As the march towards digitisation strides on, the transport sector must do more to keep up. But how can we encourage innovation in our industry, and what would it look like?
Over the coming decades, populations will be putting increasing pressure on transport networks in cities. In the UK, London’s population is expected to increase from more than 8M today to an estimated 13M by 2050.
Although hard infrastructure will be needed to accommodate the upswing in numbers, digital innovation will have a major impact.
Transport for London (TfL) head of MPO, major projects directorate Subash Tavares explains how TfL is using technology to tackle rising congestion, with smart traffic systems and the use of big data making the biggest impact.
“We’ve got it all going on in a very definitive space so we need to optimise as we go forward, and I have no doubt that technology is going to be our answer,” he says.
“The amount of data we are managing is huge, and if we can be more efficient at how we do things through that data without breaching the Data Protection Act, that’s where I think we can add value as well.”
Other UK cities look to TfL to show it the way in how to use digital innovation, says Transport for the North integrated and smart travel director Alastair Richards.
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“I think we are lucky that London has blazed a trail for us,” says Richards, adding Oyster cards and ticketless payments are something other regions are keen to emulate. However, Richards points out that London’s success would not translate everywhere – in the North there are up to 400 different operators which do not all have regulated fares, making it difficult to set up a contactless payment system.
But ticketing systems must catch up. For every region, behavioural changes brought on by an increasingly digital world have thrown up new challenges for rail operators.
London Bridge Associates director David Sharracks explains how working from home has shaped the rail industry in recent years.
“Over the last few years there has been a change in the way our people work,” he says. “It’s not because of lack of economic activity; it’s because we’ve moved the economic activity.”
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In the past, commuters knew they would be making a journey on five days of the week, and so a season ticket made sense. But with more workers choosing flexible working, such as working from home one or more days per week, a season ticket no longer meets customers’ needs.
Flexible working is starting to affect TfL passenger numbers . After years of growing ridership, passenger numbers have started to plateau. Sharracks believes big data could hold the answer.
“With the amount of data TfL and other operators have access to, there is an enormous possibility for variable fares to suit variable days of the week, times of day,” he says.
“I actually think that even without much new technology, good use of data can actually start shaping what it is we need to predict by managing and understanding the whole ride.”
While highways operators do not need to worry about ticketing issues, roads will not escape the effects of digital innovation.
Autonomous vehicles are coming, but are generally agreed to be decades away. Right now, said Highways England project director, complex infrastructure programme David Bray, the transition to smart motorways is providing a blueprint for engineers to follow in years to come.
“As we learn from that [setting up smart motorways] we will be far better and quicker to create additional capacity. One of the advantages of smart motorways is that it creates additional capacity; one of the advantages of autonomous vehicles is that they also create additional capacity”.
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One key similarity between the road and rail networks is that customers wan t more control over their journeys – and more control means better use of data.
With the rise of apps such as CityMapper, passengers are becoming accustomed to knowing exactly how long they will wait for the next bus or train. Reliable information requires reliable data, which Bray says Highways England has been focusing on recently.
But digital innovation does not just affect passenger behaviour and ticketing. Bray explains how Highways England’s major infrastructure schemes, such as the £1.5bn Stonehenge Tunnel, are using data to work efficiently with a supply chain which is based across the world.
According to Bray, a tool called RBI creates an almost real-time data stream which can be accessed across the project, meaning important decisions can be made with confidence.
“Having that one source of truth is so important when we have such big programmes on the horizon,” he says.
For Siemens research and development programme manager Bharath Ranganathan, big data throws up questions around cyber security which the industry must get better at tackling.
“Yes there’s big data available, but how’s that going to be managed?” says Ranganathan, questioning whether customers are fully aware of data control issues.
“There’s all these areas that need to be addressed from a customer perspective, and whilst it’s heartening at this level…to see that level of support, I think from a day-to-day working perspective that’s still a long way away.”
The importance of data in infrastructure is an area Imperial College London professor of engineering Jennifer Whyte is particularly interested in.
Working with the Alan Turing Institute, Whyte is exploring how better use of data can make design more efficient.
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“We are looking at how we can take data about operation and maintenance use and bring them back into design processes,” she says. “I think the innovation in Crossrail is a good example of bringing some ideas about innovation from academia into a very practical setting to deal with the changing pace of technology and the changing pace of delivering infrastructure.”
For Heathrow Expansion Programme delivery director Rob Ewen, offsite manufacturing – which Heathrow plans to champion with its four offsite logistics sites it will use during expansion – is another area which will bring big gains to the transport industry.
“Industrialising construction is one of the key things we can do,” he says, adding that in highways, smart motorway schemes are creating an example of better efficiency by standardising the gantry designs, freeing up more time for other areas of the project.
But despite the innovations already taking place in transport, some are cautious that the procurement process could hold new transport innovations back.
Siemens director of technology and QEHS Nick Dunne believes that while there is a focus on accountability in procurement, the red tape can sometimes get in the way of supporting innovation and taking on risk.
“Particularly in rail, we’re absolutely stifled by this traditional procurement process,” says Dunne. “And it’s getting worse.”
This report is based on a round table discussion which took place at New Civil Engineer’s transport conference in London in July. The participants were:
David Bray project director, complex infrastructure programme, Highways England
Thomas Clarkson-Williams highways asset manager Birmingham City Council
Darren Cook director of operations, Jacobs UK
Nick Dunne director of technology and QEHS, Siemens
Rob Ewen delivery director, Heathrow Expansion Programme
Mark Hansford editor, New Civil Engineer
Bharath Ranganathan R&D programme manager, Siemens
Alastair Richards integrated and smart travel director, Transport for the North
David Sharracks director, London Bridge Associates
Subash Tavares head of MPO, major projects directorate, Transport for London
Jennifer Whyte professor of engineering, Imperial College London
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