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Transportation of the Future: When Can We Expect Railway Signaling to Become Totally Smart?

To sort through the smart railway’s perspective, PSA’s Julia Mitchell dives into it from the point of railway signaling solutions to see how close to smart railways we really are

Julia Mitchell

September 12, 2023

8 Min Read
Railroad tracks at a major train station at sunset
Getty Images

The concept of a Smart City would have been called utopia 10 years ago, but now figures indicate its outstanding prospects. According to the Market.us report, we can expect an eightfold increase in the smart cities market by 2032 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23%! Pretty much the same goes for the smart railways market with a CAGR of 22.4%. As far as we can see, high hopes are put on this mode. Thanks to its sustainability, predictability and efficiency, rail is an excellent candidate to become transport No. 1 in the future city.   

How crucial is it to focus on railway signaling here? It is not customary to speak widely, but being a basis of train control, the signaling system is the least susceptible to innovations among other rail components. There are lots of locations globally where railways still operate on wayside equipment from the last century utilizing technologies of a century before. Plans for urban rail upgrades are hardly ever aligned with smart cities’ perspectives. The introduction of modern digital railway signaling systems like communications-based train control (CBTC) or the European Train Control System (ETCS) is set at a slow pace and is related to a range of economic issues. To sort through the smart railway’s perspective, PSA wants to dive into it from the point of railway signaling solutions and indicate how close to smart railways we really are.  

What Kind of Railroad Can Be Called Smart? How It Relates to Advanced Railway Signaling

Any transport network is impossible in isolation from the environment where it operates. The same goes for smart railways that should respectively promote three main ideas of a smart city – efficiency, mobility and sustainability. For the rail to meet these ideas, it generally needs to strive for the following goals:

  • Eliminate delays and reduce the number of signaling failures.

  • Increase capacity and optimize traffic.

  • Improve passenger experience.

  • Reduce costs. 

  • Reduce environmental impact.

All the mentioned points are tied to railway signaling, one way or another. Surprised? The type of equipment for a railway signaling system affects the flexibility within the train schedule, adaptability to current passenger flows, service costs, including predictive maintenance possibilities, and all together – passenger experience. 

In a general sense, smart railways are “self-sufficient” railways that require minimum human control to keep the trains running safely and in an optimal way. It leverages Internet of Things (IoT) technologies to make all the rail subsystems more connected and therefore more available and predictable to reach SIL 4 – the highest level of safety. It leverages artificial intelligence (AI) to establish data-driven rail operations and reach GoA 4 – the highest degree of automation that implies autonomous trains. It offers advanced mobile apps to keep railways available for passengers who can plan their schedule accordingly. All this can be completed only with digital signaling systems. 

What Enhancements Does Railway Signaling Need to Become Smarter?

Completely New Digital Infrastructure

Smart trains must run fast with shorter intervals while keeping the highest safety level. Now it’s possible through modern railway signaling systems such as CBTC, positive train control (PTC) and ETCS, which additionally are capable of self-diagnostics. However, their implementation brings about significant costs that force rail authorities to introduce them partially within rail networks avoiding low-loaded zones. If they are not implemented on the line, then it will be necessary to replace all controllers, and onboard equipment, remove signals as unnecessary, and install towers for signal transmission. The partial introduction of digital signaling systems is fully justified economically and does not affect safety but may cause issues for the smart city environment through lack of connectivity. 

Why does smart rail need this? It allows more trains to pass over a period of time, making it easier to adapt to real-time passenger traffic. One more application suitable here is smart cameras that can capture data on passenger traffic and continuously transfer it to the operation center. 

Such upgrades are meant to be incremental since we are talking about significant expenses. However, we have no doubt that all rapid transit within smart cities will shift to digital as soon as possible. While commuter rail which is often less loaded, may require more time to change principles for building systems for railway signaling.

Advanced Supervision for Driverless Trains 

Digital signaling systems we’ve mentioned also allow us to get rid of the driver since all the train operations are calculated by a computer. Unmanned trains subsequently require advanced supervision and track monitoring. The most powerful AI algorithms should calculate precise routes for every train within a major network, considering changing speed, location and schedule, reacting to emergencies and recalculating routes if required. Otherwise, we suppose that the terms of driverless trains' global adoption depend on when passengers overcome the psychological barrier that forces them to doubt the reliability and safety of such trains. 

Advanced supervision should also include environmental monitoring to detect dangerous cases like obstacles on a track. Since the train requires more than .62 miles to stop, it is worth equipping it or the track sections with lidars or the highest quality cameras to detect obstacles from a distance. 

Strong Cybersecurity

The centralized network of a smart city potentially endangers each of its components separately, which brings significant risk to safety-critical rail systems. Cybersecurity measures for railways are relatively new. Meaning, rail companies realized how important it is to research custom security solutions. To protect rail assets, it has become common for digital railway signaling to utilize key management systems to encrypt and transfer security data between locomotives, wayside equipment, and a back office.

As for passengers, the use of station and train Wi-Fi exposes them to additional danger. There are known cases of Network Rail when more than 146 million data records were leaked or a breach in the Chinese subway, after which the information of more than 5 million passengers was stolen. That’s why rail companies need to protect both Wi-Fi connection and their internal databases in an enhanced mode. For instance, multi-factor authentication and enhanced encryption might be helpful here.

Real-Time Monitoring and Predictive Maintenance

Not to undermine all the enhancements that were made for train control, but it’s also required to keep the railway infrastructure in perfect condition. Meaning, achieving great autonomy in its monitoring. A system where railway crossings, bridges, tunnels and tracks are equipped with smart sensors that transmit data directly to the operational center can not only provide phenomenal reliability in a moment but also contribute to predictive maintenance. Powerful AI algorithms deployed in the cloud can analyze all the equipment or construction data to find inconsistencies that hint at future malfunction.

Thanks to continuous real-time monitoring of vibrations, humidity, deflection and so on, an issue can be detected long before it leads to a forced traffic stop. Smart transport networks should run on 24/7 available platforms to automatically schedule maintenance as soon as a problem is detected. This also allows us to mitigate environmental risks and stay fully compliant with standards. In fact, predictive maintenance now is the main trend driving “smartness” to the whole industry. 

What Would Promote “Smartness” for Railway Signaling?

As we have seen, it needs significant enhancements before we can call railways fully smart. The holistic approach to planning and development of rail systems can really help here.

Alignment of Smart Railways with Smart Cities Plans

Railway signaling upgrades are lengthy, complicated and costly undertakings, which can take up to five years and even more for one line. During this time, it is not surprising that the technologies to be utilized on rail lines become outdated by the time the new lines are put into operation. So it happens that it will need a new investment flow to adapt a freshly updated line to a smart city. 

The concept of a smart city should also tangle social issues associated with job losses. It regards rail transportation as well since the high autonomy brings about labor cost reduction by 30-50%! So far, rail companies are aimed at preserving jobs even if it leads to a reduction of staff responsibilities. 

Engineering With Smartness in Mind

It's impossible to predict technologies that will be trendy by the time of the commissioning of the rail line. However, it is possible to start rail upgrades in view of the general tendencies. For instance, it is worth thinking about the connectivity that is often neglected in low-loaded areas, or wireless communications that prevail over wired. Thus, the rail industry needs the development of alternative, more affordable solutions to promote connectivity over the air and overall availability. 

So, When Can We Speak About Smart Railways? 

Since the life cycle of conventional signaling systems is about 20 to 25 years, we can't expect automation to come to railways overnight. But even though they require more time for changes, rail mode still has every chance to be at the forefront of a smart city environment. This time can be utilized to overestimate the value of rail mode in the future urban environment, and plans for their development within smart cities. 

Fully automated railways are expected to appear by the end of this decade. If their launch is successful, we might face a new breakthrough. Anyway, both service companies and rail authorities need to get ready for the autonomous scenario for urban railways to provide seamless integration into smart cities.

About the Author(s)

Julia Mitchell

Business operations manager at Professional Software Associates Inc. (PSA), Professional Software Associates Inc. (PSA)

Julia is business operations manager at Professional Software Associates Inc. (PSA). Thriving at the junction of railway signaling and the Industrial Internet of Things inside PSA, Julia specializes in building client solutions that bring together signaling technologies and overall business objectives. A liaison to PSA’s invaluable technical engineering team, she provides companies with expertise in the signal design of electrical interlockings, microprocessors and relay-processor systems.

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