Transportation – How will big data change the face of rail travel?

Author: Mike Hewitt, Chief Technology Officer, ADComms, A Panasonic Company


 The ‘big data revolution’ signals time for for the rail industry – to become safer, more efficient, and tailored. As with every revolution, be it the French Revolution or the Industrial Revolution, the impact of such a movement brings fundamental changes, challenges opportunities. 

The big data revolution has immense potential to transform current leading railway technology systems and platforms into a virtually-connected network of ‘smart railway systems’ which seamlessly move freight and passengers. Yet, as an industry, we are still lacking a clear picture of the information systems that span across our complex rail sector and take into account a variety of different public and private stakeholders. 

How important is enabling a data sharing solution? 

To answer this, we must understand why we’re collecting data. Principally it’s to decrease disruption, increase safety and enable better journey planning and experience for everyone that travels on our railways. Some of the most exciting initiatives that are being worked on at the moment include real-time passenger information updates.

For example, congestion on a platform and advising passengers about the best places to alight from the train, or station car parking capacity alerts so that you know where free spaces are, or even just being able to offer proactive guidance about where the passenger should go next based on their known route.

On the rail management side, examples include better information systems that enable the workforce on the tracks to know where they will next be required; and video analytics and thermal imaging to look at engine performance that can pre-empt maintenance issues before a train goes out of service.

Predictive analytics and machine learning can add a powerful capability to this – notifying passengers and rail staff well in advance of issues occurring.

So, how can the rail sector collectively develop a big data strategy? 

This is the really pressing challenge facing all stakeholders in the rail sector. Such a strategy will need to master how to support the exchange and integration of data owned by the various stakeholders across the rail industry. Developing a big data strategy must start with the collaboration of all public and private stakeholders to develop a more open data architecture. The vision for a more complete and integrated big data systems architecture would include cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things (IoT) and cloud computing; all of which work together to create ‘smart railways’.

there is no industry agreed architecture framework to manage, integrate and share information. The rail industry is charging ahead to find a solution to this problem, with the likes of Network Rail (who has committed to creating a Logical Data Architecture Plan) and the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) leading the way. Panasonic is a trusted partner in critical infrastructure projects and supports all stakeholder plans for the rail industry. 

So how do we achieve a more effective big data strategy for the rail industry? 

Panasonic firmly believes that the key to creating a safer, more efficient and more experience lies in having all parties collaborate and open up their Application Program Interfaces (APIs) to share data. Network Rail opened their data feeds in December 2012, and since then developers have been creating proof-of-concept websites and apps using Network Rail data to show what is happening on the network in real-time. TFL established an extensive open data API, which was especially helpful to third parties in advance of the Night Tube launching on the London Underground. Everyone in the rail industry should be mirroring these stakeholders to ensure we are capturing data and making it available to other projects. 

Panasonic Business is playing a role in facilitating this process through ‘data sandboxing’. As a central technology partner, Panasonic is the enabler for these collaborative data-led projects. It is still early days, with most early adoption occurring within the research arena. Various research projects uncovering the possible applications of big data in rail include the Big Data Risk Analysis which focuses on safety management and is led by the Institute of Railway Research and RSSB. However, projects such as this clearly signal that we are on the right track towards a more open and collaborative rail industry that can be stronger together in meeting the needs of passengers and staff on our railways.


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