Why rail's golden age is now

Article based on a Siemens Mobility’s expert discussion

Big investment, maturing technologies, and the climate crisis herald a new era for rail. But can innovation keep up?
Siemens brings together four experts to discuss how the sector can make the most of this turning point.

 

  • Prof. Dr. Jens Braband, Principal Key Expert, Siemens Mobility
  • Dr. Annika Hauptvogel, Head of Technology and Innovation Management, Siemens AG
  • Ritesh Khandelwal, CFO, Turnkey Business Unit, Siemens Mobility
  • Stefan Schellhaus, Head of Architecture, Safety and RAM, Siemens Mobility

What are you most excited about for the rail industry?

Jens: We’re at a turning point. A generation ago, we introduced all the electronics we could, and now we’re turning to the 4.0 story: digital interlocking and driverless trains. Artificial intelligence and its certifiable applications will be big game changers.

 

Stefan: I agree. Firstly, assisted and automated vehicles will help operators to save cost and operational expenses and increase reliability. This will happen through the data exchange between the infrastructure and the vehicle and the evaluation of that data. Secondly, the new traction technologies we’re already implementing: battery fuel-cell powered rail vehicles. With these we could achieve 100% CO2 emissions-free rail travel using renewable energy on non-electrified lines.

 

Annika: Exactly. And decarbonization and urbanization make it increasingly important to move traffic from the streets to rail. We need to encourage passengers to change the way they travel. So we need innovation that increases rail capacity by making trains more punctual and increasing their availability. 

What is today’s biggest innovation challenge?

Jens: Being quick enough. In previous decades we could have said there are not enough contracts or there is not enough money being spent on railways, but now we have it all. The 2020s could be a golden age for railways: there’s a lot of investment, but we need to be quick to bring innovation into the field.

 

For example, the Digitale Schiene Deutschland program aims to digitalize Germany’s railways and is a big investment, but we must roll out our innovations in this decade or that investment is lost. 

What does good innovation mean to you?

Jens: A former colleague used to say, “Research is making knowledge out of money and innovation is turning knowledge into money.”

 

Our Bane NOR contract in Norway is a good example of research and innovation going hand in hand. We sold something that hadn’t even been developed as a prototype, so we had to be quick to innovate. This had been a research project since 2012, and it became an innovation within a decade. In November 2020 we had the first prototype in full operation in Austria and then we won the contract with Norway.

 

Stefan: Innovation is simply a new product or feature that benefits the customer. If it doesn’t, we can’t sell it. But we also need to anticipate what could happen in the future and enable refurbishments or pre-fit for potential future solutions.

 

Our products have a very long lifetime – 30 to 40 years is typical. That's the difference between rail and other technical domains. So we’re in contact with universities, and our strategy department gives us input into what the future could look like.

 

We also bring together experts from different backgrounds to plan for the future. For example, we’ll bring a specialist in batteries together with a generalist who knows what the customer needs in terms of rolling stock. We let the specialist explain what will happen in the battery market over the next five years, and then we discuss with the generalist what we can do with the rolling stock. Future use cases will offer more opportunities than just using batteries for vehicle traction.

So customer focus is an important part of innovation. Has this changed over time? Is innovation more collaborative than it used to be? 

Ritesh: Innovation used to be more siloed. Now, it is more focused on crowdsourcing and interdisciplinary learning. Another aspect that has changed over a period of time is coming up with the perfect solution, versus today’s approach of having shorter feedback loops from your customers or stakeholders, engaging them earlier in the process, and co-creating with your stakeholders.

 

Annika: Yes, it’s a cultural change in which we give away a little bit of control and we look beyond our own competencies and open up to partners and customers. We also look to universities and sometimes even competitors to find the best solution at the appropriate speed for the customer. 

What could help you innovate better?

Ritesh: It’s important to have a culture that focuses on challenging the status quo. A company can facilitate that by doing a couple of things.

 

Firstly, there needs to be a focus on diversity in our workforce, and it’s important to facilitate a diverse working environment. We need diversity in representation and disciplines. That might make the work environment a little uncomfortable, but it’s important to move out of your comfort zone in order for new ideas to emerge.

 

Secondly, it’s extremely important to focus on lessons learned and not just fixate on failures. Failures happen – they are part of business – but it’s important that you understand the root cause and incorporate it into your decision-making, so you can then avoid failure in the future. And this process can also facilitate innovation.

 

Jens: We have become better at accepting failure. You need to give teams room to fail and experiment, but they need to fail quickly and it must not be seen as a personal failure. So we often have internal discussions about how we've failed recently. It’s like a sine wave: it becomes a little bit better, a little bit worse, but I hope we’re going two steps forward and maybe only one step back.