As covered in my previous post, I recently attended this year’s Hacktrain conference, participating in a panel covering the future of infrastructure in the rail sector. Joining me on stage were some real industry heavyweights: Apurva Sinha, Network Rail; Steve White, TfL; Jean-Jacques Thomas, SNCF & Stuart Calvert, Digital Railway. The discussion centred on the many challenges and opportunities associated with modernising an environment where legacy infrastructure can often date back over a century.

In the last 20 years we’ve seen a doubling in the number of UK rail passenger journeys, and it’s anticipated this number will double again over the coming two decades. Add aging Victorian era infrastructure to the equation, and it’s clear the industry needs to innovate around infrastructure to provide the level of service that customers expect.

Ongoing digitisation is a key part of this, and the volume of data generated by operators has the potential to prove extremely valuable, helping them to significantly boost operational efficiency and the passenger experience. However, something I found particularly interesting during the panel discussion was the observation that while we are generating more data than ever before, examples of effective storage, sharing and application are few and far between.

To provide a specific example: many train services store all of the data generated for the duration of the journey on a portable hard drive. Only once the train pulls into its final destination is the storage unit removed and driven to a central location, a situation that significantly affects a franchise’s ability to react to real-time events. Similarly, many operators internal structuring can lead to data being ‘siloed’ across a number of business units, preventing the overall organization benefitting from the insights it contains.

The lack of a ubiquitous, high-speed wireless communications network is a core part of this problem, and something the industry needs to address as a priority. The technical solutions to this, while complex, already exist today. Cities like Hong Kong, New York and Toronto are great examples of metropolitan rail networks investing in next generation wireless networks that have had a positive impact on both passenger experience and operational efficiency.

Of course, there are other issues to address beyond just the method through which data is communicated. Organisations still need to ensure they are collecting and sharing the right data, that it is presented in the right context, and that the right processes are in place to ensure it is used effectively.

One of my fellow Hacktrain panellists gave a great example of an operator struggling to make sense of their data, explaining that when a single run of a route can result in thousands of individual data generating events, hundreds of which will be the single act of doors opening and closing – extracting valuable insights can be pretty challenging.

Innovation is key here, and it’s vital we do a better job of selling the industry to the next generation so we have the best and brightest minds working on the solution. Effective transport networks are a core part of a modern society, and promise to see some incredibly exciting developments over the coming years. Aside from sharing operational data, having the right communications networks in place will be central to the integration of exciting technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence and the high-res mapping required for autonomous vehicles. Organisations that get this right today, stand to reap the benefits tomorrow!