By Norman Frisch, Business Development Transport Solutions at Huawei Enterprise
Organisations from across a range of sectors are being disrupted by technology adoption, and the railways are no different. Harnessing the power of cloud computing, coupled with the shift from analogue and toward broadband communications, not only helps improve internal efficiency for rail operators but also has the potential to open up new services that come along with adopting Digital Transformation.
South Africa's current rail network is the eleventh-largest in the world at 22,387 route-km or 30,400 track-km. It comprises 12,801km of national network, 7,278km of branch lines and 2,228km of narrow gauge urban network, as well as 80km of standard gauge regional rapid transit network.
Urban rail continues to play a significant role in transporting residents in South Africa’s metropolitan areas; with the scale and passenger volume set to continue growing, these lines will need to be integrated into multiple-line networks, requiring more efficient smart operations.
Legacy systems a constraint to growth
This is because legacy rail operations are often hampered by data centres that in today’s standards are inefficient, complex, and costly to maintain and adapt to current demands. A reliance on mass transit WiFi or analogue systems that are susceptible to interference results in unreliable critical communications services further hindering reliable and agile operations.
In addition, these lines are often operated independently as technology islands and lack consistent service architecture, technical platforms and data, with a myriad of IT systems that cannot support the unified operation of multiple lines. This becomes a problem, as switching to automatic train operation - one way of improving efficiency - requires more reliable information systems and service linkages between different data silos.
South Africa’s National Development Plan identified that the country needs reliable economical and smooth-flowing corridors linking its various modes of transport, including road, rail and air. It adds that these corridors are primarily dominated by old railway technology that is prone to malfunction and poor intermodal linkages, echoing the problems mentioned above.
Railway organisations globally are increasingly turning to ICT paving the path to Digital Transformation to maximise their investment providing a more convenient transport service for commuters, and improving operations efficiency and management of their assets and rail networks - showing that similar improvements can be gained here too.
The government has recognised the critical role that rail plays in socio-economic development, with commuter rail services in particular making work centres and central business districts accessible to the country's workforce by providing affordable transport at set times.
As such, the country is to invest R173 billion toward the modernisation of South Africa's railway systems, including the fleet and depots amongst others. One of the improvements already underway includes the implementation of a GSM-R based critical communications network to improve signalling on the urban rail network.
A cloud-based approach to rail
With this ambition of revitalising the railways, and increasing rail's market share in intermodal systems, South African rail operators will need to invest in a solution that can provide them with a high-performance service platform, converged network, and data centre that provides the reliability and redundancy needed.
They need to break down information silos to enable information sharing between trains, stations and even line and service operators, and gain the ability to provide commuters and customers with improved or even new products or services - making a private cloud-based data centre the ideal option.
Harvesting synergies: As rail operators switch to broadband, they find that they still have spare bandwidth on top of that required for critical communications; they can now use this to start collecting and analysing different sources of data from trains or trackside installations, including a myriad of data from sensors feeding an Internet of Things.
Rail operators across the world today set up projects to make use of this information to determine if there are problems aboard coaches, or elsewhere in the infrastructure, that requires attention, whether this is a faulty air conditioning or variation of vibrations that hint at maintenance is required. Customer projects show that predictive maintenance in combination of IoT with Private, Hybrid or Public cloud and the use of own or third party predictive tools give huge advantages over a time-based preventative maintenance approach.
Combining broadband connectivity with cloud further enables intelligent video surveillance across the fleet and operations, allowing the business to keep track of assets and work being carried out or support new approaches such as video based fare collection. Future services could even include the provision of seatback information and entertainment, similar to what is found with airlines.
A private cloud not only securely provides operators the needed interconnectivity, but also an agile and flexible computing capability to support continuous service integration, and high concurrent processing, such as making online ticket bookings. With cloud, operators can get the flexibility they need to securely expand their operations to meet future growth requirements.