Our Transport Team attended 'The Rise of IoT & Big Data in Rail' conference in Munich on Tuesday. It was a popular event attended en masse by rail industry leaders and innovators prompting enlightening discussions and idea sharing around how Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) can be (and is being) used to improve asset management, proactive and predictive maintenance of track and train, and the digitalisation of the railways across Europe.

We have set out some of the key themes we took away from the conference below. Our specialist Transport Team at Womble Bond Dickinson has a great deal of experience advising on the introduction of technology to the rail industry and we look forward to supporting the industry in meeting the challenges and delivering solutions.

  • It's already here: Big Data and IoT are being used extensively in rail across Europe, particularly in relation to 'Smart Maintenance' – case studies show good successes and encouraging progress, for example:
    • Network Rail has budgeted operating cost savings of £120m over CP6 as a direct result of improved asset management through its use of Big Data and IoT
    • LINEAS has used Big Data to significantly reduce costs through better utilisation of its fleet and better understanding the maintenance requirements of its rolling stock.
  • The industry believes: there was near unanimous consensus that data collection and usage was a necessity for the rail industry to remain competitive and to deliver the services its customers require
  • Using what we already have: the industry is already awash with data but as Bernard Marr once said: "data on its own is meaningless", "the value of data is not the data itself – it's what you do with the data." The key to extracting value from data is understanding (1) what questions we are looking to answer, (2) what data we need to answer those questions, and how we visualise/report that data, and (3) how this can be used to improve the railway.
  • Not all data is useful (or right): 'data cleansing' to ensure that captured data is verified (just because a sensor says something, doesn’t mean it is right) and to ensure that superfluous or unhelpful data does not turn the system into a 'data swamp'
  • A single point of truth: it is critical to successful asset management to have an asset management system that provides a 'single point of truth' rather than multiple sources of data for the same asset
  • Checking my track, with your train: how data is best recorded needs to be planned across the industry – for example, is it more efficient to fit track surveying sensors to passenger trains running up and down the tracks all day, rather than Network Rail's yellow trains?
  • We all need to be 'smart': there are a wide variety of assets used in the rail industry (e.g. mobile, fixed, discrete) – for IoT and Big Data to be most useful and economically viable, systems must be able to fully and easily interact. The efforts of a freight company installing IoT on its locomotives is somewhat futile if the wagons it couples to are not also 'smart'
  • The future is 'condition-based' maintenance: the norm of periodic-based maintenance (based on mileage or time) has resulted in the rail industry over-maintaining on a massive scale. It appears generally accepted that the industry is close to exhausting the cost benefits that can be gained through extending periodicities and other traditional maintenance efficiencies. Instead, through 'condition-based' maintenance and "health monitoring" technology, a step change in efficiency and reduction of service failures could be realised
  • Cost v Benefit: business cases need to be made to modify older rolling stock to be 'smarter'. It's not cheap to rollout, but the benefits could be substantial – and the costs are decreasing with IoT solutions becoming simpler and cheaper to buy (and without wires; easier to install)
  • Cybersecurity: this was not discussed, but anyone implementing an IoT system and/or using Big Data will need to be conscious of the likelihood and impact of bringing in cyber risk and to protect against it accordingly
  • Don't be afraid to try! As LINEAS said bluntly – "What is next? To be honest, I have no idea" – but the message from across the industry was that this is no longer a hobby. The industry needs to be willing to test and try new ideas, fail quickly, move on and try again. There is no single solution or answer, but the use of IoT and Big Data in rail will only continue to rise.