Growing competition from emerging markets such as China and well-established industry sectors like Japan, enhanced requirements on safety and lifecycle of vehicles, the explosion in the number of high-speed projects worldwide, as well as customers' increased demands on mobility, have changed the face of the railway industry in recent years.
In the years ahead, further transformations will be happening in both supply and operations, which without doubt will have a deep impact on the shape of the railway industry.
A shake-up of key railway equipment suppliers is underway with more and more companies entering the sector. In Europe, on the other hand, the remaining large state-owned railways gradually swallow up private operators to create monopolistic businesses that are a threat to open-access and competition. In a bid to stay one step ahead, Siemens Mobility opened the world's first Rail Innovation Centre of Competence (RIC) in the UK in March 2011.
With a constant eye on innovations and initiatives within and outside the railway sector, the centre will benefit from the experience gained from the daily service business at the British depots in order to develop new concepts and technologies for the industry.
Here, RIC manager Nicholas Kay talks about the first months of operating the centre, the value of investment in a worldwide network of engineers and employees, the importance of multidisciplinary research and development of new concepts and technologies, as well as the trends of the railway industry in the years ahead.
Elisabeth Fischer: What is Siemens' vision with the implementation of the RIC?
Nicholas Kay: The RIC is primarily there to demonstrate and provide means to get more efficient and reliable and primarily safer trains to our customers.
We're relying on our existing service contracts but are also looking outside of the Siemens business to develop opportunities.
We are also looking outside the rail industry to try and find best practice and see where we can take initiatives from other areas of Siemens Mobility or other parts of our own business.
EF: Why did you choose the UK as the location for the centre?
NK: Within Siemens' rolling stock and service the UK has the largest installed fleet. We've nearly 1,500 vehicles in the UK - with ThamesLink, this will rise to over 2,700 following fleet introduction - all maintained by Siemens, with some 600 people working daily within nine maintenance depot locations.
We've got the largest and to some degree the most mature rail industry being driven by privatisation, something we anticipate within the European market model, which is also moving forward in that way. I believe lessons can be learned from the UK but there are also benefits to be gained within the UK for our existing installed fleet.
EF: One important thing in every industry is employees. Is the centre an investment in the future of Siemens' staff?
NK: Absolutely. Within the RIC we identify people within the existing business who are working on innovative projects, who have identified innovative means of improving safety or improving reliability. Those people can and will be rewarded through our internal annual review and performance-related pay schemes.
That's a genuine means of rewarding employees for thinking outside the box and also gives them the ability to have ownership and responsibility for their innovations. They can take a project from let's say Madrid and then take that to the world's stage and ensure the innovation or concept is taken on globally. The RIC is a global responsibility.
EF: What is the centre's strategy in the years ahead and what are the main areas of interest?
NK: The focus is on efficient and reliable rolling stock but we have to be clear about the definition of the rolling stock as I believe we have to see it in a bigger and broader system, which includes the infrastructure and ultimately the passengers as I believe that's the missing element in today's market.
We very much intend to focus on the detail rather than looking at it holistically. The focus is on the challenges of using developments in technology as well as the use of data, which is a very powerful tool. We have to ensure we can use this tool to identify reliability and safety issues in the most efficient way. Ultimately, we would like to reduce the cost of plain ownership to our customers, increase their reliability and as always increase the safety aspect of train operations as well.
EF: Are reliability and safety the currently biggest issues in the industry?
NK: Safety is a given but we must always ensure the industry remains a highly safe means of transportation for the public.
That includes not only trains but also level crossings, pedestrians and interactions with rolling stock on the vehicle platform edge, through to actually sitting within the saloon itself.
It's all aspects where we can use technology - managing passengers on platforms, door openings, dwell times and efficient management of facilities within the vehicles itself.
But rather than a reactive or preventative maintenance strategy we should be looking to use predictive maintenance strategies to anticipate failures.
That's up to sophisticated and complex infrastructure on the train that we can now use to that benefit.
EF: What are the results of the first months of operating the RIC?
NK: The centre, which is still embryonic today, is not specifically just a research environment. The RIC is a virtual network of currently 28 engineers from within our Russian projects, within UK projects and within our headquarters innovation team.
We're very much focussed on looking at improving reliability and improving the whole lifecycle cost of trains. We're also looking to penetrate beyond into rail automation and building technologies.
R&D activities undertaken within the rail innovation centre are aligned with our headquarters organisation. We obviously have an R&D roadmap and to date we've achieved pilot studies in the UK. Since April, we've been able to achieve various routine networking. Those are existing projects but we have the ability now to develop relationships outside of rolling stock where we would like to use initiatives in our medical department, for example, to understand our data better. Data mining used with MRI scanners is very similar to data mining that we use for our rolling stock.
EF:How do you justify investments into the development of new concepts and technologies in the current economic situation?
NK: I think it's a double-edged sword one might say. The economic situation really puts pressure on people to find optimisation, to make what they've got last longer, to go further without compromising safety. To some degree the more intelligent use of data gives them that ability. You can understand the behaviour of components and the rolling stock much better by analysing data and trend analysis. But what we assume is very clear: innovation is a means of sustainability, reducing whole lifecycle costs, reducing material wear. Basically, we're optimising and making it more efficient in our complete operation and the living rolling stock.
EF: What are future trends in the industry and how will Siemens Mobility be at the forefront of these trends?
NK: Today the train is monitoring the train.
That's fantastic but we're looking at a more holistic system and now we're focussing on infrastructure monitoring the infrastructure, infrastructure monitoring the train, which is a key area of interest, and also how and where the train can monitor infrastructure.
The data on vehicles could help the infrastructure around them maintain their catenaries, their transformers or to keep their railhead in better condition.
And likewise there are elements of infrastructure, which could more readily monitor aspects of the train, its safety or reliability. We're tapping into those resources and basically breaking down the boundaries behind rolling stock, owner or maintainer and the infrastructure.
But I think beyond that we've also got to step back and appreciate the vehicle and the infrastructure form part of the larger system including platforms, air conditioning, ticket machines and of course passengers, who are more and more complex themselves as they're more pressured to be mobile, but also using and harnessing technologies that our passengers use.
Automatic ticket machines based on mobile data flow, telling them the time of their arrival, information flowing to them –it's all about the intelligent user; the concept of a megacity where we're harmonising public transport, running in collaboration rather than running in competition, to provide customers a better information flow of how to get from point A to B in the most efficient way. That's the vision of Siemens and the RIC, one way to get along that road.