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The world is going digital—time for the rail industry to jump on board

Stephen Muzira's picture
Photo: Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock
Over the last five decades, Rail transport has faced major headwinds. The transformation of global supply chains has made the logistics business more challenging than ever, with increasing pressure to deliver fast and flexible services at a lower cost. In that quickly-evolving context, freight rail is grappling with fierce competition from road transport—a trend that will only intensify under the effect of disruptive technologies like autonomous trucks and on-demand mobility services. In addition, railways around the world have been hit by significant government budget cuts, limiting their ability to invest in infrastructure or maintain high service standards. Stiff competition from roads, which have the door-to-door delivery advantage have offered added pain.

At the same time, railways are in the midst of a profound transformation, driven by emerging digital technologies like 5G, big data, the Internet of Things, automation, artificial intelligence, and blockchain. On a recent study tour in China, I had the chance to learn more about these developments, and to reflect on how digitization may help the rail industry reinvent itself.

Revolutionizing mobility through blockchain

Photo: Plamenj/Flickr

As digital technology continues to transform and reshape the transportation industry over the last few years, blockchain as a decentralized distributed technology has been embraced by other fields through various applications. It has found varied applications across banking, financial services, healthcare, e-governance, and voting.

Blockchain has immense potential to solve the most pressing problems of mobility where it can be used by private & public sector to securely share and integrate data across modes of transport. It paves  the path for transforming Mobility as a Service (or MaaS), where a user may access different modes of transport (three-wheelers, bus, metro, train etc.) on a single platform with seamless connectivity. It makes a paradigm shift in redefining the customer needs in terms of service, rather than the mode of transport.

The applications of blockchain in reducing the cost of financial transactions have been implemented across sectors. In India, 80% of our travel is for distances less than 5 km and most of this is through non-motorized modes of transport which may largely be served by walking, bicycle, and cycle rickshaws. In these modes the, transaction size for every ride is small (or nil). Also, people in urban and semi-urban areas tend to use multiple modes of transport to reach their destinations. In this case, it makes sense for using digital payments that are integrated across all modes of transport. But the payment systems of today charge a transaction fee of between 0.5% to 5%. This hampers the faster uptake of digital payments, especially for smaller transactions. Blockchain greatly reduces the cost per transaction as there are no intermediaries involved in the payment system, thus making small transactions of even 1 or 2 Indian rupees ($0.014 to $0.028) digitally feasible.

The future of transport is here. Are you ready?

Stephen Muzira's picture
Photo: Max Talbot-Minkin/Flickr
Technology is transforming transport with a speed and scale that are hard to comprehend. The transport systems of tomorrow will be connected, data-driven, shared, on-demand, electric, and highly automated. Ideas are moving swiftly from conception, research and design, testbed to early adoption, and, finally, mass acceptance. And according to projections, the pace of innovation is only going to accelerate.

Autonomous cars are expected to comprise about 25% of the global market by 2040. Flying taxis are already tested in Dubai. Cargo drones will become more economical than motorcycle delivery by 2020. Three Hyperloop systems are expected by 2021. Maglev trains are already operating in Japan, South Korea, and China, and being constructed or planned in Europe, Asia, Australia, and the USA. Blockchain technology has already been used to streamline the procedures for shipping exports, reducing the processing and handling times for key documents, increasing efficiency and reliability,