We looked at the subject of the “smart train” a few months ago because of the interest it had for railway companies as a result of its potential to optimize costs and improve services.  Since then, the number of full scale experiments with this technology has increased.  But does the smart train offer as many benefits as claimed?  Is what it brings to a business really tangible and does it genuinely add value?

Concrete applications…

The smart train refers to a train capable of receiving and sending out relevant information automatically to different types of stakeholders in real-time. Underneath this definition lie a raft of practical applications with potential for both railway operators and passengers.

For example, the challenge of managing high density areas lies in traffic regulation.  The implementation of automatic communication between trains would allow the opportunity to communicate to drivers the speed best adapted to ensure the smooth flow of train traffic.

The possibilities that the smart train offers also allow us to imagine other uses that could benefit the staff onboard the train, such as a video surveillance system that would also be accessible to staff on the ground.

In the freight sector, Swiss Federal Railways and Bosch Engineering are proposing to use connected trains that allow goods to be geolocated as they are being transported, in order to optimize logistics costs.

Finally, the presence of a remote diagnostic tool on a train would greatly help maintenance departments, who would therefore be in a position to put in place more precise predictive processes, and respond more quickly when trains break down.

… but at a high financial cost

However, despite the benefits of these applications, the installation required for them to work well carries a heavy financial outlay.

Putting in place a smart train requires three functional components to be implemented:

  • an onboard installation (communication equipment, sensors for diagnosing the condition of a motor, infrared sensors for counting the number of passengers, etc.),
  • a high-quality onboard internet connection,
  • and a suitable information system that can receive, process and distribute the information it receives.

Today, the popularity of smartphones has rendered the provision of internet connectivity for staff and passengers almost obsolete. The passenger experience is lived through the screen of a tablet or a smartphone and it starts before they have embarked on the journey itself.  Some alternatives even replace applications for passengers without the use of heavy devices like the smart train.  Tranquilien, for example, allows the accurate assessment of the number of passengers on a train by gathering information collaboratively. In this way, passengers can judge where in the carriages they can best go in order to be evenly spread out.

The cost incurred in replacing railway equipment that is not adapted to such facilities would seem prohibitive.  It would be better to take the opportunity to renew the rolling stock in order to benefit from the technology best adapted to the needs of each area (higher or lower population density, longer or shorter journeys, urban or rural, etc.) The emergence of connected and onboard systems allows new forms of connectivity to be envisaged, for example machine to machine.

What should the priorities be among the many possible applications?

The cost of such equipment means prioritizing the applications that will add the most value.  The smart train can contribute to improvements in two important areas: service quality and safety.  If the improvement of passenger information and onboard services through counting passengers represents a definite “little plus”, the improvement of monitoring capabilities would allow true value to be created in these two areas.  It could improve safety through better targeted and more predictive maintenance, and would improve service quality as a result of fewer breakdowns, guaranteeing better train punctuality.  Areas related to service delivery (such as maintenance and traffic management), as well as forward-looking ones stand to gain the most from the communicating-train approaches being put in place.

At present, the smart train does not yet offer revolutionary change: it does signify any change in the current economic model of rail companies. However, with the ongoing liberalization of the sector, it could provide a competitive advantage as a result of its ability to offer more fluid information flows.