Enterprises in the transportation industry are increasingly leveraging ICT solutions to improve their overall efficiency and deliver world-class services. The government’s focus on initiatives like smart cities and smart transportation is also driving the uptake of these technologies. The metro rail corporations are at the forefront of this digital transformation. However, the possibility of a potential cyberattack is holding them back from completely opening up their systems to new technologies. Senior executives from leading metro rail corporations discuss their ICT roadmap, deployment challenges and the way ahead…
How has the role of ICT in the transportation sector changed over time?
C. V. Ramdas
In this era of rapid economic growth in India, digital information management has become very important, and the role of ICT needs to be defined in this perspective. A large amount of information is being generated in the transportation sector owing to an expanding user community, comprising commuters, service providing agencies, long-term strategy providers/ planners and the government. The role of ICT here is essentially to provide informed, secure, cost-effective, convenient and greener mobility.
From the environmental perspective, congestion and pollution are the two main problems plaguing urban environments. In this scenario, ICT enables the real-time monitoring of transportation networks (road, rail, air, water) for providing information to service providers to better the travel experience of commuters.
ICT has also helped in bringing discipline in the way we use our transportation infrastructure including the purchase of travel tickets and all travel-related enquiries. On top of this, real-time navigation and guidance using GPS has become commonplace in all private and hired vehicles today, as well as in public transport services.
Back-end data centres are being used for the collection, organisation and analysis of information. Every public transport department has its own data communication infrastructure and data centre facility. This data enables more informed travel decisions by commuters.
With the growing demand for IoT, on-board entertainment (passenger Wi-Fi, radio, etc) and surveillance and security (streaming CCTV), ICT has become pivotal to customer satisfaction and safety. This trend will only gain momentum with the increasing reliance on AI for predictive maintenance and surveillance. LTE and 5G will redefine how we interact with our environment for all our daily needs, and the transportation sector will also be affected by technologies such as virtual and augmented reality.
Traditionally, the role of ICT in transportation in India has been limited. In the case of railways, the role of ICT was limited to control communication and station communication. But now, with the advent of advanced technologies, we have new ICT systems being used in railways and metros.
What are the key telecom and IT solutions adopted by your company? How have these benefited you?
BMRCL is providing travel tickets purchase and top-up facilities using a web portal. Public grievances are being addressed using a call centre facility. A mobile app is provided for commuters to get the latest information on trains, fares and all facilities provided by BMRCL.
The mobile app also provides a trip planner for commuters to plan their trips between any two locations in the city. There is a public information display system at every metro station. There is also a plan for providing event notification service to commuters. On the operations and maintenance (O&M) front too, the organisation is getting positively influenced by ICT trends such as asset management systems (AMS) to realise the value of assets, proactive and preventive maintenance systems, cash-less purchase/top-up of travel tickets (cards/tokens), emergency response systems, etc.
Once completed, our metro system will use state-of-the-art IT and telecom solutions. We will have tetra-based radio communications from handheld and fixed devices which can work anywhere on the premises, even in underground tunnels. We are also planning to deploy IP-based telephone systems, modern public announcement systems, public information display systems, smart card based access control, and intrusion detection systems, etc. All these systems will be connected through the optical fibre backbone.
On the signalling side, we will have a state-of-the-art communication-based train control (CBTC) system, which are Automation 4 Grade systems. This means, the system will be capable of unattended (driverless) train operation. For IT applications, we are implementing an ERP system and a common asset management system for better utilisation of assets.
Some of the benefits of these solutions are a high level of safety, passenger convenience and operational efficiency. We are also planning to introduce a national common mobility card (NCMC)-based AFC system. This will be a Rupay-based smart card system based on the one nation, one card concept. This card can be used in buses, metros, parking and other transit and non transit applications.
What are your views on the use of emerging technologies such as cloud, big data, AI and IoT in the transport sector? How are you ensuring the security of your systems and processes?
The definition of privacy and information security is very subjective. Taking the consent of the user by means of a registration process before gathering the required data/information for providing services is one of the key responsibilities of the ICT solutions provider as this information needs to be kept secure in case there are sensitive information components in it.
At BMRCL, we do not store personal information of any commuter in our systems. Also, the ticketing system is a closed-loop system and there is no way that information can leak out, or a travel ticket can be duplicated.
Going forward, as we introduce mobile-based (using NFC, sound, QR codes) access gates at the stations, there is a need to thoroughly scrutinise the data security and privacy issues before implementing the solutions. Our IT infrastructure and applications are periodically audited for security. Our approach to technology is need based. We need to first have a well defined approach for data collection based on AI technologies to make useful inferences, predictions and decisions. We collect periodic information and opinions of commuters through questionnaires and interviews. We are in the process of moving our IT applications to the cloud like the state data centre of Karnataka.
IoT is the need of the hour and many commercial off-the-shelf IoT solutions are available for the railway industry. Predictive and preventive maintenance will increase the availability and reliability of the transportation systems.
We are planning a centralised operation and control centre, and our servers for different sub-systems will be installed there itself. Since these are very safety-critical systems, it is preferable to have onsite installations rather than on the cloud. These servers are not required to be connected to the internet as they are closed systems dedicated for transportatin application.
As far as IT services are concerned, some of them are planned to be hosted on cloud. As for IoT, we are planning to implement it progressively as it is a new technology and has not been proven extensively in metro systems. We plan to install certain sensors, which will give output to the IoT platform and then the data can be used for predictive and condition-based maintenance.
What are the issues and challenges in the deployment and management of ICT solutions and infrastructure?
The IT environment is more service oriented than development oriented. Choosing the right tools and engaging the right vendors for providing IT services is important. The solutions are thoroughly dependent on the capabilities of data networks (their uptime and cost), and the service-level agreements we have signed with service providers. The metro rail service operates 24×7, and deploying a proven technology solution is preferred to taking technology development risks. Moreover, the IT components in systems like SCADA, telecom, signalling and automatic fare collection are provided by system vendors. Although there is a thrust on indigenisation, focused initiatives like the development of alternative IT solutions/ applications or an applications development centre, take less priority over routine operations today.
Worldwide, IT infrastructure giants like Google and Amazon are providing very secure, reliable, and cost-effective A to Z as a service, and we need to make use of them to meet our large-scale infrastructure requirements in the future. Taking up development initiatives requires a risk-taking mindset that is a challenge to create in a service organisation.
We often go for proven technologies for metros. Since metros are capital-intensive and safety critical projects, we prefer not to experiment with technologies that are not proven.
Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation is handling Line-3, which will be the most heavily loaded as compared to other lines in India or anywhere else in the world. The plan is to develop a very robust system. We are implementing systems that are robust, require less maintenance, and go from routine-based maintenance to condition-based maintenance. For this we want to adopt IoT in the future.
How are the government’s smart cities and smart transportation initiatives changing the ICT needs of the transportation sector?
Several government initiatives are being taken to make the best use of ICT in the country. The success of these initiatives, however, lies in their implementation. National common mobility cards, cashless purchase of tickets, mobile applications for engaging with commuters (enquiry/complaints/suggestions), differently-abled people-friendly environments in stations are some of the initiatives already being taken in the transportation sector.
Metro trains have the right of way unlike road transport vehicles. Hence, GPS tracking and determining the expected time of arrival/departure is not necessary. Metro buses in Bengaluru are tracked through GPS devices mounted on them, and real-time data about their location is collected for providing more accurate predictions on the expected time of arrival/ departure of vehicles, and for better traffic routing and management.
Last-mile connectivity requires a coordinated effort of various public transport services. To this end, smart public parking facilities that can be managed with mobile applications need to be implemented.
The government is definitely pushing for smart cities and smart transportation initiatives. The Delhi Metro has already set high standards for transportation, and hence the metros are using latest and smart technologies that are at par with global standards. These technologies include CBTC for signalling, various subsystems for telecommunications, SCADA systems, and rolling stock. Since metros are capital-intensive projects, we want to use these technologies to reduce headway, system downtime and manpower requirements, and enhance safety and revenues.