Track and signalling

19.02.10

Fire, steam and computers

Information technology has changed rail travel completely over the last twenty years and will continue to do so, reports Richard Mackillican

The basics of rail travel may have stayed the same - passenger buys ticket, boards train and alights at their destination – but many of the processes involved in that journey are now either controlled by computers or made possible by them.

Take for example buying a train ticket. Twenty years ago, the only real way to buy a ticket was to go to the station or buy one off the conductor. Fast forward twenty years and there is a range of options. You can buy a ticket from a station but not necessarily from a human being as highly sophisticated ticket machines controlled by computers have sprung up in every station large enough to warrant them. Or you can buy a ticket online, where you can plan your journey down to the last detail.

This technological revolution doesn’t stop with train tickets.

“Computers are as important to rail travel in the twenty first century as fire and steam were to rail travel in the nineteenth century, along with electricity in the twentieth century,” says Dr Michael Provost, head of predictive services engineering at Bombardier. “I think that puts it all in context.

“Without computers, the rail industry simply would not be able to operate at the level of performance which it needs to, to meet its commitments.”

Computers now influence every function involved in rail travel today from the production of the trains to the journey itself. Passengers may complain about the quality of Wifi reception on train journeys yet only twenty years ago such a concept would have been unthinkable. And this is only the start.

“Computers will continue to make a contribution right across the spectrum in the rail industry,” says Dr Provost. “This means making things possible, such as advanced tilt systems and safety equipment, and making things more economical, such as energy and maintenance management, along with condition monitoring. Computers also have a role in making passengers journeys more comfortable through things like infotainment.”

Bombardier relies heavily on ICT, from running its day to day operations to its specialist computer based systems like Orbita, the award winning maintenance management software. But computers performed a very different function when they were first used in the rail industry.

“There are probably more computers involved in the running of the onboard washroom facilities than there were on a train twenty years ago,” says Dr Provost.

“Because the industry is so computerised now, it is hard to see where it all began. However, I feel that it has simple followed the trends of microminiaturisation, along with putting logic into systems where logic is needed and, in some cases, rail is beginning to lead the pack. For example, regenerative braking is completely controlled by computers.”

The rail industry is constantly looking for ways to increase efficiency. Due to environmental pressures, this means finding efficiencies which satisfy both financial and environmental targets as well as the expectations of passengers.

“Information technology is going to be critical in making the rail industry more efficient, as well as meeting the expectations of all of the stake holders,” says Dr Provost. “Without computers, today’s trains would struggle to work and struggle to be competitive.”

Given that the vast majority of children are now more IT literate than their parents, I asked Dr Provost what effect this could have on the sophistication of information technology in rail in the future.

“I think that when the next generation comes into the industry, they will certainly feel far more comfortable interacting with information technology. Whereas some of the old guard are still wary of new technology and the potential benefits which it offers, the next generation would be more likely to be suspicious of an industry if it did not contain an element of IT.”

And Dr Provost believes that the future is bright for the rail industry. As it becomes more sophisticated in both its use of engineering and information technology, it will shake off its old fashioned image which, together with a growing use of environmental technology,
can only help to attract young forward thinking minds.

Tell us what you think – have your say below, or email us directly at opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com

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