Digital technologies to help plan historic rail investments

The U.S. rail industry is facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform itself. While the country’s freight rail system is a source of both pride and profitability, shifts in classes of goods, the rise in intermodal freight, the introduction of technologies such as digital twins, IoT, and AI, along with the prospect of autonomous trucking, are all prompting change. 

On the passenger side, America is finally coming to grips with infrastructure that hasn’t been upgraded in decades. The $22 billion immediate investment in Amtrak, which owns only 3% of the country’s railways, is part of the $66 billion earmarked over the next five years for passenger rail improvements in the U.S. Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act (IIJA). This will give the nation’s passenger rail network an unprecedented near-term boost. 

On another front, the federal government, as well as the public, are demanding green options that affect freight and passenger services alike. Rail is viewed broadly as an ideal way to reduce greenhouse gases; but today, less than one percent of U.S. railroads are electrified, compared with the more than one-third that are electrified globally.  

Calls are increasing for rail organizations to embrace electric options, but the need for modernization is critical in dozens of areas including security and safety as well. Rail asset managers are being asked to maximize every dollar available to them. Capital planning efficiencies have never been more important. 

Putting data to work

Knowing how to invest properly in an environment shifting to prioritize sustainability is no small task. The challenge involves much more than track and rolling stock; it also includes other priorities like security, infrastructure, and ESG (environmental, social, governance) goals. 

The decisions around these topics aren’t minor, choices need to be made today that will have a lasting impact for decades to come. To make decisions of this size, rail executives need data to guide them.  

Instead of relying solely on hunches, they need to become data-driven businesses that make calculated decisions based before investing their money and resources. Making their digital transformation an imperative. This transformation process, while complex, will be immensely beneficial for customers and rail organizations alike.  

LiDAR, just one example of data collection and digital innovation, gathers accurate three-dimensional information about tracks, assets, and surrounding landscape. Along with IoT, AI and other solutions, these technologies are giving rail executives a way to not only manage their businesses, but also to respond to events with incredible agility in real time. 

Collecting and evaluating digital information will be extremely important in meeting planning objectives.  

But what should you be doing with the data you collect? What happens if you have LiDAR and GIS data, as well as historical data in excel files, that all play a significant role in your decision making? 

You need a platform that can ingest all your data to help you make sense of it all. Which is why decision analytics technology is becoming indispensable, particularly in asset planning.  

AIP (Asset Investment Planning) software solutions are designed specifically for long-term capital planning, helping manage finite human and physical resources, executing lifecycle planning and improving cost efficiency.  

For critical decisions, it also allows executives to examine scenarios and ask: “Why are we doing this? What else should we be considering? How should the organization structure its planning? What impact is this going to have in the future? Where are the risks? Do I have the workforce capacity to fulfil all of the infrastructure project requirements?” 

Asset investment planning allows organizations to ‘asset-ize’ their networks. By creating digital business twins, it supports the exploration of ‘what-if’ scenarios, from track repairs and upgrades, to interest rate hikes and inflationary pressures, supply chain issues and climate-related weather events. Empowering organizations to do more with less. 

Using asset analysis, stakeholders can perform degradation modeling to forecast failures and upcoming risks that would otherwise be impossible to predict, years in advance. Consuming data from all parts of the rail system, it helps in providing options, establishing priorities, setting strategies and making wiser, timelier, value-based decisions. 

Embrace the future with decision analytics

Rail is increasingly viewed as the primary transportation backbone of the economy. Leading organizations are already making significant investments supporting planning and decision-making—but the entire industry needs to embrace these technologies. 

Decision analytics enables asset managers, risk managers and executives alike to manage investments and prioritize them. Digital transformation, including planning and analytics tools, is the solution for this historic period. With the future of the industry before them, it’s time for rail organizations to get on board.