Machine-to-Machine Technology Cuts Costs, Streamlines Railway Operations

Next Generation Communications Blog

Machine-to-Machine Technology Cuts Costs, Streamlines Railway Operations

By Erin Harrison

The subject of Machine-to-Machine (M2M) technology has drawn much hype in the industry. In essence, M2M allows machines to communicate, and it has evolved into an intelligent way of managing assets. It allows companies to use data in a meaningful manner for pre-emptive repairs and maintenance, reducing the human cost of these processes.

As a recent Alcatel-Lucent TrackTalk article pointed out, M2M communications is expected to become a massive growth market for the communications industry over the next decade, and the increasing availability and capability of these technologies could have a profound impact on the way railways function.

The range of potential railway applications for M2M technology is huge. In fact, machine-to-machine technologies have been used by railways for many years in technologies such as train control, automation and signaling. From timetable tools to operator management systems and route settings, railways throughout the world are successfully utilizing M2M technologies in all areas of operation.

Swiss Federal Railways is a prime example. The operator is using M2M innovations on 3,039 km of lines across its network. And with the railway aiming to make cost savings of up to 15 percent from more efficient technologies by 2017-2018, there are significant plans in place to introduce further M2M solutions that will improve performance and efficiency over the next few years.

“Across the whole value chain, M2M is optimizing operations across our network,” says Jan Richard, SBB’s innovation and technology manager. “It was first introduced 20 years ago and since then we have gradually implemented it in all areas. We have done it in a very pragmatic way because rather than doing a full rollout over the entire network which would be very difficult and potentially disruptive we are doing it step by step when certain parts of the system are renewed. Technically it is working very well with a lot fewer failures at the substation.”

Explaining what M2M can provide must begin by defining it, according to Yiru Zhong, senior industry analyst, Frost & Sullivan.

“This is not an easy task as there are so many definitions available. However, the one which seems the most precise is: ‘An unlimited, ubiquitous and connected universe in which machines and back-end applications communicate to monitor, control and collaborate,’” explained Zhong.

M2M technologies are now opening up new considerations that the transport industry should be willing to embrace in order to reap further benefits, such as increased openness and standardization, scalability and security. M2M can communicate real-time data on a host of different asset-monitoring functions, from wagon tracking for rail freight customers to air-conditioning performance on passenger trains. 

In addition to these new benefits, the Internet is expected to connect 15 billion devices by 2015, “demanding fresh approaches to communications business models, operations, processes and technologies,” Zhong reported.

The proliferation of wireless technologies such as RFID, Bluetooth and WiFi means devices can communicate over ranges from a few centimeters to thousands of kilometers. Combined with stable and versatile data services, the range of potential applications is immense.

And in the case of the rail industry, removing the element of human error is an intangible benefit and one of the key economic drivers in adopting M2M systems, but there are other factors too, such as improving customer service.

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