Today’s transport organisations need a broader set of competencies than ever before. Ongoing digital transformation of the industry is exciting, promising to improve customer experiences and transport management for the better. It also means working with an incredibly diverse array of technologies, ranging from 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation.

It’s important to continue to build the required skillsets to address an evolving marketplace that has seen journey volumes increase and a rise in passenger expectations. The digitisation of sectors like retail, for example, has led to expectations of greater responsiveness when addressing customer needs, including on-demand services, as well as increased transparency and flexibility.

Other challenges include the possibility that disruptive new transport businesses encroach on traditional sectors. Hyperloop, for example, may one day provide a credible alternative to medium-long distance single-stop passenger journeys and commercial cargo transportation.

Meeting these challenges means finding new ways to improve customer experience, drive operational efficiency, boost profitability and discover new revenue drivers. Harnessing legacy and emerging technology is key to doing so.

Here’s my thoughts on the technologies that will be central to the modernisation of rail networks and business models.

Living with legacy technologies

Transport providers understand the need to transform their business, but the desire to modernise is complicated by the need to work around historical infrastructure and legacy technology. The London Underground, for instance, was constructed in the Victorian period and designed with analogue technologies in mind. As such, the integration of new digital solutions demands finding ways to address both environmental challenges, like tight spaces, dust and humidity, and a network of legacy technologies that has grown organically over time.

The key here is to ensure the addition of new technology is not just an overlay – effective use of new technologies demands true digital transformation. For example, high-speed wireless technologies will not suffice if the backhaul network is not able to provide the increased data rates required to power them. Moreover, organisations must ensure engineer and IT staff are in place to install and maintain these new technologies.

Driving new revenue opportunities with 5G

High-speed wireless connectivity is vital for driving new revenue opportunities – smart ticketing, in-journey entertainment and targeted marketing are just some of the services that promise to deliver valuable cross-brand partnerships and value-added services for passengers. In addition, by delivering ubiquitous coverage, organisations can deliver better business focused services for commuters wanting to make the most of their journeys (I recently wrote a piece discussing this and how it could even impact broader societal issues like the UK housing crisis or improving the nation’s productivity).

That said, the delivery of consistent high-quality coverage across wide-areas has been an ongoing issue, and remains a huge challenge. Solving this problem will depend on collaboration between politicians, rail operators, Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) and local communities. Technically, it involves tactical deployment of MNO equipment to ensure even distribution of signal and a backhaul network with enough capacity to cope with periods of peak demand.

Stakeholders will also need to work together to provide the greater spectrum efficiency required for 5G. It’s essential the UK doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past where spectrum was simply allocated to the highest bidder –ensuring the technology delivers maximum benefit requires a more strategic approach.

IoT and the data-centric business

Adopting data-centric business models will allow organisations to significantly increase operational efficiency. Rail networks already generate vast quantities of data, but approaches to data storage, sharing and application need to be optimised to realise its full value.

The adoption of 5G combined with next generation sensor technology and IoT enabled devices will help, but will also exponentially increase the already high volume of data. As a result, the rail sector will need advanced analytics and data science specialists to ask the right questions of this information and derive actionable insights.

Effective implementation of centralised, real-time collection and analysis of data will enable a range of capabilities that directly impact service delivery and passenger experience. TfL provides a great example of how to effectively leverage transport data, using it to optimise services in-line with passenger needs, while other industries also provide valuable best practices. The industrial sector uses IoT to monitor performance of infrastructure, enabling predictive maintenance to minimise unexpected malfunction, downtime and disruption to operations.

This approach is compatible with trains and trackside infrastructure, and has the potential to both reduce service delays and cancelations. And if things do go wrong, data analytics can help intelligently reroute services in real-time to prevent a knock-on effect of disruption rippling through the network and avoid costly penalties.

In coming years, combining this approach to data with AI will be increasingly central to the automation of services and network management. More broadly, the smart cities of the future will increasingly depend on it – civic planners will expect transport providers to share real-time data, so they can provide integrated services to citizens.

Realising the opportunity

The transport industry is more challenging than ever before, requiring those in the field to understand both physical and digital logistics. The opportunities to improve rail services through harnessing better insights and information are rich, and it’ll be the companies which realise them earlier who make the biggest gains in this period of rapid change.