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07 November 2016

Smart Devices and Digitisation - Driving Safety Leadership in the Rail Industry

By Stephen McCabe

The adoption of mobile devices continues to grow in everyday working life – it is predicted that by 2017 the total number of mobile phone users will rise to 4.77 billion globally.  This rate of adoption has seen companies adapt to smarter and fresh ways of working – this is particularly evident to those working in remote conditions and in environments with little or no access to IT infrastructure.

One such sector embracing this modern approach to business via mobile and smart technology, with a view to significantly enhancing safety, is the rail operating and freight industry. Traditionally, some critics have falsely viewed the rail industry as being averse to change, dated, and incapable of performing efficiently and promoting use of technology, partly because of the industry’s culture and long-life assets.

The rail sector is experiencing significant growth in remote working and utilisation of smart devices to increase efficiency and accuracy of data gathered. To address these changing market conditions, rail and supply chain companies are altering their priorities in terms of application development, technology adoption, smart device usage, and driving innovation in this area.

Due to the mobility of the workforce – sometimes in remote locations, with no desktop access – this method of logging business critical information offline has represented a step change in operational efficiency. Improved efficiencies in recording and managing safety investigations, by making use of modern technology, will allow the responsible managers and workforce to record and manage safety incidents and the flexible use of business process workflow software.

A recent survey conducted by the Public Relations Society of America of over 300 business professionals has revealed that 90% of respondents believe that mobile applications are an effective method of peer-to-peer workplace communication and logging of information (such as safety incidents, content repository and collaborative solutions).

However there is evidence that the sector is leading the way in application development and data utilisation, by accommodating tickets through smartphones and train operators providing Wi-Fi on board the majority of rail services. Customers are also able to display the ticket on screen as a barcode that they can buy and board, removing the need to queue at the station, a trend also witnessed with boarding passes within the aviation industry.

The UK’s rail industry body for safety and standards, RSSB, is working with its members to undertake significant steps to roll out their new SMIS (Safety Management Intelligence System) to log industry-wide close calls and safety incidents as well as track investigations. As part of the structured roll-out in 2017, a notable part of making the system accessible is the use of mobile applications and smart devices – hosted on Amazon Web Services. 

According to RSSB, one of the key rationales behind this shift is that: “Safety incidents can be captured in real time via mobile devices and processed seamlessly, so that the right incidents are investigated by the right people at the right time. These events could be geographically tagged, stored with relevant pictures and documents, and automatically alerted to those who need to know, when they need to know”. 

Whilst safety standards on the whole are statistically improving across the global rail sector, (there has been an annual reduction of just under 10%), the majority of recent high-scale and fatal safety incidents (such as Bad Aibling in Germany, the Santiago de Compostela derailment in Spain and Dalfsen in the Netherlands) have emphasised the requirement for the rail industry to show leadership in developing robust safety and risk management.

Taking the lead from other safety-driven industries, such as aviation and oil & gas, to roll out and adhere to industry-wide standards and directives could yield positive results. While these industries do not have a fault-free record in terms of safety, these shared standards have helped to promote a collective understanding of a “safety culture” and a responsibility for safety, quality and risk reduction – much of which has been achieved through collaborative and standardised software utilisation. An influencing factor in this difference may also be down to the fact that assets in heavier industries such as oil and gas are more stationary assets than rolling freight, which is commonly in transit, arguably increasing risk and impact in urban areas.   

This benefits train operating and freight operating firms from a practical reporting aspect, as data gathered is up-to-date and accurate – allowing the firm to identify threats and put appropriate safety controls in place to reduce risk. 

Robert Clinton, VP of Rail at Ideagen PLC, who have the exclusive contract to provide and manage RSSB’s new SMIS service, sees the development of smart device-oriented technology as a positive thing for the transportation industry on the whole: 

Whilst the development, acceptance and implementation of new software tools and technologies cannot be achieved overnight, the future of such technology will continue to deliver enhanced benefits. The adoption of an approach more geared to digitisation is increasingly driven from board level within firms, with a realisation of efficiencies – such as improved data quality, better accountability and significant time savings – associated with new technology.

“There is a definite growth in the number of transportation and rail companies using mobile applications, software, and smart devices to take a risk-based approach to operational excellence that drives quality, compliance and safety, allowing their respective firms to improve and become more accountable and mature. Robust and innovative software and communications is at the heart of pulling all the information into analytics and reports for a single version of the truth. 

A key feature in achieving the successful implementations – with the likes of GB Railfreight and the RSSB – has been the in-app communication capabilities, which has allowed all dialogue related to a certain incident to remain within the application, reducing email dialogue and retaining incident accuracy. This trend is something that has crossed the barrier from social media to workplace applications, with it already being commonplace within the likes of Facebook.

The development of software applications and smart forms in this arena will continue to change the way in which people undertake their daily tasks. For generations, spreadsheets and hand-written documentation have added a significant amount of effort to the daily tasks of staff in the rail industry. Smart forms have helped overcome this by intelligently calculating which form is relevant in the workflow and which forms are not applicable – significantly speeding up the process of auditing and safety incident reporting.

A massive amount of data is captured daily on trains and the step change will be when companies fully realise how to best use this information to become more intelligent and data-driven. The next generation of trains will feature live data monitoring sensors to instantly predict maintenance when the train reaches its next or final destination – also increasing efficiency, risk analysis, and safety.

Seamless integration between quality and safety systems and real-time monitoring of safety-critical equipment ensures for a live feed of data to proactively flag when any thresholds have been breached. This has moved the industry forward in terms of developing software that means that incidents can be confronted immediately and not retrospectively following an incident or tragedy.

Despite the fact that the legacy of the rail industry has typically seen a slow speed in taking a more digital approach, companies in the industry are now recognising that cloud data has given the power to utilise data wiser and build competitive advantage. Many top CEOs within the rail industry recognise that the data is there and ready to be used and that by working in partnership with technology firms, this data can have freedom to blossom and add value.

As business intelligence, analytical data, mobile software applications and smart devices continue to dominate everyday working life, combined with the current high speed of technological development, this adoption trend looks set to continue, both in and outside the workplace.

Read more on Ideagen's Rail Safety Software offerings and download your complimentary overview here.

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