As in other industrial environments, the rail transportation industry is being significantly transformed by digital technologies and the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things—or as my colleagues in this industry often refer to it, the Railway Internet of Things. Like network operators in industries such as manufacturing or utilities, they are tapping into “Big Data” opportunities to fuel productivity—in this case, forwarding vital goals like keeping trains running on time, making them safer, and optimizing maintenance resources. And, perhaps most visible and important to the public, rail operators are bringing network technologies up to par to improve the passenger experience and increase ridership. This is all spurring a huge increase in demand for bandwidth throughout the system, using both wired, and a great deal of advanced wireless technologies. As a provider of cables, connectivity solutions, advanced switches, cyber security solutions and other products and expertise helping to drive these trends, Belden and its subsidiaries have a ringside seat in the transformation. Here a few of the things that we are seeing.

Superior Experience for Rail Transport

There is a continuing move towards greater sub-urbanization, with more and more people working daily or attending events in the central cities, but choosing to live further and further out in ever-expanding suburban communities. That means more and more people need to get back and forth, and the traffic situation on the roads leading into many major cities—especially during rush hours—is becoming more and more unsustainable. Metropolitan rail lines in many areas are trying to convince these customers to reconsider their transportation choices. Many of their actions are physical infrastructure related, such as building new stations further and further out and constructing more car park capacity. 

Rail Transport

As operators are working to make rail transportation more productive and convenient for commuters, as well as for regional passengers, network technologies are taking on a visible and vital role. For example, local and regional railways are using Ethernet communications to disseminate more real-time train information, such as extremely accurate arrival times at both ends. They are also investing in robust Wi-Fi access that is bandwidth-friendly and stable throughout the trip—even during peak access times. This includes subway tunnels and on long distance trains that often run through remote areas, allowing passengers to reliably communicate with the office, work online, play games, access social media and even stream movies. For regional travelers especially, Wi-Fi availability is highly desirable for being able to reliably confirm plans for the next leg of their journey, such as arranging for a ride share or taxi pick-up or checking the status of an airplane flight.

Rail Transport Safety is a Top Priority

As in other industries, advanced network technologies are helping the railway industry to improve the safety of every stakeholder. For example, advanced line signaling systems are communicating car and track information in real time, helping trains respond appropriately to stopped cars, poor track conditions and other hazards. The trains not only talk to the central location but talk to each other as well.

Rail Transport Benefits include:

  • Allowing cars to safely move at closer distances,
  • Increasing capacity
  • Faster travel times

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In addition, network technologies have boosted the effectiveness of security video surveillance to help ensure the safety of both passengers and staff. Transmitting live data from a moving vehicle has always been a technical challenge. Whereas before video might have been archived on the train and looked at later if needed, Ethernet now enables it to be streamed live in real time to a central location from nearly any distance or area. This allows medical and law enforcement personnel to be able to see events as they unfold, and to be better able to respond quickly and appropriately to any situation.

As a passenger, I appreciate that the rail industry in general is very safety-conscious and risk averse. Their policy of maintaining high priority for any transmission related to safety has traditionally necessitated that the lines construct two parallel systems—one for important but not urgent communications such as maintenance data and passenger entertainment, and one for urgent real time safety information. This would ensure that the transmission of details on an imminent track obstruction wouldn’t be slowed down by the uploading of someone’s YouTube video. Now, with the emergence of Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), an Ethernet-based technology that offers the ability to automatically prioritize transmissions, there is the promise of a huge cost savings since operators can use a single network for everything while maintaining optimum safety and maximum bandwidth.

Rail Transport Cyber Security Advances

As on the factory floor, digitization is allowing the rail industry to be significantly more effective in their predictive maintenance efforts, that is, collecting and analyzing data to determine when a particular system or asset might fail. Indeed, sensors are sending information back to the central location on everything from water levels in the lavatories to door speeds tracking wear conditions. For example, they might compare the exact time it takes for the automatic passenger doors to open and close.  If it increases by a particular amount, they can send a technician to attend to the door motor.

Rail Transport

Finally, as in many industrial environments, with the increase in connectivity there is also an increase in vulnerability as previously closed systems are now open to the public Internet. Like other industries, the rail industry is slowly realizing how vulnerable they can be. They are becoming proactive in taking steps to protect their networks from hackers, malware and even user error.   These cyber threats can negatively impact rail transport in the following ways:

  • Train movements
  • Passenger information
  • Train location
  • Passenger Wi-Fi and comfort
  • Ticketing
  • Safety
  • Other connectivity-dependent systems

All of the cyber security techniques in the factory apply here as well—like separating zones with firewalls, monitoring network activity, inventorying and updating firmware and patches on all assets, keeping up to the minute on known vulnerabilities, and so on. There’s more coming in the future as connectivity technologies continue to advance. One interesting idea getting traction is smart glass that can get advertising messages beamed on it as it passes through stations and towns—fed by programming arriving from a central location via the Ethernet links. And certainly there’s more creative ideas coming as technologies open up new possibilities for productivity increases and cost-savings. What have you heard or seen? Feel free to share with us and fellow network professionals. 

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