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Transport & Logistics

The future of rail

21 Aug 2018, by Amy Sarcevic

The rise of urbanisation and ‘mega cities’ is demanding greater connectivity and efficiency in our transportation networks – and inviting a significant amount of innovation in the process. As a result, disruptive innovation is rife – occurring in all facets of the transport sector.

In mass transit, recent examples can be seen in operating and delivery models (e.g. transport as a service), in modes of transport (e.g. air shuttles) and within the vehicles themselves (e.g. smart and driverless trains). Likewise, single occupancy vehicles are transforming with the rise of automation, internet connectivity and open source integration.

With such scope and potential for industry disruption, many rail operators are left wondering what sort of future they need to prepare for. Is the declining trend in car ownership heading down the road of obsolescence or will advances in single occupancy vehicles help redeem their place in the market? What will come of transport as a service (TaaS) and how will mass transit fit into the picture? Will air ever overtake land as the primary domain of transportation?

Ahead of ARA AusRail 2018, we caught up with conference speakers Francis Valintine of Tech Futures Lab and Paul Harris of the ARA’s National Telecommunications Committee – to highlight some of their suggestions on how we can better understand and influence the role rail may play in our future lives.

Understanding the people who represent our future

This century has already seen significant attitudinal shifts among millennials in relation to ownership, including a 30 percent drop in the number of cars purchased by people aged 18-34. But how should we interpret these statistics in order to get a better grasp of the future?

Is this shift due to practical or financial reasons? In place of cars will younger adults prefer to use mass transit or, perhaps, TaaS? Or are they simply going out less, preferring instead to socialise via online platforms?

Francis argues that effectively interpreting this behaviour is key to, not only understanding the future of rail, but in creating it. “By tapping into the intrinsic motivations of this subset of the population rail operators can deliver a more customer-centric service, more effectively engage people through marketing endeavours; and ultimately tap into a generation with more than $200 billion worth of purchasing power”, she says.

Challenging linearity

Francis challenges the rail industry’s tendency to think in a linear fashion. “Since our school days, most of us have been bred with a linear mindset”, she argues. “We expect our knowledge, workplace seniority and salary to increase in predictable stages throughout our lives, much like we did when progressing through our school years. This concept is so ingrained in our minds that we assume it to be the natural order of things, and often (inappropriately) apply it to the world we live in”.

Francis says this misguided belief is leading us down the wrong track. “Assuming the digital revolution began in 1950, then – according to a linear model – in 2050 we will be twice as technologically advanced as we were in 2000. A 20-year-old would also be half of a 40-year-old”, she says. “But innovation is not linear, it is exponential. And generations aren’t just quantitatively different; they are qualitatively different”.

Francis adds, “We have to stop using the history of rail to predict its future. Staying ahead of the game will require imagination, out-of-the-box thinking and possibly even total reinvention”.

Recognising opportunity and acting faster

The internet of things (IoT) revolution is accelerating at an alarming rate, with the global market value projected to be $7.1 trillion by 2020.

But Paul highlights that the rail sector’s propensity to customise technology both delays its timely implementation and narrows the industry’s outlook. “By the time rail functionality is embedded into existing commercial technology, the original technology is often already obsolete”.

“The world was revolutionised by the emergence of 2G GSM mobile phones. But by the time GSM-R [the rail variant] was established, the technology was considered old news in the telecommunications industry, which has since progressed to 4G and will soon be using 5G”.

Paul adds, “Older technologies undermine efforts to improve customer experience. It is vital that the rail sector broadens its outlook and keeps up with global technology standards to remain competitive”.

“By not doing so, we are creating a vacancy for transport providers who are deploying the very latest ‘smart tech’ to deliver improved passenger and freight experience, reliability and efficiency”.

In a broader context, Francis highlights the potential for software as a service (SaaS) within freight and believes it is only a matter of time before someone seizes this opportunity and disrupts the sector.

Francis Valintine and Paul Harris will respectively present at ARA AusRail 2018 – taking place 27-28 November 2018 in Canberra.

Learn more and register.

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