Modernising Railways with Transport Electronics

By Phil Simmonds, CEO of EC Electronics

In today’s fast-paced world, people have come to expect speed and efficiency at every juncture — particularly when it comes to transport.

As a result, many areas of the transport industry are developing new and exciting solutions to improve infrastructure in the UK and beyond, and the railway sector is no exception.

Trains and rail transport play a crucial role in the global mobility ecosystem. These services have existed for hundreds of years, with the first electric railway appearing in Britain in 1883. However, as we embrace Industry 4.0 technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT), the rail sector must embark on a digital transformation journey of its own…

With Network Rail estimating there will be an additional one billion train journeys by the mid-2030s, building new and improved rail capacity is crucial — as is ensuring the rail sector keeps pace with technological development.

So, what could the digital railways of the future look like — and how can the electronics sector help ensure progress in this area stays on the right track?

Digitalising the transport sector


Britain’s railways are going full steam towards digitalisation to meet demands for more comfortable and efficient train services

Simply adding new tracks or extending platforms are no longer sufficient for catering to high traffic volumes. Modern railways need advanced signalling and controls to keep systems running safely and on schedule.

So, through transformation programmes like National Rail’s Digital Railway strategy, the transport industry is working to implement new processes that will increase capacity, lower operating costs and improve network performance.

For example, digital traffic management systems can improve the flexibility of services, controlling the flow of trains across the network to manage disruption and minimise delays. Replacing costly lineside signalling systems with in-cab digital signalling is also streamlining services, allowing drivers to monitor train positioning and speed to optimise network traffic control.

Autonomous trains could also be on the horizon in the not-so-distant future — bringing benefits like enhanced safety, speed, capacity and efficiency.

Driverless trains have existed since the 1980s; the first was installed in Japan in 1981, and as of December 2018, nearly a quarter of the world’s metro systems have at least one fully autonomous line in operation.

There are different levels of train automation, categorised against the International Association of Public Transport’s four Grades of Automation (GoA):

  • GoA1 — no automation.
  • GoA2 — automatic train operation with a driver.
  • GoA3 — driverless, with train attendants for door closure and operation in the event of disruption.
  • GoA4 — fully unattended train operation.

There are GoA4 trains in operation in cities worldwide, but we are some ways away from a fully driverless system.

To achieve this scale of automation, railway developers must work with transport electronics specialists to expand digital infrastructure — whilst ensuring quality and safety are not compromised…

Designing the railways of the future


Rail transport must be fast, efficient and, most importantly, safe. So, with the digitalisation of railways gaining pace, what are the key considerations for developing the next generation of train technology.

Rail developers have one primary focus: connectivity.

Passengers want access to the internet wherever they are, so implementing the necessary bandwidths and superfast networks to make this possible will be crucial.

Providing reliable internet access will help improve comfort and entertainment, allowing more commuters to work and socialise on the go. And perhaps most importantly, implementing high-speed wireless connections will support the delivery of new railway management systems.

Many onboard systems, such as train CCTV, rely on high data transmission rates. This equipment can introduce capabilities like facial recognition for security purposes — or even automatic account charging, potentially introducing a ticketless system through passenger identification software.

Plus, evolving technologies will allow rail operators to optimise transport in line with all-important sustainability targets. For example, installing IoT-enabled sensors and harnessing AI to gather and analyse system performance data can enhance predictive maintenance and system efficiencies to reduce waste and emissions.

These tools and capabilities require stable performance and powerful connections — facilitated by best-in-class components.

Complex, data-hungry digital railway equipment requires high-quality electronics and cable systems that use robust, lightweight materials suitable for high-pressure environments to ensure consistent performance and safety.

For this reason, railway developers and the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) they employ must seek experienced electronics manufacturers that can balance innovation with practicality and ensure reliability at every stop along the line.

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