A raft of new technologies has been introduced in the past decade in rail transit, ranging from automation in operations to communications-based train control (CBTC) to intelligent energy management. Meanwhile, technological forces outside rail transit, such as ride-hailing services, undermine some traditional arguments for new rapid transit services, and thus, could threaten any new bipartisan efforts for new spending on infrastructure programs. Agencies need not only understand how each of these trends plays out in their own communities as they plan future programs, but also how they are perceived in state and federal capitals, for these perceptions will likely determine the shape of our industry’s next reauthorization bill and beyond.
How new tech is used is key
Some of these, of course, have been incrementally deployed for decades. How they might be deployed may not be revolutionary to the industry as a whole, but are cutting edge in a given city. For example, CBTC has been developed and deployed for more than 40 years, maybe longer depending on the elements of these systems, but driverless operation might be completely new to your agency’s rail system, which is enabled by CBTC. Intelligent energy management is similarly not new, but these systems being deployed at your utilities, or in your rail operation, might be.
What is truly new is how local commute patterns are affected by new technologies and services behind the ride-hailing companies, and as mentioned in our last edition, they affect bus and rail operations alike. However, because of rail’s typically longer lead times and inability to change routes, they have a particularly negative effect on rail planning.
Do a tech SWOT analysis
For long-term planning, each of us needs to engage in a bit of “SWOT” analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) when it comes to technological trends. How new technology is applied is often even more important than the promise of the technology itself. A lot of money can be wasted if there are unclear goals or if the technology is incompatible with existing systems and operations. Even worse, new technology can be undermined if it’s not supported by everyone who needs to.
This is the stuff of the system's engineering disciplines. Fortunately, there are a lot of experts for hire and conferences with these topics on the agenda to draw from. Take full advantage.