Building Smart Rail Solutions

15 August 2010 (Last Updated August 15th, 2010 18:30)

An increase in rail passengers has meant rail companies must do more to optimise networks to keep up with demand. Frances Penwill-Cook speaks to the vice president, Travel & Transportation at IBM, Raul Arce, who explains how the company intends to revolutionise the rail industry.

Building Smart Rail Solutions

Increasing fuel prices and spiralling road congestion has meant that rail travel is experiencing something of a renaissance.

To enable rail transportation companies to optimise their rail networks, IBM recently unveiled the IBM Travel and Transportation (T&T) Framework.

It combines software products to make more intelligent use of all rail assets, from tracks to trains, so companies can meet the increasing consumer demand for more efficient and safer services.

The system is made up of elements such as IBM's new customer-centric reservation system, more efficient operations control and smart vision, and parts of it are already operational within some rail networks.

Raul Arce, vice president, Travel & Transportation at IBM, gives his view on smarter systems and how he believes the company will transform rail networks all over the world.

Frances Penwill-Cook: Is there a rebirth in rail travel, and if so why?

"From a green IT perspective, rail is two to five times more energy-efficient than road or air transportation."

Raul Arce: IBM's annual Global Commuter Pain Index, which surveyed 8,192 drivers in 20 cities worldwide, found that more than 31% of those surveyed said traffic was so bad at times that they turned around and went home.

The Commuter Pain Index underlines the urgent need to reinvent America's transportation system to meet the economic demands of the 21st century. With rising fuel prices and congestion on the roadways, railroads in particular have emerged as a fuel- and cost-efficient means of moving people and goods.

From a green IT perspective, rail is two to five times more energy efficient than road or air transportation, and passenger travel by rail produces three to ten times less CO2 than cars. Moreover, you don't have to look beyond the recent disruption in air travel in Europe to recognise that rail must be able to serve as a source of reliable transportation.

FPC: How will the future of rail travel be defined?

RA: Information technology is proving to be as important to 21st century transportation as airplanes, asphalt and petroleum were in the last century. The next few decades of transportation will be defined by data. Rather than simply building more tracks or adding more trains, the rail industry of the future will rely upon smarter transportation systems that leverage a combination of technology, planning and greater intelligence to harness data that will be used to meet consumer demand for better service and safer travel.

FPC: What are the new technologies helping to transform rail systems around the world?

RA: New technologies include integrated service management solutions, asset management software and predictive analytic tools to help rail companies model and manage optimal routes, schedules and capacity in near real-time. IBM also provides reservation solutions designed to support multiple-delivery channels, which integrate common, usable and accessible check-in services to deliver a consistent experience to the traveller. There are also systems that leverage web, kiosk, mobile, RFID and geolocalisation technology to deliver preference-based content, and applications that create a highly individualised, adaptive and accessible user experience for everyone.

IT provides a master repository for all operations information and uses powerful analytics that generate actionable information.

"The next few decades will be defined by data."

Asset management, and analytic and optimisation tools, for example, allow rail operators to sense and respond quickly to irregular operations, redirecting physical and human resources to support shifts in volume. Enterprise asset management and MRO tools, meanwhile, maximise capacity and minimise carbon footprint by extracting maximum utilisation from every asset, infrastructure and human resource.

Tools for predictive maintenance - identifying breakdowns before they occur - ensure a smoother, safer and more reliable experience for customers. Also, traffic prediction tools allow operators to anticipate and react to congestion by rerouting traffic or encouraging commuters to use public transit.

FPC: What are the top three smart rail technologies that could most advance rail?

RA:A smarter train can sense what is around it – including obstacles in its path – using IBM smart vision technologies, and slow down and stop without human intervention.

A smarter train can also harness data to predict and prevent breakdowns. Sensors collect data to show how a train is functioning, down to every brakepad or wheel.

Thirdly, analytics can flag excessive brake wear or the vibrations of a cracked wheel and send an alert to the operators before the issue impacts the line.

"Rather than simply building more tracks or adding more trains, the rail industry of the future will rely upon smarter transportation systems."

This helps create an 'internet of things'. A smarter train arms its work crews with insight to the project status and maintenance history over thousands of miles of track. IBM can deliver this data through cloud computing, so no matter where the train is, critical details on asset optimisation are at the crew's fingertips.

FPC: How can IBM's system advance rail systems?

RA: IBM provides solutions to help transportation providers aggregate, analyse and act upon large volumes of data from disparate sources. Analytical tools provide the ability to predict passenger and freight demand in order to adjust capacity accordingly.

Optimisation solutions allow rail operators to model scenarios and transform information and insights in to action with automated decisions for speed, accuracy and consistency, and a rapid payback and measurable ROI.

The framework is a strategic blueprint to guide rail companies on the best implementation of systems and services. As a result, each company can decide what elements are the most important to them and implement solutions that address their particular problems.

FPC: How is Travelport - a leading provider of real-time travel information and booking capabilities to online and offline travel agencies in over 160 countries - using the system?

RA: Travelport is utilising the T&T Framework to simplify access and speed response times for travel suppliers and travel agency customers.

Using z/TPF and System z as part of a larger service-oriented architecture strategy has made great response time performance improvements that enable websites for travel customers using the Travelport system to be faster and, importantly, provide a richer experience. As a result, travellers will have a better experience when booking airfares, hotel reservations or reserving cars.

FPC:Are there any other railroads currently using this technology?

RA: There are a several railroads already using components of the framework. These include Netherlands Railways, which is using smarter technology to weigh variables - including passenger demand and available rail cars - to assemble and schedule 5,000 trains over a network of 390 stations and 2,800km of track.

"IT provides a master repository for all operations information."

Russian Railway, one of the world's largest railway operators, is working to better manage and improve the speed, safety, reliability and efficiency of its enormous network of freight and passenger management systems. To gain better control, IBM is migrating the operator's freight and passenger management, as well as financial management applications, to three new consolidated, disaster-proof data centres based on IBM's mainframe tech.

Taiwan High Speed Rail Corp is also leveraging smarter technology to ensure that hundreds of high-speed passenger trains are safe and on time, maintaining an average punctuality rate of 99.15%.

FPC: What does IBM's system offer rail companies that other systems don't?

RA: IBM has worked with more than 100 rail companies around the world to apply new technologies to help them build systems that are more cost-effective and make more intelligent use of all assets, from tracks to trains.

IBM applies its software and services expertise to improve the speed, safety and reliability of rail services. These systems often leverage IBM business consulting, advanced analytics, first-of-a-kind research, supercomputing and sensor networks. In addition, IBM has a Global Rail Innovation Center that allows rail leaders and innovators to share best practices and learn from the cutting-edge research happening around the world.