On 24 September we hosted a breakfast seminar on the impact of digitalisation in rail. Tristan Jonckheer, a partner in Dentons' technology practice, moderated the discussion between panellists Martin Fenner and Timothy Kelman of SNC-Lavalin, Ben Foulser of KPMG, James Fox of 3Squared Ltd and Jonathan Jarritt of Amey. Topics ranged from smart assets and the internet of things, to automation and blockchain.

Some of the key takeaways in a nutshell were:

  • the most efficient way to move forward with digitalisation is to clearly identify the purpose of changes that the industry wants to make, prioritise your projects and then move forward one project at a time, rather than looking for one enterprise-wide programme that will bring wholesale change;
  • the industry must make sure that it does not become data rich but information poor – for every dataset the industry decides to capture, there should already be in place an operating model to allow its efficient analysis and use. End users need to be engaged in the design process to ensure outputs are both understood and useful;
  • collaboration is crucial. There will always be a tension where competitors are being asked to pool their intellectual property. However, open source approaches are increasingly being adopted by the industry;
  • preventative maintenance for infrastructure and rolling stock is one of the key areas in which digitalisation and artificial intelligence is being used now and can be used in the future. This requires more than installing technology. It will also need evaluation of current processes which are built around an assumption that issues cannot be predicted. Who will look at the warnings generated by the new systems? What will they do if the systems point towards conclusions which were not the ones traditionally reached in the circumstances? Precise measurement of the benefits of prevention is also often quite difficult;
  • there will be a significant impact on culture and skills – people will need to develop skills to interact with the new technology, but there is also the risk of de-skilling. For example, where technology removes a significant number of failures, people will lose experience of dealing with such failures. Automation will not necessarily remove roles, but it will change them;
  • cybersecurity issues arise because the railway industry is now quite connected and centralised, and many of its systems are based on software which has known vulnerabilities. This requires a continuous, iterative process starting at the design phase, moving right through to operation, to ensure that the railway can continue to operate;
  • whilst the panel thought one potential application for blockchain (in relation to the supply chain for safety critical components) had potential, the consensus was that it is not really the answer to any of the industry's current problems as it is more appropriate for industries which are largely decentralised;
  • the industry should look for digital solutions which deliver value rather than simply trying to deliver "everything". However, non-value changes are also needed to ensure that there is sufficient infrastructure in place to capture this value;
  • benefit-sharing mechanisms also need to be explored to share the risk of large digitalisation projects; and
  • digital users need to be able to trust, and learn to have trust in, digital solutions to maximise their benefits.

We look forward to debating some of these themes again when we bring the discussion of digitalisation in the rail industry to Glasgow on 5 November. Please register your interest for joining us here.

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