The future of the rail industry: How AI and machine learning are revolutionising rail transport

In our everyday lives, we increasingly encounter applications that are automated by artificial intelligence (AI) methods or new fields of application that are opened up by AI.
AI and machine learning (ML) have undergone rapid development in recent years and now influence almost all industries. The railway market is no exception, and AI-based components are increasingly being used. This is about much more than the automation of processes.
AI makes it possible to recognise and analyse complex relationships in order to make precise predictions and decisions. This can lead to (even) more reliable control and safety technology, reduce operating costs, increase efficiency and improve the effectiveness and flexibility of railway operations.

The tools for this are manifold. AI algorithms and corresponding hardware can perform predictive maintenance or condition-based monitoring. Monitoring functions can be applied to vehicles, stations, tracks and points or to the visual inspection of track systems, overhead lines or tunnel structures. The use in safety-relevant systems is also quite conceivable. From assistance systems such as driving and brake control to safety systems such as collision protection and autonomous or semi-autonomous driving, AI applications can make railway operations safer. A particular challenge here is proving functional safety for systems that use Deep Learning.

Market Volume and Growth

In 2020, the global AI market was estimated to be worth around US$58.3 billion and will grow to a volume of US$309.6 billion by 2026. This corresponds to an average annual growth of 33.2%. The market for AI in the rail market was estimated at around US$1.3 billion in 2020 and is expected to grow to US$3.6 billion by 2026 – an average annual growth of 19.7%.

Overall, the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in the railway market is a trend that will continue to grow in importance in the future. This is also shown by data from GlobalData: The number of companies filling positions in the field of artificial intelligence increased in January compared to the same period last year.

Rail freight transport – the course is set for the coming years

There were some developments in rail freight transport last month that will shape the market in the years to come.

We summarise the events:

Current figures from the German Federal Environment Agency show that goods trains emit 7.4 times less CO2 than trucks. A lead that has widened in recent years: Ten years ago, rail freight transport was 5 times more climate-friendly than road freight transport. German associations such as the Allianz pro Schiene e.V. and Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) are calling for this potential to be exploited and for the German federal government to stick to its goal of increasing the market share of freight railways to 25 percent by 2030.

If these figures finally lead to a rethink in the German Ministry of Transport, rail freight transport will face massive investments in the coming years.

While the investments in the German rail network year after year do not meet the need to repair and modernise the infrastructure, a complete new rail network has been built in the UAE in recent years. The Etihad Rail network is part of an offensive to modernise the country’s infrastructure and economy and make it less dependent on oil.

The line between the two cities of Ruwais and Ghuweifat on the border with Saudi Arabia, which was inaugurated in February, is also intended to make transport more climate-friendly and to make the transport of goods between the emirates and their neighbouring countries more efficient and cost-effective.

At the same time, The Eurasian Economic Union’s (EAEU) Member States and China signed a roadmap to speed up the digitalisation of rail freight between them. Russia in particular will benefit from this. Due to the sanctions imposed on Russia by Western countries following the invasion of Ukraine, the European market is no longer an option for Russia. The country is currently trying to dominate the Central Asian market and solidify trade relations with China, for example. Digitisation of the Central Asian railway space will facilitate transnational rail freight transport.

While work is being done in Central Asia to develop rail transport between the individual countries, rail operations in Europe are facing a challenge: until now, Swiss companies have been authorised to operate trains in all EU member states. However, this expires at the end of 2023. Switzerland is trying to find a new permanent solution, but the EU is refusing.

If no new agreement is reached, Switzerland will have to conduct an authorisation procedure with each EU country, which would complicate the process.