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Now Boarding: The Future of Smart Railways

The Future of Smart Railways

Here in the US, when we think of British trains it might be the Hogwarts Express that first comes to mind, or any other antique-looking steamer out of Masterpiece Theatre. But the real, modern National Rail carries millions of passengers and millions of tons of freight every day in the UK, and has real, modern challenges to tackle, both COVID-related—such as decreased ridership and social distancing in stations—and non-COVID-related—like improving passenger experience and working towards a Net Zero carbon agenda.

Reaching those goals, and finding solutions to those challenges takes serious collaboration, like that between Simon Atterwell, Managing Director of Network Rail Telecom (NRT), and Gregory Butler, Industry Lead for Rail at Cisco for the UK. They’ll discuss how the UK rail industry is changing in response to the pandemic, the rail technologies that make those changes possible, and the partnerships that bring it all together. North American carriers should take note of the smart-railway innovations our UK cousins are modeling. There may even be benefits that extend beyond the station platform.

What are some areas of change you see in the rail industry right now?

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. But we recognize that this is an opportunity to make the railway much more data-driven and much more digitized—to fundamentally reshape the experience for passengers. It’s about modernizing per our passengers’ needs and recognizing that we need to respond to a slightly different passenger demographic as well. And we really need to ratchet up the level of innovation and partnership with industry in order to deliver the solutions that will make us much more data-driven.

Of course, it’s also about making sure that we have the right digital tools to make the stations, the platforms, and the whole rail environment much more safe and secure. These are things like face-mask detection, passenger-movement controls, monitoring and managing queues, and many other rail use cases that can be enhanced through the use of digital technology.

From Cisco’s perspective, how is technology addressing all these new demands?

Greg Butler: To encourage passengers to come back to rail as a mode of transport, and to deliver a better passenger experience, there’s a whole set of digital services that need to be created, developed, and implemented in a manner we’ve never seen before, and at a speed we’ve never seen before. And we’ve been incredibly successful so far in a lot of the work that we’ve been doing with, for example, face-mask detection. But, of course, those same technologies and solutions that use visual-center analytics can actually deliver other use cases—to help crowds with social distancing, for instance. But also, for non-COVID use cases, such as abandoned luggage or suspicious packages, potential trespass or antisocial behavior or vandalism.

One of the pieces of work that we did early in the pandemic with Simon and his team was in Marsden, in West Yorkshire; it’s a fairly small, innocuous station. There was an impending disaster around care homes, and in particular care homes in rural communities with poor connectivity and less-than-average service. We tapped into government-owned fiber that ran past Marsden and gave us a 10-gig link. And then using third-party radios, we were able to beam out from a station mast into and around the community of Marsden for a 1-gig link. And that was the connectivity piece.

The connectivity then enabled the National Health Service to deploy a telehealth pod, which meant that they could not just do remote consultations, but actually remote testing and diagnosis as well. And, of course, from a COVID perspective the benefits of that are obvious. But there were also benefits beyond COVID. On top of that connectivity, we started to do things like deploy cameras into Marsden station; we started to do smart analytics.

Partners like Intel have been incredibly supportive of these initiatives. Working with Intel, working with some of our more homegrown talent, we’ve been able to create services with capabilities that drive better outcomes for passengers, but also for local communities like Marsden.

How can partners unlock new smart-railway possibilities?

Simon Atterwell: If you look at railway and some of the use cases that we’re trying to address there, it’s things like safety, crime, and security. And that’s very much about deploying and exploiting smart camera technology alongside visual analytics.

We can then look at how we plan and design our station environments. I think technology can really help, by understanding passenger movement, to 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 join up technology to really deliver key data and outcomes for our passengers and people who are using the rail environment.

In addition, we—ourselves, Cisco, Intel, and other solution vendors—have an opportunity to really help drive a revised digital economy. Our network reaches parts of the UK that other networks don’t reach, because where every piece of track goes—bearing in mind that’s to most towns, villages, and cities in the UK—our network, both fixed and wireless, follows. There are lots of areas in the UK where there are “not-spots,” or places where there isn’t mobile coverage. 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.

“This is an opportunity to make the #railway much more data-driven and much more #digitized—to fundamentally reshape the experience for passengers.” – Simon Atterwell, Managing Director, @networkrail via @insightdottech

So whether it’s fixed connectivity into homes, businesses, and local communities adjacent to the railway, or even greater ambitions, 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 in. And of course that’s hugely relevant during these unprecedented times.

But when you extrapolate the thinking slightly further, there’s the ability to really assist with multimodal and autonomous transport, and integrated transport networks. There is lots of synergy and opportunity to leverage investment, but also technology and coverage. I see what we’re building and collaborating on today to be a real enabler for a better, more integrated digital economy, what I call “UK PLC.”

What is the importance of smart-railway collaboration?

Greg Butler: We’re taking a very different approach to how new problems can be resolved these days. And a lot of that is Cisco working with organizations that we maybe haven’t worked with before, or even organizations that in the past might have been considered competitors for Cisco. A perfect example of that is 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 like 140 use cases requiring a solution. We’re building out a test track in Melton Mowbray called RIDC—the Rail and Innovation Development Centre. RIDC is about 26 miles of track where they do a lot of testing for trains, and we’re building out a connectivity platform there that will support this use case development.

We have traditional partners there, like Intel; we have traditional civil partners; global organizations like Siemens; also a UK-based organization called Telent. We’re also working with Purple Transformation Group—PTG—a company that has been looking at these use cases situations from the problem down, rather than from the technology up. One use case example: How do we reduce carbon in the rail corridor? There are plenty of things here we’re focused on that existed before COVID, and that will exist long after COVID.

PTG has helped us identify what the key carbon contributors are, to map the use cases that we’re focused on and the impact those use cases have on carbon emissions. Now all of a sudden we can actually start to target carbon emissions in a proper manner. But the tooling that they have created for us is also around the tracking of the benefits.

If we are enabling Network Rail to monitor track for, say, overgrowth of trees that are starting to hit trains—using cameras and smart analytics or even sensors—that reduces the need and the cost and the carbon emissions associated with tree maintenance.

How is technology playing a role in NRT’s carbon-neutral goals?

Simon Atterwell: We’re looking at a number of things in the way that we build and introduce new technology that will enable us to vigorously test all the use cases that can contribute towards environmental and sustainability outcomes. Video and then analytics on the top of trains is one example that Greg mentioned. It enables us to understand the amount of vegetation growth, and thus the incursion on the railway, which could also show how a wireless signal that we use for rail emergency calls might be impeded. So not only is it contributing to an environmental-planning outcome, but it’s also contributing to safety of the railway.

We’ve got a mixture of stuff. Everything from solar- and wind-based backup technology that provides standby capability for batteries—all the way through to sensor-based technology that allows us to design in environmental and sustainability solutions as outcomes.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Greg Butler: Part of our remit for TSIP—the Train Station Innovation for Performance program—is that we use it as a showcase locally here in the UK, but it’s not just an industry-bespoke showcase. It’s for other industries as well, be they industrial-type industries like oil, mining, and gas, or other sectors like finance and retail. Network Rail and Network Rail Telecom are quite rightly proud of what they’re doing there with us, and with the likes of Intel and PTG and others, and this is something we want to showcase on a global scale.

Now that’s obviously in Cisco’s and Intel’s interests, because it helps showcase what we’re doing here in the UK and its applicability beyond the UK. But I think it’s also important to show success, and to be a model where we have been able to react and evolve very quickly to meet this new set of circumstances with solutions that are sustainable even beyond the pandemic. It’s very much something that we want to invite Intel customers, partners, friends, as well as others, to come and have a look at to see if it’s something they’re interested in trialing or developing with us, or actually deploying themselves. So things are very much open for business.

Related Content

To learn more about advancements in rail technology, listen to Cisco and NRT Take Smart Railways Beyond the Station. 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 article 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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