working with partners like Intel, working with some of our more homegrown talent and people like Purple, we’ve actually been able to create the services that have the capabilities that drive better outcomes for people, passengers, but also local communities.

Kenton Williston: You know, something really strikes me about this broader context that you’re providing here in terms of what these technology platforms can deliver. We just heard an awful lot about things that were really secondary or even tertiary to the core mission of rail service, right? Like providing reliable high speed internet connections to areas that wouldn’t otherwise have it. It is not something you would think of as being a central part of what a rail system needs to deliver. But I think what’s interesting to me about that is it really speaks to when you have the right infrastructure in place, you can innovate on top of that in a lot of really interesting ways that you might not have even been thinking about ahead of time. And Simon, I’d love to hear a little bit more from your perspective about why you’re working with Cisco, why you’re working with Intel, and how using their platforms is opening up some of these new possibilities for you.

Simon Atterwell: Yeah, for sure. I kind of see our network as a unique asset for the UK So I’m going to call it UK PLC. And I think our network reaches parts that other networks don’t reach, because actually, where every piece of track goes—and bearing in mind that’s to most towns, villages, and cities in the UK—our network follows—both our fixed and our wireless networks follow. And we have an opportunity, when I say we, I mean ourselves, Cisco, Intel and other solution vendors, to really help drive a revised digital economy. There are some unique characteristics in the UK in that there are lots of areas in the UK where there are “not-spots,” or places where there isn’t mobile coverage, for example. And our assets and infrastructure can either act as a platform or an enabler for mobile network operators to roll out their wireless networks, or indeed to augment the wireless network that I run and operate as well.

So whether it’s fixed connectivity into homes, businesses, and local communities adjacent to the railway or even greater ambitions, then I think we are perfectly poised to have a positive impact on the UK economy by making it a much more digital place to live and to work, and to give people the freedom of choice as to actually where they work from. And of course that’s hugely relevant during these unprecedented times. But then when you extrapolate the thinking slightly further, there’s the ability to really assist with multimodal transport, for example, and autonomous transport, and integrated transport networks. There is lots of synergy and opportunity to leverage both investment, but also technology and coverage.

Then if you extrapolate it even further, I think Greg touched on this in terms of some of the enabling proofs of concept and services that we are standing up today, there is an opportunity for us to use our network to improve the connectivity for healthcare services, whether that is emergency healthcare services or whether it’s for hospitals and doctors nationally, but also the emergency services more generally in terms of fire and police and many others as well. I see what we’re building and collaborating on today to be a real enabler for a better, more integrated digital economy for UK PLC.

If I then flip this more towards railway and some of the use cases that we’re trying to address here, there’s everything from things like safety, crime, and security. And that’s very much about deploying and exploiting smart camera technology alongside visual analytics, which could actually monitor things like trespass, which is a big issue on the railway to prevent injury and death, but also security issues such as left luggage on the station concourse, as well as people that get dangerously close to trains that are at high speed, which can have catastrophic outcomes of course.

We then look at, how do we plan and design our station environments. And I think technology can really help through understanding passenger movement, help build the plans that improve the passenger experience, whether that’s retail or whether it’s about passenger information, or whether it’s about understanding where trains may be less busy. There are all sorts of ways to actually join up technology to really deliver key data and outcomes for our passengers and people that are using the rail environment.

Kenton Williston: Yeah, absolutely. I think, again, the thing that’s really fascinating to me here is just how broad those use cases are. I mean, it’s just anything and everything you can think of, and probably some things that none of us have thought of yet. It’s just everywhere. And again, I think the thing that’s really critical here are the two ideas we’ve been talking about this whole time. One, the fact that this is an incredibly complex and diverse set of use cases. A very much a go-it-alone approach is not going to do it. It requires a lot of collaboration between all sorts of different parties. And then the other, again, just this idea of the underlying technology being a good starting point to enable all this work to be done in a sensible way. To that point, Greg, there’s a couple things I wanted to ask you about a little bit further. So one is, you’d mentioned just in passing something called Purple. So I would love to know who and what Purple is, and how they fit into the landscape of what you’re doing.

Greg Butler: Let me tell you about a perfect example of how we have very rapidly adapted to known and unknown issues that are arising, and that’s a program called the Train and Station Innovation for Performance, TSIP. TSIP is a joint investment between Network Rail Telecom, Cisco, Intel, and some other partners where we have identified something close to about 140 use cases that require a solution. And so what we are doing is we’re building out the test track that sits in Melton Mowbray called RIDC, it’s the Rail And Innovation Development Centre. RIDC is about 26 miles of track where they do a lot of testing for trains. It is a true, real-life rail environment, and as Simon said, I’ve actually stood very close to a train as it whistled past me at about 120 miles an hour, and that’s pretty unnerving. So you understand why there is such a focus on safety. And we’re building out a connectivity platform there which will support this use case development.

And we have traditional partners like Intel, we have traditional civil partners, organizations, global organizations like Siemens or a UK-based organization called Telent. And then we’re also working with a new breed of partner, which is Purple. And Purple Transformation Group, PTG, has looked at the problems that we are facing from the problem down, rather than from the technology up. And they have a whole set of capabilities, including a bunch of very smart developers. Then we work together with them to identify not even what is the solution—how do we begin to tackle these challenges that are focused on safety, passenger experience, optimized performance, cost reduction. There’s plenty of things here we’re focused on that existed before COVID, that will exist long after COVID. And you mentioned it also earlier before, Kenton, how do we reduce carbon in the rail corridor?

So we’ve taken a very pragmatic approach to it, and we’ve used Purple to actually help us identify who are the key carbon contributors to the rail corridor, or what are the key carbon contributors, and therefore map the use cases that we’re focused on and the impact that those use cases have on those carbon emissions. Which is great, because now all of a sudden we can actually start to target carbon emissions in a proper manner. But also the tooling that they have created for us, which again is being adopted outside of rail, is around the tracking of those benefits. So you identify trespass that has a correlating impact on reduction of delays, and there are such things called penalty minutes that get charged if trains are delayed.

Carbon emissions. If we are enabling Network Rail to monitor track for say overgrowth, trees overgrowing starting to hit trains, if we can do that with cameras and smart analytics or even sensors, that reduces the need and the cost and the carbon emissions associated with maintenance crews going out and driving up and down the track and making sure it’s okay. We’re facing new problems and challenges, but we’re taking a very different approach to how those can be resolved. And a lot of that is Cisco working with other organizations that maybe we haven’t worked with before, or even organizations that might have in the past been considered to be competitors to Cisco.

Kenton Williston: I really love all the things you’re pointing out here about the ways that you can cut emissions, not just with the bog-standard things you’d think about, like moving from internal combustion engines to electric propulsion, but lots of corner cases that are not so obvious that have really meaningful impact, like just getting the throughput of your system to be as efficient as possible so you don’t have delays, you don’t have trains that are running empty—whatever the case might be. I really particularly like that example about the tree trimming. It’s not the most obvious example, but it matters. These things all really add up. And I understand that Network Rail has got a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. Simon, can you tell me a little bit more about where you are on that trajectory, and how technology and especially the technology that we’ve been discussing are playing a role there.

Simon Atterwell: We’re looking at a number of things, as Greg has already described, in the way that we build and introduce new technology that enables us to vigorously test all of the use cases that can contribute towards environmental and sustainability outcomes—video and then analytics over the top on trains, for example, while they’re running along the track. It enables us to understand the amount of vegetation growth, the incursion on the railway, and, importantly, how that impedes a wireless signal that we use for rail emergency calls, for example.

So not only is it contributing to an environmental-planning outcome, but it’s also contributing to safety of the railway and our ability to make sure that passengers get home safe every day. We’ve got a mixture of stuff. Everything from solar- and wind-based backup technology that supports our REBs—which is rail equipment buildings that are dotted all along the track that house the telecommunications equipment that provides standby capability for batteries—all the way through, as I say, to sensor-based technology that allows us to design in environmental and sustainability solutions as outcomes right at the start of big civil schemes, and building back the railway to be a much better and greener place.

Kenton Williston: Of course you’ve got many peers in other regions of the world, other rail networks all around the world, who I’m sure are looking to do a lot of the same things. Like I know here in the States, for example, passenger rail is not quite as robust, but freight rail is incredibly robust here in the States, and pretty much all of the major North American carriers have also made carbon-neutral commitments, and I’m sure could benefit from a lot of these same technologies that we’ve been discussing here. So thinking about your global peers, Simon, I’d love to hear what you think they should be considering as they are tackling some of their own challenges. What would you recommend to them in terms of finding this collaborative approach, and good partners like Cisco and Intel to help them move forward?

Simon Atterwell: The answer to your question is not an easy one Kenton, because I think it’s about trying to orchestrate a perfect storm and aligning all of the stakeholders. Ensuring you’ve got the best technology, and ensuring you’ve got the best partners in place, which sounds like a simple recipe, but it can be quite difficult to achieve. I’m very fortunate, both in terms of the colleagues in Network Rail Telecom, and the partnerships that I have with the technology that’s available today, to be able to make great strides in introducing a lot of solutions at pace to solve some very complex rail challenges, as well as the adjacent benefits of trying to help the UK economy as well. If that’s an illustration of a perfect storm, then I’m happy to be in the center of it.

Kenton Williston: Very good. So Greg, I’m very interested to hear from your point of view how you are working with Intel to provide this underlying infrastructure that supports all of these efforts that are happening. Everything from improving the passenger experience in the station to cutting emission. There’s so many different things with so many different criteria, having a really strong underlying technology platform is so critical. What are you doing with Intel to facilitate that?

Greg Butler: It’s a few things. Intel is a strategic partner for Cisco and has been for some time, and sits at the core of a huge, vast amount of our product sets and offerings. They take on board the challenges that we are taking on board. They bring people to the table that we may not have even known about, let alone considered. We’re very lucky to have the support of Intel.

Kenton Williston: Fabulous. Is there anything either of you feel like we have missed discussing that you would like to add into the conversation?

Greg Butler: Yeah, I would actually. Which is that part of our remit for TSIP, the Train Station Innovation for Performance program, is obviously we use it as a showcase locally here in the UK, and that’s not just an industry-bespoke showcase; it’s for other industries, be they industrial-type industries like oil, mining, gas, or other sectors like finance and retail, but also on an international level. Network Rail and Network Rail Telecom, and quite rightly, are quite proud of what they’re doing there with us and the likes of Intel and Purple and others. And this is something that we want to showcase on a global scale. Now that’s obviously in Cisco’ and Intel’s interests, because it helps showcase what we’re doing here in the UK, and the applicability of that beyond the UK

But I think it’s also important to show success, and a model here where we have been able to very quickly react and adapt and evolve to meet this new set of circumstances, but also with solutions that are sustainable beyond what we hope will stop becoming a pandemic in the future. So it’s very much open, or will be open, for business. We’ve got guys up there at the moment installing stuff, and they’re going to be getting there up and running over the next few months, but it’s very much something that we want to invite Intel, Intel customers, partners, friends, as well as others to come and have a look at, and actually see if it’s something that they’re interested in trialing or developing with us, or actually deploying themselves.

Kenton Williston: Yes. That sounds amazing and I’m really thrilled to hear the availability of all these technologies to be so readily adapted by others, not only in the rail space, but all sorts of other sectors. So with that, Greg, I just want to thank you again for joining us. We really appreciate your time today.

Greg Butler: You are very welcome. Thank you.

Kenton Williston: And Simon, you as well, I really appreciate all your insights.

Simon Atterwell: My absolute pleasure. Good to meet you.

Kenton Williston: And thanks to our listeners for joining us. For the latest innovations from Cisco and NRT, follow them on Twitter at @Cisco and @NetworkRail, and on LinkedIn at Cisco and Network-Rail. If you enjoyed listening, please support us by subscribing and rating us on your favorite podcast app. This has been the IoT Chat. We’ll be back next time with more ideas from industry leaders at the forefront of IoT design.

The preceding transcript is provided to ensure accessibility and is intended to accurately capture an informal conversation. The transcript may contain improper uses of trademarked terms and as such should not be used for any other purposes. For more information, please see the Intel® trademark information.

This transcript was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor. 

About the Author

Kenton Williston is an Editorial Consultant to and previously served as the Editor-in-Chief of the publication as well as the editor of its predecessor publication, the Embedded Innovator magazine. Kenton received his B.S. in Electrical Engineering in 2000 and has been writing about embedded computing and IoT ever since.

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