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The technology that’s driving innovation in the rail industry

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

The rail industry in the UK often receives press for the wrong reasons. Strikes, signal failures and overcrowding have become a daily occurrence for many Brits, while in Japan a rail company issued an apology earlier this month for a train which departed 20 seconds early. It often seems that rail is lagging behind other transport industries when it comes to innovation, with Europe as a whole playing catch-up to rapidly developing nations in Asia. However, to adopt this viewpoint at face value doesn’t take into consideration the change which is happening here on UK soil. The rail industry is fast adopting digital technology to streamline the customer experience, improve customer journeys and ticketing, as well as to enhance the management of the infrastructure – such as to reduce delays, anticipate problems in rail stock and machinery.

We’re beginning to see more innovative ideas disrupt the rail industry, due in part to events such as HackTrain which aims to put the railways back on the map as a reliable and viable alternative to car and airplane travel. Developers, creatives and innovators join forces for annual hackathons to solve many of the UK’s and Europe’s issues in the rail industry – from devising smart tickets, to managing congestion at peak times on trains and at stations, as well as simply providing the travelling public with up-to-date information about their train services.

In the UK we may still be awaiting our rail revolution, but looking at examples from around the globe, here’s what we can expect to see in the coming months and years:

Smart cards 

London has long since led the way with smart cards with passengers able to pay for any journey by touching in and out since the Oyster card in 2003. Now they can be found all over the globe from Hong Kong’s Octopus Card to Sydney’s Opal Card. The best thing about SmartCards is that they reduce the need for a ticket, saving paper, money and time, making travel that little bit more convenient. And thankfully, UK passengers outside of London will be able to get in on the action as by the end of 2018 SmartCards will be mandatory on the UK’s rail network.  

AI and facial recognition  

Facial recognition is in vogue now, with the launch of the iPhone X and Face ID throwing a spotlight on the technology. It works by using infrared lights flashing at high speed to help a camera capture the shape, texture and orientation of a face in unprecedented detail, down to the wrinkles and the texture of the skin. The good news is that the technology can be used for more than just unlocking your phone. Facial recognition devices have already been installed in central China’s Wuhan Railway Station with passengers now using their identification cards at a facial recognition device before boarding a train.  

For the UK, there are many benefits to adopting AI and facial recognition within the rail industry particularly, ending ticket barriers. This might seem like a small perk, but it could have significant ramifications such as ending rush-hour queues that plague every commuter’s journey.  


Being able to efficiently collect, manage and interpret data is crucial for an efficient service - just look at Seoul, South Korea, the most connected and digitised city in the world. Home to 10 million people the mayor’s department collects and uses data in real time to keep the city moving. Data is gathered at stations and then sent to a central system where payments are processed. The entire network from wheels to workers relies continually on data which is used to plan the transport schedule. Smart cameras can measure how many passengers are boarding and how quickly, so the rail operators know whether they need to adjust the frequency or speed of trains. Similarly, sensors on the trains and tracks can monitor every last component to provide early warnings when maintenance is required and prevent a costly breakdown. Workers also use apps, social media and the web to provide passengers with real time alerts and alternative routes when there are problems, breakdowns or accidents.  

This isn’t to say that we don’t collect and manage data here in the UK. Raildar is using the National Rail’s vast Darwin Data Feed to create junction maps that plot trains as they move across the networks. Using real time data, the app shows the location of trains and reveals real-time arrivals and departures, delay estimates, platform numbers and more. The app allows users to click on any train to see every stop it’s due to make, the precise time it stopped at each location (to the second!) and the number of minutes it was delayed.

However, there’s still a long way to go. The main challenge will be implementing the infrastructure that will be able to support extensive data collection. For example, The London Underground is over 150 years old and we still don’t have WiFi in between platforms, so being able to fit every part with sensors will take time. Similarly we don’t yet have smart cameras on stations, or the ability to adjust the frequency or speed of trains based on passenger numbers.


It might sound like a scary rollercoaster ride at Thorpe Park, but Hyperloop is the brain-child of the billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk, who called it a 5th mode of transport. In a nutshell, Hyperloop is a proposed magnetic levitation train travelling at high speed in a low pressure transit tube. It would allow passengers and objects to travel at high speeds of up to 700mph in tunnels that would take up far less space than existing tracks, tunnels or roads.

It might sound like a far-fetched reality, but in September 2017 the company Hyperloop One (which Richard Branson recently invested in) successfully completed its second test, with pods reaching speeds of 309km/h. The publicly stated goal is to deliver a fully operational Hyperloop system by 2021, and the company is already developing passenger and cargo system routes in the U.S, Canada, and Finland, amongst other countries.

It’s evident that we’re entering a new, golden age of travel with a whole range of next generation mass and personal transportation modes emerging. While it’s not clear when we’ll start seeing these innovations in the UK, when they do enter the mainstream, digital will be at heart, facilitating the ability for passengers to plan, predict and pay for their journeys with speed and accuracy. We’re also seeing existing providers rising to the challenge, developing new digital services around the wider customer experience, rather than simply focusing on the physical transport of customers from A to B. Ultimately, all of this innovation will be great news for passengers, bringing a welcome change to what’s been a previously stagnant sector.

Keith Nation, Managing Director and CTO, ORM
Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible

Keith Nation
Keith Nation is currently Managing Director and CTO at ORM, a digital consultancy based in London W1.