transport December 2019

Keeping the rail industry on the right track

Rail passenger journeys in Britain have doubled over the last 20 years – from 0.9 billion in 1998-99 to a record 1.8 billion in 2018-19 – according to the latest figures from the Department for Transport (DfT).

Passenger arrivals have increased in most major cities in the last year and, since 2010, total passenger demand in the morning peak period has grown faster than seats in every city except for Bristol and Newcastle. In London, for example, more than 230,000 passengers are standing on trains during peak hours. And Cambridge recorded the highest crowding level of 4.8%.

Yet Britain has one of the safest railways in Europe – for passengers and for workers – according to the Office of Rail and Road independent regulator.

Data plays a crucial role in helping to keep the railways safe – from the tracking of individual train positions to the logging of minor incidents as well as major accidents to improve operations. So is it time to harness the power of data to also improve other aspects of the rail industry, such as overcrowding?

We're all familiar with the frustration of waiting ages for a train, only to find it's full when it arrives – so that you then have to wait all over again. Could an innovative approach help tackle this problem?

If the number of passengers entering and leaving each carriage could be tracked, for example, operators would know – in real time – when a train is full and could perhaps lay on an additional service to pick up passengers stranded further down the line. Or passengers could be sent a text message advising them to consider taking a different train for their morning commute that day. At the very least, such information would be valuable intelligence when it comes to drawing up new timetables.

With the help of GeoSpock's state-of-the-art spatial big data platform, real-time information from train sensors could perhaps be combined with historical data to create an early-warning system for train defects before they lead to breakdowns and service disruption.

The infamous "leaves on the line" excuse could even be consigned to the compost heap if track sensors alerted operators in time to re-route trains. Passengers could then receive automatic notification of such changes to their journey and simply drive to a different station – rather than arriving at their regular stop, only to find no trains running.

Rail innovation is vital when it comes to passenger safety – and has contributed to the industry's enviable safety record. But it shouldn't stop there. Data-driven innovation holds the promise of transforming the personal experience of all rail passengers – and optimising operations for the benefit of the industry as a whole.

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