Towards the Internet of Smart Trains

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The future of the railway industry is expected to rely upon smart transportation systems that leverage technologies over a large rail network infrastructure to reduce its life cycle cost. New services, such as integrated security, asset management, and predictive maintenance, are expected to improve timely decision-making for safety, scheduling, and system capacity. Smart railways represent interconnected technological solutions and components and modern transportation infrastructures like automatic ticketing systems, digital displays, and smart meters. Likewise, these systems require seamless high data rate wireless connectivity and integrated software solutions to optimize asset usage, from tracks to trains, to meet the ever-growing demand for energy-efficient and safer services. The driving factors of the smart railways are expected to enforce the growth of the industry. These factors include the increasing importance of sustainability, government regulations, demographics, macroeconomics, microeconomics, the growing importance of smart cities, the incredible pace of telecommunications and technological change, and the need for mobility.

The global smart railway market is estimated to grow from USD 10.50 bn last year to USD 20.58 bn by 2021, at a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 14.4%. Moreover, according to the International Transport Forum of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), by 2050, passenger mobility will increase by 200–300% and freight activity by as much as 150–250% for 2010. These figures are expected to impact every component of the industry’s value chain, from passenger service to the back-end organization.

In addition, the complexity of high-speed railway networks has been previously studied by different research initiatives, which were primarily aimed at fostering transportation quality. Among their diverse strategic goals is the introduction of advanced communication technologies, which allows for providing improved services and coping with the market’s rapidly changing needs.

Current European railway communications technology was built at the beginning of the 90s, taking into consideration well-established standards with the potential to deliver railway services.

The inception of smart railways began with the evolution of the Global System for Mobile Communications-Railways (GSM-R), which is considered the keystone of rail industry transformation. Rail operators mainly use GSM-R for active voice and data communications. Over some time, innovation in wireless communications technologies offered reliable transmission of video and data services for long distances. In the 2000s, the introduction of novel technological solutions and various digital devices projected new application areas, such as providing information about the rails to passengers, the Communication-Based Trail Control (CBTC), rail traffic management systems, and Positive Train Control (PTC) solutions. However, the rail industry underwent a major revolution after 2005 with the appearance of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the adoption of smart city projects, which led to the development of solutions like smart ticketing, passenger infotainment, rail analytics, and dynamic route scheduling and planning. Industrial IoT-based solutions have eventually reinforced competitive advantages and uncovered new business models that are already impacting the global rail industry.

However, factors such as operational inefficiency, the lack of infrastructure and interoperability, the high initial cost of deployment, and the integration complexities over legacy systems and the network, may hinder the rail industry growth. Moreover, legacy infrastructure, aging communications systems, and the slow adoption of automation and protective technology in this scenario pose enormous safety risks.

Related to the issues of safety and connectivity is security. As rail systems rely more and more on wireless connectivity, they become more vulnerable to outside interference, intrusion, and cyber attacks. The consequences of even a small disruption become particularly severe as trains become more powerful, carry more passengers, and travel faster. Systems that are mission-critical for safe operation can be compromised by a simple electronic device or a small piece of malicious code. When passenger safety and lives are at stake, strong security becomes a fundamental requirement. Nowadays, the main challenges when enhancing rail transport can be summarized as:

– Increase efficiency and competitiveness: railways face ferocious competition from other modes. In Europe, the challenge is further increased by a fragmented rail market, with numerous national systems for rail signaling and speed control. Thus, interoperability represents a key challenge for the free flow of rail traffic.
– Reduce rail noise and vibration, particularly in urban areas.
– Reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although rail transport compares favorably to other transportation means of environmental impact, it can be further improved.
– Safety and security: rail safety in the European Union is among the highest in the world. Rail incidents are not frequent and cause a relatively low toll of deaths but often involve many people. To maintain and enhance security, interoperable and harmonized safety standards are required.
– Reduce operation and maintenance costs, augment the capacity of the rail network.


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