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by Staff reporter
01 September 2022
Rail revolution

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Rail revolution

Recent industrial action has caused disruption and eroded some passengers’ confidence in the reliability of the train service – but if Scotland is to reach net zero by 2045, reducing emissions in transport is vital. It’s why ScotRail’s decarbonisation action plan aims to eliminate emissions from rail by 2035.

But as William Wilson, CEO of Siemens Mobility, explains, decarbonisation alone is not enough – it must be combined with modal shift. “2035 is an ambitious target for carbon-free rail in Scotland but achievable if the industry works together. But to achieve decarbonisation, we need to make modal shift happen and encourage the public out of their cars and onto the railway, otherwise we’ve really actually missed what we’re setting out to achieve,” he says.

Siemens Mobility believes digital solutions can help to improve reliability and passenger experience. The company has long been working on systems to digitally monitor the state of railway rolling stock and infrastructure to better maintain them – which subsequently reduces the time taken for repair work.

Wilson says: “In order to maintain it at the moment we say, that’s been operating for half a million hours, so therefore it needs changing. What the digital solutions are doing, both in infrastructure and in rolling stock itself, is starting to monitor the performance of individual components, and by monitoring that, it means that: a) we can reduce the cost of running the railways because some components today are changed when they don’t need to change; and b) we actually get the warning signals when something is going to fail before it does, and therefore you can start your maintenance regime when there’s the slightest inclination something may go wrong. 

“A key focus for the future for Siemens Mobility is to utilise the concept of digital twins – a virtual, data-driven version of the tracks.”

On reducing time and carbon on the installation side, there are plans in place to increase offsite testing of signalling systems which will reduce the time needed for maintenance work, too. Wilson says: “It means then that when you come to test it, we can test 50 to 60 per cent offsite in what we call hangars, in a warehouse environment, so we need a lot less time on site with set up and commissioning of new equipment. The repeatability of the design plus the repeatability of all the hardware means it’s a lot lower cost to maintain. 

“And we’re working with Network Rail in Scotland to look at the electrification as well to make it more of a carbon-neutral railway using our innovations such as Sicat SX to stretch out the cantilevers up to 110 metres, which resolves some of the overbridge issues as well as reducing the amount of poles you have to install by around 40 per cent.”

He also says the capacity of the railway can be increased via digital solutions. A third more trains could be timetabled on existing infrastructure by allowing some trains to run closer together. Previously not possible due to blanket safety requirements, smart trains can be used to adapt to the needs of each individual part of the railway, thereby increasing capacity without compromising safety.

All these solutions would help increase the reliability and capacity of Scotland’s railways, Wilson says. But an equally important piece of the modal shift puzzle is about ticketing, flexibility and customer experience. 

Siemens has experience here too. In Denmark, it has developed an app which allows passengers to integrate all their travel planning needs in one convenient place, which is now more popular than Google Maps. This Mobility as a Service (MaaS) platform coordinates different modes of transport and allows users to plan, book and pay for multi-modal trips based on their personalised needs and requirements. 

Wilson believes Scotland is in a good place to adopt the same model. “At the moment, the Scottish Government is focused on ticketing, the one ticket solution, and it’s felt that that’s something required for the Central Belt – but that only takes us part of the way. 

“You need to actually link your bus service, your taxi service, with your other public transport services – like Glasgow Subway and Edinburgh trams – and bring those together into something where they’re all visible with one ticket.”

And it’s not just about bringing in a Scottish version of London’s Oyster card. An app must provide people with full details of their end-to-end journey, showing the fastest option at the lowest price, with the flexibility to change reservations easily. 

“It’s almost having an Uber-type solution, enhanced across multiple modes of transport,” Wilson continues. “It’s an aspiration at the moment, but I think that it is quite possible in the here and now to roll the solution out, starting off perhaps in Edinburgh, and then rolling across to Glasgow, and then taking it up to Aberdeen.”

It’s all a part of Siemens’ main message: that rail must be seen as part of the wider transport system. Wilson says that historically the railway supply chain has not necessarily taken this approach. “We think about trains as one part of the business; we think about how you control the railways, that’s another bit; ticketing’s another bit. We don’t actually think about the railway as one system and I take my hat off to the Scottish Government because they brought it together under Transport Scotland and they’ve really pushed the boundaries of what’s possible there. 

“But the supply chain is still thinking in this fragmented way, with infrastructure and rolling stock being procured separately. Thinking about the railway as one system will get the maximum benefit for the railway and its users. Indeed last year, Siemens Mobility digitally modelled the whole of Scotland’s railway to enable recommendations for the right solution for each area, looking at the whole system as one.

“At Siemens Mobility, we launched a different approach whereby we want to really benefit the operators, the taxpayer who’s paying for it, and of course the customers. Instead of saying, right, that’s a train, that’s a track, that’s a control centre, we’re saying actually, this is a whole system. Let’s look at every bit of analysis. Let’s look at every bit of data.”

That approach is part of Siemens’ Xcelerator portfolio, under which the rail-specific platform Railigent sits. That brings together data from trains, tracks, infrastructure and more to provide information and recommendations for improvements. Adopting this type of system across all of Scotland’s railways would help operators make intelligent business decisions on optimising and improving services, analyse delays, predict passenger flow and demands, and predict maintenance and repair requirements.

Importantly, this benefit can also be brought to mid-life, non-digital trains. Wilson explains: “This is where we are installing sensors to make the train digitally connected, which will enable us to improve reliability and carry out smart, predictive maintenance, with the added benefit they can now be connected to current and future train operational and maintenance management systems. 

“In our rolling stock and our service business, we’re always looking to increase the capability of our trains, how you take a non-digitised train and digitally enable it, for example how we are future-proofing the Class 185 trains at TransPennine Express, which come up to Scotland from Manchester. This is where we are installing sensors to make the train digitally connected, which will enable us to improve reliability and carry out smart, predictive maintenance, with the added benefit they can now be connected to current and future applications and train management systems.”

It’s an example of where the decarbonisation and digitalisation agendas come together. 
Siemens Mobility has also been developing battery and hydrogen trains, with a battery train pilot running for Austrian Railways in 2019 and two pilot hydrogen rail projects in Germany for Deutsche Bahn and Bayerische Regiobahn which cover the hydrogen train, refuelling technology and hydrogen supply. 

Wilson notes: “We’ve now received three new orders for battery trains for Baden-Württemburg, NEB Brandeburg in Germany, and Midtjyske Jernbaner in Denmark, and a hydrogen train fleet order in Berlin for Niederbarnimer Eisenbahn. The Mireo+B and Mireo+H platforms are both in commissioning in Germany and this technology will form the basis of the Desiro Verve platform being developed for the UK market. This clean, self-powered technology will be crucial for Scotland, given the remote nature of some of the trainlines means electrification isn’t possible across the whole network. The battery trains are perfect for urban areas and areas of discontinuous electrification and the hydrogen trains, with a range of up to 600 miles on one tank of hydrogen, are best suited to longer areas of un-electrified routes such as the far north and West Highlands.” 

And thanks to Scottish Government efforts in making Scotland a hub for hydrogen production, Wilson says Scotland has a “winning formula”. 

“The more we drive towards decarbonisation on a global basis, as well as on a national basis, the more the development happens. Hydrogen of course isn’t limited to rail, we’re just a small part of it. If you think about the amount of hydrogen we actually need – if you’re going to mix hydrogen with natural gas to heat homes, and you’re going to have hydrogen generating electricity, and you’re also going to use hydrogen with aerospace, and you’re going to have hydrogen all across public transportation, it’s a huge amount of hydrogen that’s required.

“The current administration in Scotland is leading the way for really pushing forwards to try and get Scotland in a place where they will be at the forefront of production, thinking about the distribution and actually thinking about how it could be a world producer of hydrogen.”

This article is sponsored by Siemens Mobility. This article appears in Holyrood’s Annual Review 2021/22.

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