• David Smallbone, Director |
5 min read

Fast, reliable and safe railways are a key component of any successful economy. Grappling with recovery from the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, cost inflation challenges and reduced funding, the rail industry needs to pull together to find new, innovative solutions for constructing, managing and operating rolling stock, stations and infrastructure.

An essential part of this will be modernisation through technology. Embedding ‘InfraTech’ – new modes of technology that help with the development, delivery and operation of physical infrastructure – is surely one of the fast tracks to the future. InfraTech embraces diverse forms, spanning event monitoring sensors, use of AI-driven drones to survey assets, and digital systems for managing extensive rail industry infrastructure. This dynamic landscape fosters a constant stream of innovative solutions developed by ambitious start-ups.

It’s a topic that we held a fascinating webinar discussion about recently, hosted jointly with Rail Business Daily, where we were joined by John Priestland of Priestland Consulting and Carolina Toczycka, co-founder of start-up Lenz Labs that produces AI-based technology to optimise operational performance, in particular in response to weather-based events.

Certainly, the industry fully recognises InfraTech’s potential. The technologies are here and solutions are becoming cheaper and more accessible. And there is no shortage of activity, with pockets of excellence out there and many active proofs of concept in motion. Nevertheless, the industry is lagging behind the kind of progress seen in some other sectors such as automotive and manufacturing. In part, this is due to the sheer complexity of rail systems and their mixture of old assets (some dating back to the 1840s) and new.

How can this be overcome? In a wide-ranging conversation, perhaps five points stood out.

1. Start with specific problems, not solutions

A theme in our discussion was that there is a mismatch in some cases between the problems that need to be solved and technology solutions that are effectively “looking for a problem”. To be effective, InfraTech must address specific needs and requirements, not just be clever ideas. As John Priestland put it: “Operators need to start with the problems, not the solutions. Start with issues that are manageable and can be solved. Remember too that technology is probably only about 10 per cent of the challenge. The rest is around the people, processes and culture in deploying the solutions".

2. Develop a more strategic approach

Related to this is the sheer number of solutions being developed. For example, we were asked to carry out a review by a Network Rail region of their technology strategy. We found that there were around 300 proofs of concept and initiatives in play. A lot of these were either duplicative – different ways of solving the same thing – or saw the same technology being used for different purposes – operational performance over here, safety over there – and wasn’t being joined up to realise the synergies. Others were tactical investments to solve one-off issues rather than being part of a scalable strategy.

A key action, therefore, is to stand back and review the portfolio of initiatives. Then, prioritise, consolidate and group them into a coherent and targeted approach. 

3. Analytics and AI are key

Another critical success factor is to be able to use the outputs of the InfraTech that’s being implemented. In other words, analytics is key. Yes, it’s an advance to use drone technology to survey miles of track – but if someone then has to sit down and review all the hours of footage, how much of a step forward is it? That’s why harnessing AI and ML-based applications that can intelligently analyse and interpret results is crucial. Only in this way can data be turned into insight, which in turn can be used to improve performance, sustainability, safety or cost. Meanwhile, large language models and Generative AI such as ChatGPT hold significant potential too – for example, they could be used to write and update the industry’s O&M manuals or scan huge volumes of documentation for specific pieces of information, dramatically increasing efficiency and freeing up people for other tasks.

4. Build data interoperability

Hand in glove with analytics comes data interoperability. It is key to think about, and improve as necessary, the way that different parts of a network speak to each other. A flow of data and information between systems is essential to derive the full benefits from it. It’s the sharing and exchange of data that creates the ability for modelling and scenario planning, and enables processes to be streamlined and costs lowered. Digital twins can also be built that are much more efficient for exploring different scenarios than physical experimentation, and have a significantly lower carbon footprint.

5. Smarter procurement

Another key component is bringing the InfraTech solution providers and the rail operators and contractors together. And this opens up issues around procurement. Much of the industry is covered by public procurement rules and a system of frameworks. But there is no specific framework for InfraTech. The frameworks are usually only renewed every 3-5 years – which means that a start-up with a brilliant new proposition may have to wait a long time before it can get onto one. This could kill their viability as a business, or mean that they decide to pivot their proposition to a use case in a different industry instead.

We discussed the various efforts underway to address the issue. And there are some encouraging signs of change, as Carolina Toczycka of Lenz Labs commented: “Multi-year frameworks have timelines that aren’t in sync with the needs of users. They also tend to play better for the established technology providers who are already on them. But we are seeing a growing openness to bring more SMEs onto the frameworks, as well as clauses making it mandatory to provide an API which enables other applications to be built on top.”

It’s not just about getting onto frameworks, of course. Solution providers need to be able both to “gain the buy-in of the originators of the workflows” as Carolina put it, and speak the language of the C-Suite so that their proposition will resonate in business terms with a clear ROI.

“With so many stakeholders, it’s complex to bring them all through,” John Priestland said. “It’s about getting the real quality in front of the right people, as well as bringing more of the technologies together.”

Building for tomorrow

While there are undoubted challenges, InfraTech’s potential for the industry is huge. Now, it’s about building on the momentum achieved, channelling it into a focused strategy, and collaborating, sharing and innovating to build the rail system of tomorrow.