When it comes to new transportation Infrastructure, don’t forget the software!  

Passenger Rail in Canada: Finally getting the attention it deserves

 

Canada has a vast and immensely important rail network that has been a stalwart of the country’s economy for almost 2 centuries now.  That is not going to change.

However, because our rail network was originally built to accommodate freight, not passengers, the resulting prioritization of freight over passenger rail has taken a real toll:  delays and slow scheduling on passenger rail routes have pushed people towards cars and air -- which has resulted in increasing traffic congestion, more flight delays, and a huge toll on our environment. 

 

Thankfully the times are changing.  Rail’s evolving technology and increased sustainability, along with the growing awareness of rail’s economic benefits, have changed the focus back to passenger rail.  And this, we believe, is a change that is here to stay.

 

The signs are already there:  The federal and provincial governments have explicitly shown their support for the promise of better, more sustainable public transit.  Most notably, the recent announcement to build a high frequency rail line along the Quebec City – Toronto corridor is a strong example of how the tide may really be changing now and why this needs to be reflected in our next wave of rail infrastructure projects.

 

Infrastructure today:  Both hard and soft

 

With large amounts of funding now being designated for transportation infrastructure, we need to make sure we apply a modern lens to what “infrastructure” looks like today.

 

Yes, there’s the obvious hardware:  rails, tunnels, bridges, walkways, locomotives, train sets and train stations.  But we must equally consider the importance of the evolving ‘software” infrastructure overlay in rail today.  Not doing so would be akin to building your dream house, but not ensuring that your Wi-Fi and electronic connectivity stay up to date.

 

In other words, when we consider “transportation infrastructure” we need to consider both the hardware and the software.  

The recent pandemic helped provide an important showcase for software-driven technology.  At a time when human interaction was discouraged and operations were forced to rely on more remote capabilities, the benefits of digitalization proved their value.  Beside improving passenger experience, attracting more riders and generating increased revenue, there is now real appreciation for emerging new passenger safety technologies like contactless ticketing, air flow optimization, and 3-D printability for parts that need replacing.

 

Don’t get me wrong: Hardware and “boots on the ground” will always be extremely important.  Frankly, it was a big reason why Siemens Mobility recently moved to acquire the on-the-ground expertise of RailTerm last year.  But the transportation industry equally needs to focus on investing in the optimization of networking and communications, especially in that very important nexus between today’s hardware and tomorrow’s software infrastructures.

 

Smart, connected transportation:  Unlocking the full potential – and beauty – of our cities

 

Digitalizing our public transportation and railroads will allow better integration with other modes of transportation, providing citizens with a whole new expanded world of transportation choices that can be utilized to suit any time or financial restraints.  It will also help connect to AI-powered technology like crowd or traffic monitoring so transportation modes can better respond to shifting road use or sudden changes in passenger capacity (such as large crowds following a special event.)    

Importantly, a well-developed digitalized infrastructure will allow cities the flexibility to move more capabilities into the cloud and leave important real estate for other city priorities – like retaining a city’s history and building up its parks, walking spaces and bike routes.  For example, there are now new hybrid streetcars that can run off-line and emissions-free in parts of town where cities want to maintain their physical integrity (i.e. within an historic district.)    

Ensuring our new (or old) transit capabilities are enhanced with updated digitalization technology is not only a smart investment but will soon be the only way to ensure that our infrastructure stays relevant longer, and well into the future.

 

As we move forward on new projects, the word infrastructure needs to conjure up more images than simply “boots on the ground.”  These “boots” should now be seen working side by side young software engineers, collaboratively developing a whole new digital world of capabilities to support and improve transit operations and passengers experience.  

 

Digitalization is here to stay.  We must take advantage of current infrastructure funding to invest in the development of complementary digitalization/AI capabilities.

 

Written by:
Yves Desjardins Siciliano, CEO
Siemens Mobility Limited