“Don’t reinvent the wheel”: Lessons from Rail Baltica
Designing future-proof digital infrastructure for a greenfield railway project is no small feat. Andy Billington, Innovation and Digital Architecture Senior Expert at Rail Baltica, shares his perspective on the opportunities and challenges that come with building a rail project from scratch, over a multi-year construction period.
The Rail Baltica project is a major infrastructure initiative in Europe and the largest Baltic infrastructure endeavour in a century. It occupies a distinctive position, being a greenfield project coinciding with the evolution of rail technologies. The project will establish a high-speed rail corridor connecting the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the European standard gauge rail network. A crucial link in the EU’s North Sea-Baltic TEN-T corridor, it fosters intermodality and full interoperability. It aims to connect the North Sea-Baltic transport corridor by 2030, with some sections operating by 2028.
Harmonisation opportunities of a green field development
Much like a blank canvas, a greenfield project means being able to work outside the constraints of existing buildings or infrastructure. This provides an opportunity to prioritise digitalisation and sustainability as core principles within the project’s framework. While building from scratch is in itself an immense challenge, be it financially, legally, or logistically, there are unique advantages. According to Billington, “There are some things that are easier. You don’t have to go back and look at records asking yourself why people did things a certain way for example. But because everything needs to be built from scratch that is in itself a big challenge.”
A greenfield project means that Rail Baltica has the opportunity to create its own foundations and protocols, yet learn from the best practices that exist in the market. This goes for things as basic as the way you label components, for example, which can set up the project for more efficient maintenance down the road: “Regardless of which supplier, and which country they are rolled out in, we can use the same labelling. Then, whoever has the maintenance contract a decade from now won’t have as much to figure out, and can communicate more easily about components. This is much easier to establish when you are building from scratch.” This applies not just to components, but more generally. “Because we are a Greenfield, there are many things we can do that would otherwise be very difficult to retrofit,” highlights Billington.
Harmonisation on all levels is of particular importance in an international project, whether for facilitating maintenance or getting the most out of rail data. According to Billington: “We will have harmonised standards across the three countries, we have to. With three different countries, we could end up with multiple maintenance contractors, multiple infrastructure maintainers, and potentially some work done by an infrastructure manager, or a mix of these in some places maybe… But if everyone is using the same kinds of identifications and tools then the data correlation becomes easier.”
Implementing the latest standards
On a broader level, beyond protocols and labelling, being a greenfield project means that Rail Baltica has the opportunity to implement the latest set of technological standards, as well as sustainability-related standards. “We can build a more sustainable railway because we are building from scratch. We can focus on capturing as much energy-saving potential with our choices as we can,” illustrates Billington. As such, in addition to facilitating the modal shift from road to rail, slashing CO2 emissions in the Baltics, the project in itself is making the most of its unique ability to implement the latest technologies, to achieve net zero emissions operationally.
One advantage of a greenfield project, which is being able to implement the latest technological standards, does however present itself as a double-edged sword. “The advantage here is that we can look at the current standards in technology and try to estimate where things will be in four to five years, but also the likely direction ten, or twenty years after that, which is an interesting exercise. (…) While physical infrastructure can last 50 years, digital infrastructure is not going to last that long and has to be designed to evolve. That’s an interesting challenge: designing infrastructure that can evolve without too many constraints constraint,” explains Billington.
In light of these issues, Billington highlights the importance of future-proofing: “We have a few areas where by the time we are operational, it is likely that legislation will have evolved, particularly around cybersecurity. So one of the things that is challenging is designing systems in a way where they can be implemented but with enough flexibility that we are not making decisions now that lock us in too tightly, for things that we feel may change before we go into operation. Cybersecurity legislation changes every year and I don’t see that slowing down.”
Future-proofing is key
Indeed, information and communication technology has been advancing at breakneck speed, ever-accelerating since the 1970s. While not negating the many opportunities this brings in all industries, Billington points out the disconnect that this can create in terms of timeline: “When we talk about a long-term project in the rail industry, people usually mean thirty years. In the telecoms industry, they mean five. That disconnect is big.”
Technology can sometimes evolve faster than the overall project: “There have been some things we were considering that have already been bypassed by new developments. There are some standards like GSM-R where we want to go for FRMCS because GSM-R will be reaching the end of life in the next ten years so why would we implement it now? The problem is that FRMCS standards have not yet been ratified so we wouldn’t be able to deploy it today. What we look at is whether the standardisation timeline matches our implementation timeline well enough, and at the moment the answer is yes, but we have to be ready for changes just in case.”
Because of this, Rail Baltica has had to strive for flexible, modular, interchangeable digital infrastructure components. “The way the new architecture has been designed goes beyond switching from GSM-R to 5G. The team responsible has redesigned the entire architecture and made it modular, so you can potentially have one train that has FRMCS on it, with a 5G or 6G radio, and WiFi for it to connect to stations or maintenance depots, so there is no need to replace everything when changing systems. You can just replace the specific components. Then you have much more flexible maintenance possibilities, and can more easily keep up with technological developments.” This also has sustainability benefits, as components can be replaced instead of entire systems, which is less wasteful.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
Despite the significant emphasis in the general industry discourse being placed on implementing innovation, Billington brings to attention the practical benefits of not always seeking innovation for the sake of innovation in the rail industry. Specifically, he praises open systems, and open standards by stressing that there is no need to create railway-specific solutions if there is something out there we can already use. “Let’s not repeat some of the things we’ve done in the past like with GSM-R where we ended up with a railway-specific system, being supplied by only a small group. If we can use commodity IT instead of railway-specific IT, let’s try to do that.”
He presents these benefits as follows: “If we can use more generic general IT and telecom industry solutions, that equates to more choices of suppliers,” says Billington. It can also help the rail industry deal with the current strains brought about by a dwindling labour force. “If you start using open standards, and more generic IT, then you get more potential candidates, as it is a career path that is not fixed to the rail industry. The rail industry has valuable skills and mindsets that can be used in other sectors.”
This solution may also render the rail industry more attractive to young candidates, many of whom are already trained in areas such as data architecture and engineering, as well as artificial intelligence modelling, which is at the moment in demand in this rapidly digitising industry. “If IT used in rail is more general, then candidates don’t have to make the choice to spend their life in one industry at a young age. Many may wish to do that of course, but the closer we get to ‘ordinary IT’, the easier it should be to attract a wider and more diverse range of people into the industry.” concludes Billington.
Andy Billington will be speaking on this topic at the Intelligent Rail Summit 2023, which kicks off today in Warsaw, Poland. His presentation will take place from 15:15 to 15:45. To find more information on the conference program, click here.