The Digital Train is on the platform

As a 10-year BWCS (the WiFi on trains conference) stalwart, I suppose I can speak from a certain point of experience when I reflect on this year’s event.

Although many challenges have remained constant over that time, the agenda feels like it has shifted somewhat. Whilst WiFi is still critical to the conference (and our customers’ needs!) you could sense from some of the speakers that the discussion was finally moving beyond simply WiFi and how it can be leveraged to how trackside connectivity will play an increasingly important role in some markets. And that is credit to the conference organisers recognising the market’s evolution – embracing change, new content and new speakers bringing fresh insight to make the conference greater than the sum of its parts.

Many of the discussions continued to focus on the challenges of reliable connectivity, increased bandwidth, ever-growing customer expectations – and the growing emphasis put on the importance it now plays in the passenger experience. Jim Allison at this year’s event commented that working WiFi was of higher importance than working toilets. Wow! Passengers would clearly rather their operator spends a penny (or two) more on getting decent bandwidth than simply ‘spend a penny’! This trend was highlighted in autumn 2014 by the UK National Rail Passenger Survey that placed free WiFi in the top 10 of passengers’ priorities. I’m hoping they’ll do a follow-up survey soon and it will be interesting to see where it is placed now.  

The Digital Train is on the platform image

Setting Nomad’s outlook, I chose the McNulty report on UK rail to provide some context (Roy McNulty’s report was jointly commissioned by DfT and ORR exploring rail industry cost-savings). Handily it was launched almost exactly five years ago and it helped crystallise the challenges that were faced back then… and to some degree are still being faced!

Ridership McNulty said was rising. But satisfaction levels were not necessarily following. Passengers were demanding improvements in ticketing, punctuality, seat availability, travel information and not least, the actual costs of travelling. But the report’s main observation was around another form of costs – costs in operating services. Costs that McNulty suggested were circa 30% higher than four European comparators.

Therefore the report’s focus was the clear need for operational and strategic drivers to bring down costs while reducing the level of subsidies required. And our belief is that a Digital Train provides the scope for helping to achieve this. McNulty himself concluded that advancements in rail innovation and technology played an important part in helping to achieve cost reductions, which supports our view.

My presentation ‘The Digital Train is on the Platform’ had an intentional pun. To emphasise that a passenger’s journey can start from interacting with any (technology) platform which provides digital content – on a screen, at a station, or on a device from home. The platform opens a myriad of opportunities and these are starting to happen…

And it was great to hear from other speakers such as Amtrak talking about our OBIS system, which is all about combining passenger information and infotainment on a single open modular platform using all on-board channels - audio, displays or via the WiFi. This will provide the passenger with a more complete on-board experience by ensuring they are fully informed about the journey whilst being engaged with news, games, film and other video content. And it will provide the operator with a single powerful tool to manage this operationally.

It was also great to invite partners GoMedia to join our presentation to discuss how we have combined efforts together with customers such as Virgin West Coast and Eurostar to support the delivery of an on-board entertainment offering for passengers.

And through these relationships I tried to articulate that true collaboration is key to delivering great innovation. Others also echoed this throughout the conference. Do we collaborate enough as an industry? – I think we all know the honest answer to that.

But Nomad is also committed to driving innovation itself. We were particularly excited to announce (10 minutes after it launched) a Nomad innovation - the world’s first “Live TV”, re-broadcasting terrestrial TV including Euro 2016 football over IP to an entire train full of passengers through on-board screens and passengers’ own devices, using only modest bandwidth.

So WiFi continues to be important and the means by which it is delivered naturally remains so too.  An end-to-end connectivity solution requires the train not just to talk to the outside world but to itself and its on-board systems, making for a much more intelligent data-rich system.

This is Nomad’s vision - a Digital Train that has an open platform that can integrate multiple applications to provide a truly holistic connectivity experience. This is the real benefit to the TOC and the ultimate benefit to the passenger.

TOCs can provide great WiFi services for their passengers, but they can also tap into operational critical applications including remote online conditional monitoring tools that allow maintenance teams to spot faults before they become serious problems.  In collaboration with customers like NSB we are creating this environment with them on a single-view platform. And further afield in Australia with Nomad Tech, our joint venture with EMEF (the Portuguese Railways company for rolling stock maintenance) we have introduced a condition-based monitoring solution to help Melbourne Trains Metro identify issues on their vehicles before they create operational problems, such as in-service failures.

This opens up a host of benefits… Long distance train maintenance costs average around €1-1.5m per train per annum meaning it is good business sense for an operator to embrace all the opportunities provided by real-time predictive maintenance.

Prediction becomes a very powerful tool indeed, offering a really strong business case for driving down in-service failures and driving up train reliability and fleet availability. An operator can become far better at judging when their vehicles really need maintenance through real-time condition and diagnostic-based information.  Through our Nomad Tech partnership we have already seen significant savings in service failures which fell by roughly half.

And with trackside solutions also becoming a topic of focus we were able to share our insight through a great case study across in Denver pioneering a first dedicated trackside network enabling operationally critical applications. The benefit to the customer being enhanced safety and improved fleet optimisation. Trackside solutions are in Nomad’s DNA – its first ever project was using WiMax on the Brighton line and we continue to actively support such initiatives.

So to conclude; yet again this event provided a great opportunity to learn from (and meet) peers to share ideas and knowledge.  And yes WiFi remains important to Nomad and the market in realising the insatiable demands of train passengers. After years of Nomad pioneering the IP Train and latterly the Digital Train concept, it now seems to be genuinely on operators’ agendas – where connectivity is seen from a more integrated perspective that opens up genuine cost-saving benefits to TOCs and provides more engaging services for passengers. So yes, we believe that The Digital Train is finally at the Platform. Climb aboard!