Changing Tracks: An Interview on the Future of Rail Safety

Rail transportation in the future will be dynamic, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly thanks to digital networks. But this interconnectivity also increases the number of hazards.
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Sankar Ramakrishnan
HIMA Group CEO since 2013, Sankar Ramakrishnan brings a wealth of expertise and fresh ideas to the organization. Having previously worked in the rail industry in Asia, he has hands-on experience in the sector and is familiar with the challenges. As a company, HIMA has ambitious targets in the rail industry, and Ramakrishnan is responsible for putting these visions and ideas into motion.

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Sedat Sezgün
Following many successful years developing HIMA’s rail business, Sedat Sezgün was chosen to lead the company’s rail segment in 2015. Using his extensive knowledge of electrical engineering and the rail industry, he has been instrumental in executing HIMA’s strategy for the rail market. Sezgün continues to guide HIMA and its partners into the next generation of rail safety today.

The rail industry is currently going through radical change. What are the key drivers in this transformation? 

Sezgün: First of all, you have to look at the broader changes in society and the business world. Take urbanization, for example. Movements in population have a huge influence on the way rail companies operate. As populations grow in metropolitan areas, the industry needs to look for solutions that meet the heightened demand. Companies in the rail industry are asking themselves: How can we make transportation faster, safer, and more accessible for everyone?

Ramakrishnan: Exactly. In today’s world, people are better connected. But so are all the systems involved in rail transport. As digitization becomes ever more prevalent in the rail sector, we will see major changes in technology. For instance, signal boxes, trains, and railway stations are no longer isolated – they are now connected to external systems via networks.

What innovations can we look forward to as a result of digitization?

Ramakrishnan: Like in almost every other industry, data will be at the heart of the transformation of rail. The insights won from that data will create new opportunities to make rail travel more efficient. Take fault prediction for example: If we know in advance when a train or a system within the rail network is likely to fail, then we can plan maintenance in a way that prevents disruption. This will make rail travel more attractive by increasing the reliability and punctuality of train services.

Sezgün: One of the most exciting developments right now is the concept of digital interlockings. They will make it possible to optimize the flow of rail traffic by tracking the location of trains and adjusting their speed accordingly. And as digital interlockings replace their mechanical counterparts, maintenance costs will sink.

“Data will be at the heart of the transformation of rail. The insights won from that data will create new opportunities to make rail travel more efficient.”
Sankar Ramakrishnan,
CEO of the HIMA Group

There has been much talk about COTS systems in recent years. What led to their rise in popularity?

Sezgün: A few years ago, our partner companies and thought leaders in the industry were asking themselves the question: “Is there an alternative to the inflexible, proprietary systems that big companies offer?” Back then, the industry was dominated by a small number of major players who defined the rules. Their safety systems are rigid: highly customized and extremely expensive. So the problem for customers was that once they had chosen a provider, they were tied to them. We aimed to change this and give OEMs and system integrators the chance to enter new markets.

Why has it taken so long for COTS technology to establish itself?

Ramakrishnan: The doubts about COTS were definitely an obstacle. But due to rising cost pressure, companies in the rail industry simply had to find alternatives to proprietary solutions. OEMs and integrators needed more freedom, simpler implementation, and a way to reduce their costs. But while cost was one of the initial triggers, companies also saw a good opportunity to expand their business models.

Sezgün: You have to appreciate that the industry was rife with misconceptions about COTS. While it has long been known that COTS products offer a way out of vendor lock-in, some perceived them as “not safe enough”. And there was a fear that the components would become obsolete faster. However, these concerns are misplaced. In fact, we’ve proven that standardized COTS controllers can achieve the highest level of safety more cost-effectively and flexibly.

How close are we to seeing driverless trains, and what significance do they have for the industry?

Sezgün: Self-driving trains are quickly becoming a reality, and there are already many examples of driverless metro systems around the world. The first autonomous long-distance trains have also been successfully tested. This means we will see train operations increasingly shifting to control centers in the coming years. The safety requirements are, of course, huge – but we will deliver safety solutions that fulfill the highest standards.

Ramakrishnan: Once successfully implemented, autonomous trains will be able to run at a higher frequency than conventional trains, helping address the increased demand for transport that we mentioned earlier. But they will also be more energy efficient thanks to optimized accelerating and braking.

You mentioned high safety standards – what are the most important requirements for OEMs and system integrators?

Sezgün: The standards and regulations vary significantly from country to country, but they are always very demanding. In Europe, for example, the safety standards are governed by CENELEC. Fortunately, these standards are accepted worldwide, so CENELEC-certified systems can be deployed in applications around the world. However, the approval process for safety-regulated electronic systems is very complex. Because it includes a wide variety of hardware and software assessments, verification of functional integration, and corresponding certification, it can take several years to gain approval.

Ramakrishnan: This is another area where COTS controllers can help. Pre-approved and pre-certified COTS components can considerably accelerate the approval process. They also help manufacturers solve the challenge of keeping all documents up to date for every component.

An In-Depth Look at COTS Rail Technology

Download our free guide to COTS technology. The in-depth, 16-page study covers technical aspects and maintenance concepts, as well as legislation, standards, and certification. It also includes all the considerations that need to be made when selecting COTS systems.

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