Asia Pacific Rail 2017 Event Highlights: Interview with Colin Stewart, Global Rail Leader, Arup

Asia Pacific Rail was successfully organised once again in Hong Kong from 21-22 March 2017. This year’s edition was our biggest and best yet, with more than 1,500 attendees from 668 organisations and 38 countries, cementing Asia Pacific Rail’s position as the must-attend annual gathering of APAC rail industry’s leaders and decision-makers.

Following his keynote session on The Digital Railway of the Future, we had the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Colin Stewart, Global Rail Leader, Arup, to hear his views on how the railway industry will be shaped by urban trends and digitalisation.

1.How do you see the industry evolving in the next 5-10 years?

I think the industry has to evolve in the next 5-10 years. It has been slow to take on the digital age actually. It’s quite a difficult thing actually because changes made to the railway have to be done correctly and they have to be tried and tested. The problem is that it tends to stifle innovation. I think the industry has to move on and find a way of doing that with more tests so that we can actually get them into place quickly.

The implication of putting in place something that doesn’t work can be the end of someone’s career and it’s very important to take it right. We shouldn’t let them stop us. The rail industry has to take some of these clever ideas from the other industries. There are lots of clever technologies which would fit very well in rail.

2. What do you think are the type of technologies that rail operators need to invest in?

The technologies that allow the different parts of operations to communicate with each other. I think the big move that’s capable with the Internet of Things and big data is that we can actually bring all of the different components together and manage them in one place. What we need is an integrated management function that manages day-to-day function of the railway and allows us to implement maintenance in the right way, so the industry can see and predict when things are going to fail, and make sure they don’t.

3. What are the key challenges that rail operators face today?

One of the biggest challenge is actually getting the right people into the industry. When I talk to college students about railway, they tend to have a vision which is the old railway of the past. However, in order to bring in these new technologies, we need the brightest talent in the industry. Therefore, the biggest challenge on my mind is getting that message out in the industry, in the schools so that they know that this is a industry which is forward-looking with all the good ideas, technologies, innovation.  We need all the technology people involved in the industry.

The other one is to make sure the operators, the constructors and the owners come together because these three have to be aligned together. If we don’t relate together and all are operating on separate basis, there comes a blame culture. When the reliability of the train is going down, they have to blame someone. The answer is actually the other way round. How do you become a top notch railway? That’s when everyone works together with each other, not by blaming each other. It’s about changing the focus. This is about success focus, not the blame focus.

The third challenge then is to really work out how we can be more sustainable. We have a system that has moved on from steam, we are using much more efficient railway but actually we need to move into using batteries, hydropower, which we are doing slowly but that needs to be pushed, in particularly owners and operators to take that challenge and to move into that space.

4. How do you think the future railway will look like?

That depends on how far ahead you look. I think the traditional railway will still be there. there will be some version of a maglev train running in a vacuum, something like the Hyperloop. It’s not completely a new concept, it’s been there for quite a while. People will want a better experience, the metro of the future will get people where they want to go, rather than where they have to go. In some countries, where the option is to get into your car, instead the railway has to compete with autonomous vehicles so the railway has to build something that’s more personalised and provides a nice environment to be in.

5. What are the key cities which will see a huge investment in railway development? We have spoken a lot of about the industry growing faster, but is the industry also growing bigger?

Yes, it ‘s certainly growing bigger in that there are more cities and towns that need rail systems. It’s growing bigger by being diverse as well. If you look at megacities which is where we’re heading towards, they can support what I call a traditional metro system – big, quite expensive, heavy, huge capacity. There is another set of cities in the world which are smaller and they don’t have the high density. For example, in Copenhagen in Denmark, we’re designing a new metro system around the centre. It’s a small- scale metro for a small-sized city. The trains are much smaller and it becomes something that is much more affordable for those cities, If you look at light rail, then you look at the interface between light rail and the total journey home, the market will get broader because there could a system where little pods could fulfil the last mile journey. The market is getting bigger and bigger and I think the edges between autonomous vehicles, rail systems and personal transport modes will get blurred. It has to be 100% connected, or it’s not going to work. It’s the transport solution of the future.

Want to find out the latest updates in the Asia-Pacific rail industry? Join us at Asia Pacific Rail 2018 to meet the rail leaders.

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