Similar to large parts of Africa jumping to mobile/phone-based Internet instead of using fixed-line access first, African railway operators should, from the onset, build systems that make use of the recent advances in technology, says Deutsche Bahn (DB) senior venture architect Henning Seeschaaf.
Speaking at the Africa Rail conference, held in Sandton, he said that African railways could avoid “the mistakes we made. They can invest in the new areas, not the old ones. Make it smart from the beginning”.
Seeschaaf joined DB this year. In his role he will be setting up new digital businesses in the fields of smart mobility, smart logistics and smart city – thereby also signalling the move for DB from a traditional German railway firm to one providing mobility solutions.
The 180-year-old, €40-billion company views itself as a start-up of the first industrial revolution, said Seeschaaf.
“We gambled on the one of the megatrends back then, the development of the steam engine.”
Now the railway company faces the fourth industrial revolution, which signals a coming together of the digital and physical worlds in the form of artificial intelligence (AI), three-dimensional printing and autonomous vehicles, for example.
DB would utilise this revolution in, for example, creating a network of sensors and systems that can talk to each other, notifying the rail system that there is, for example, a tree on the track at a certain point.
This means DB would no longer be dependent on the train driver to spot the obstacle.
Seeschaaf said AI could increase the quality of processes within DB, while also increasing the capacity of the network, and ensuring the existence of a flexible and integrated system.
In increasing the capacity of the network, trains can, for example, send themselves for maintenance should it be required. In increasing the capacity of the network, the system can rearrange itself should a train be delayed, in an attempt to work around the problem.
In doing this, DB believed it could see a 20% increase in capacity without building new infrastructure, said Seeschaaf.
Flexible systems could ensure that DB could arrange a trip for the user taking into account their preferences and the weather, for example. A user could book a trip with DB using a bike-sharing scheme to the station, and then the train onwards.
DB would, said Seeschaaf, have to consider all modes of transport in future, and not only rail, as part of its business, including car sharing, high-speed trains, hyperloops and flying cabs.
Autonomous drive vehicles were the biggest threat to the rail industry, he added.
“We are transitioning from a rail service to a mobility provider. Customers want to move from A to B and they don’t necessarily want to use rail.”
PRIVATE SECTOR INVOLVEMENT
Africa needed to bring in the private sector “in a bolder way” to finance railways on the continent, said United Nations Economic Commission for Africa executive secretary Dr Vera Songwe at Africa Rail.
She added that listing, or corporatisation, could also serve to increase the efficiency of rail companies, enhancing their competitiveness and ensuring better governance.
The backbone of rail investment in railways in Africa would, however, still be public sector finance, she noted.