Railways 4.0 – Divide and Conquer

I recently watched the webinar organized by IBM regarding think beyond the rails. And there are a few things that became very clear to me which i would like to address:

  1. Railways need to improve their skills in soft- and hardware to reduce costs but also increase quality (and with this reliability, availability and safety)
  2. Digitization is a huge mountain – it is difficult to know where to start. Railways need to follow the divide and conquer path
  3. Railway companies need to hire progressive and lateral thinkers to reinvent their processes, operating models and even business models

Following the discussion in the webinar, it became very clear to me that the huge potential of the digital world is currently not really tapped into. A reason for it might be, that there is a huge gap in terms of knowledge, ideas and understanding of feasibility between the railway domain experts and the industry 4.0 experts. While some experts try to propose cognitive computing, many railway companies would be glad if they can digitize very basic pen-and-paper processes. This is why I propose these actions:

1.Railways should hire and educate more people in soft- and hardware

A significant problem is currently in the collaboration between experts in the IT field and experts with the railway domain knowledge. This creates not only island-solutions that are only applicable for one specific case but also prohibits the transfer/learning of the railway about possibilities of modern IT technology.

On the other hand, most railways understand IT at the moment as a support function and treat it therefore more as a costly process that should be made more efficient and effective. This inhibits any innovation that could come from internal experts.

So what should be done: Every employee who has a responsibility beyond the management of a small team should undergo a mandatory training in understanding the possibilities of hard- and software, higher up management should gain basic programing skills and should get involved in the implementation of digital projects. At the same time, additional experts should be hired – with an okay salary but even more with a meaningful job that can have a huge impact into the railways future operation and costs.

2. Divide and Conquer

What became very clear in the webinar is that it is a huge field and it affects all areas of planning, operations and maintenance. This can create thus twofold of challenges:

  • A specific program is solved with large effort but the data is not used to solve other problems which could be totally different but would require the same data.

This can be resolved by implementing internal access to a lot of the data and advertise what is available. Railway organizations should implement for instance internal wikis or e.g. confluence workspaces. At the same time, data should be as open as possible and only personal data protected within the organization.

  • To design a data architecture for a whole railway seems to be impossible. There are too many stakeholders to consult and too many different data formats, purposes, depth of data. On the other hand, every IT project should be set-up in a way that it can be integrated and also be implemented in the future.

The key but also the biggest challenge is to divide the bunch of industry 4.0 projects into smaller pieces that can be tackled step by step. This needs to be done by an internal person at the railway and should then be questioned and discussed with external experts. Only this way, both domain expertise can come together. I would definitely recommend to start with the railway domain, as the implementation in the field is most likely more costly and challenging than the IT side. However, there should be no taboos and the whole structure should be questioned at least once a year even during and after implementation.

3. Hire progressive thinkers

Railway companies and its employees have become strong experts in their domain. This can create the risk that they are not very susceptible to new ideas or even rethink the whole business model. This is why I think it is necessary to hire, once in a while, somebody with an outside perspective and someone that reflects a more progressive thinking.

There are challenges ahead for the railway industry: Erosion of margins, safety, high maintenance costs but also disruptive models such as an autonomous Uber for freight.

To redefine their business model, railways should copy some ideas out of startups’ playbook. Who are the customers, what services do they need, what is the customer experience, which resources do we need to provide the service or produce the product.

What do you think?





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s