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Smart trains: Use cases for how IoT can transform railways

Smart trains and the connected railway

The industrial internet of things has had a major impact on the transportation industry, with the advent of autonomous vehicles and improved cargo management. One area that has seen less coverage is the connected railway. The fact that trains operate at such high speeds through tunnels and extreme weather conditions, presents real challenges when it comes to deploying IoT systems. But advances in networking have made smart trains a possibility, and one that could provide significant benefits when transporting goods, providing comfort for passengers and increasing operator’s return on investments (ROI).

source: Trainfart/Youtube
source: Trainfart/Youtube

In fact, legacy infrastructure is gradually being replaced by train management systems (TMS), where trains become interconnected communication hubs, transmitting data among themselves and to network control centers, and receiving instructions from control centers. Machine-to-machine (M2) communication, with some help from the cloud, enables operators to utilize equipment, tracks and stations more efficiently, while dramatically reducing safety risks, according to Eurotech, a provider of embedded boards and systems.

Here are several potential use cases presented by Eurotech for using IoT to create a connected railway.

  • A journey planner application could recommend the fastest or most comfortable current trip allowing for road conditions to the station, live train times, available car parking capacities, passenger loading etc., allowing passengers to make informed choices about what option will provide them with the best experience according to their personal circumstances, for example whether it is more important to have the shortest journey time, or to be guaranteed a seat. Allowing the inclusion of historic data will enable evaluation not only for a current trip, but also in a predictive way for a trip planned at a future date, based upon what is normal for the planned day and time of travel.
  • Combining passenger loading information from trains with social networking apps will help to spread demand peaks. The same base information shared at a terminus can help to select the destination platform which offers the most efficient passenger egress considering the loadings of other inbound trains, whilst sharing the same information on the train can produce a more even distribution of passengers within the carriages, potentially allowing standing passengers to find a seat.
  • Combining status information from diverse on-board public facing assets such as toilets, food car chillers and ovens, and presenting this to service organizations with current positional information can improve the customer experience and reduce the penalty costs associated with having these assets out of service.
  • Intelligent CCTV cameras not only provide a record of events in case of an incident, they actively provide real-time alarms of the occurrence of potential problems, allowing more timely intervention responses and potentially reducing service outages.
  • Information concerning categorization of faults can be analyzed across multiple assets, even multiple operators, to spot trends and identify areas for preventative maintenance.

Safety is a key area of concentration


Safety is, of course, a primary element of IoT applications and solutions when it comes to train management. One safety use case is an on-board train location and detection systems that enable trains to be “aware” of the positions of other trains. This reduces the risk of collisions while allowing trains to operate safely in close proximity to one another.

Speed monitoring and control is another important safety application. Systems have been developed that can display train velocity for drivers and report speeds back to central control systems. On-board monitoring systems are interconnected with outdoor signaling systems that can regulate train speeds or even remotely command trains to stop based on track conditions, the positions of switches, the presence of other trains on the track, and other factors, according to Eurotech.

Umberto Malesci, CEO of Fluidmesh Networks, wrote in a LinkedIn post that there are three major systems within railroads where automation and the Internet of Things can bring significant benefits: signaling, interlocking, and level crossing control.

Signaling systems control the movement of a train by remotely adjusting train speed and braking. More traditional signaling systems are based on RFID along the train track, but wireless train to ground signaling is getting more and more common both in railroad and metro systems, according to Malesci. He says most of the new European high speed railroads are equipped with ETCS level 2 which is a signaling standard that requires constant radio communication between the train and the group.

source: fromtokio/Youtube
source: fromtokio/Youtube

Interlocking avoids conflicting movements on the tracks at junctions and crossings by using red and green light signals. The interlocking system works in conjunction with the signaling system to prevent a train from getting a signal to proceed if the route is proven to be unsafe. The internet of things can further improve the system’s level of automation and its integration with the signaling system.

Level crossings control is the third system that impacts safety on railroads. According to the European Railway Agency (ERA), 619 accidents occurred at level crossings in 2010, causing 359 fatalities in the European Union that year (2009 stats show 831 level crossings-related accidents caused 405 fatalities that year). Accidents related to level crossings represent 30% of all railway fatalities in the EU. IoT can help decrease those statistics by deploying cameras and sensors for increased safety.

Many more use cases

Umberto Malesci gives a number of use cases beyond safety that the internet of things is creating to enhance the operational efficiency of railways.

Smart Trains
source: The Japan Times/Youtube

Here are some of those use cases:

  • The automation of toilets can significantly reduce the cost incurred by the train operator and, at the same time, provide a better service to passengers who will less likely find a toilet out of order. Currently, most train operators are unable to determine the status of the on-board toilets in real time and a significant amount of manual checking is required.
  • Management of the video recordings on board. Many rail operators have to send personnel on board their trains to manually pick up the hard drive when video recordings are requested by a law enforcement agency for investigation of an incident.
  • Food and drinks can be easily refilled at the upcoming station if data is available in real time regarding the items sold.
  • Temperature can be remotely controlled to avoid issues with refrigerators that might not be working at all times but whose temperature is critical to preserve the food quality over time.
  • Predictive and preventive maintenance can dramatically increase the percentage of times a train is in use rather than sitting in a maintenance or repair shop, and also improve the passenger experience and their safety.

According to a recent report by Cisco, almost $30 billion will be spent in the next 15 years on the IoT projects in the railway industry.

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