How to tackle unplanned rail disruptions with technology

Passenger and freight rail traffic are predicted to double by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency. That, plus limited expansion capabilities, means rail network and transport operators have more traffic on the tracks. Add in unplanned rail disruptions (URDs), and rail providers have the potential for low customer satisfaction.

For example, just last month in Boston, The Boston Herald reported, “T and Commuter Rail riders were faced with a wet, cold surprise as the season’s first nor’easter ripped through Massachusetts, causing delays and breakdowns throughout the system.”

The news report continued, “‘How is this ok!’ commuter Joshua McClintock tweeted Wednesday morning alongside a video of several commuters, clad in rain gear and work attire, trudging through rain and wet leaves along the Commuter Rail tracks in Lynn due to a breakdown.

“McClintock, who commutes from Beverly to Boston at around 5:40 a.m. four days a week, said that the train didn’t pick him up until 6:30 due to several weather delays and disabled trains.

“After arriving in Swampscott, the train stalled for another hour and a half, the power eventually going out, before the conductor asked the commuters to disembark their ride and walk 500 feet to the Lynn station for the next train. He arrived three hours late to his hourly job, at around 9 a.m.”

It is incidents such as these that contribute to low customer satisfaction rates.

Poor mitigation and management of URDs impact all strategic KPIs for rail providers

Congestion on the tracks, combined with contemporary threats like natural disasters, the pandemic and terrorism, have made today’s safety and security expectations for rail organizations higher than ever.

In the event of URDs, priorities include protecting passengers and personnel and safeguarding critical infrastructure and property while restoring normal railway operations as quickly as possible.

Here are just a few examples of challenges rail operators face and how technology can address them:


Unlike monitoring airports with defined entry and exit points, surveying and protecting rail stations proves more difficult as intrusions can occur almost anywhere along a rail network. Stations closed during off hours and unmanned stations are subjected to high rates of vandalism and theft. Network Rail, the owner and operator of Great Britain’s railway infrastructure, reported this year, “The theft of metal, particularly cable, from the railway is a significant issue for the rail industry, causing nearly 22,000 hours of passenger delays in the past four years and costs of £61 million ($81 million).”

Public modes of transportation such as rail are highly susceptible to acts of terrorism due to the large numbers of contained people and the disruption domino effect associated with such an event. According to the Mineta Transportation Institute database, between 1970 and 2017, there were 282 attempts to deliberately derail trains and 817 more attacks on railway infrastructure.

Additionally, high rates of incidents occur at spatial gaps between train doors and station platforms.

With integrated sensors and alarms, infrastructure operators can monitor rolling stock, tunnels, rail tracks, train stations and railyards to detect, monitor and assess situations before incidents occur. Equipped with video, LiDAR and infrared sensors, Hexagon’s intuitive intrusion detection systems can detect unauthorized persons at tunnel entries, track beds, stations and railyards, while using edge computing and artificial intelligence to reduce false positives. This data can then be fed into our integrated, common operational picture to assess, monitor and dispatch local EMS when needed. For large-scale events, Hexagon’s collaboration software offers channels to securely share incident data with local organizations such as police, fire, EMS or other rail networks for coordinated action.


Increased demand, in addition to constrained capacity, has led to overcrowding in many of the world’s large metro areas. This demand, in part, is due to the positive shift to reduce carbon emissions, but this has also led to overcrowding in an industry with limited ability to expand its network. More traffic on tracks and overcrowded platforms have created an urgent need to ensure the safety of rail’s growing ridership.

Using Hexagon’s integration software, rail operators can view train stations and platforms via video to determine peak times for overcrowding and collaborate internally using SaaS collaboration software to determine the best course of action to reduce capacity issues.

Asset failure

The safety of passengers relies heavily on the soundness of the rail network Infrastructure. Rail infrastructure assets such as laid track have existed for decades in advance of the mass transit boom of the 21st century. With higher demand and aging infrastructure, rail operators must ensure their network assets receive routine maintenance and have safety measures in place to detect and alert when an asset is at risk of failing. Asset failure can result in URDs, delays leading to lower customer satisfaction rates, staff overload, and in some cases, injury or death.

Hexagon provides integration with asset management systems, sensors and IoT devices. Based on the capability of reality capturing with mobile mapping devices, analysing the data with artificial intelligence helps keeping asset management systems up to date and creates the basis for the static part of a digital twin. Enriched by Hexagon’s sensor integration platform, the dynamic part of the digital twin fed by IoT devices can be included as well. Having an up-to-date asset management system and a digital twin environment are two key ingredients to meet the top KPI now – and in the future.

The future of rail operations

Due to time and labor constraints, manual processes to analyze and harness collected data to improve safety is no longer an option. Threat detection and operations automation based on artificial intelligence is the future of rail operations and will be the foundation for success in creating safer railways.

Often cited as the top KPI, customer satisfaction is key to the long-term financial success of any rail provider. Whether it’s moving goods to market or getting people to work on time, ensuring safe and smooth operations is paramount for achieving high satisfaction rates. But to do that, rail network operators and transport providers need to find solutions that address the challenges at hand.

Hexagon’s Security & Surveillance portfolio provides a pre-integrated set of solutions proven in rail implementations around the globe – helping you capture, assess, respond and collaborate with your incident data and provide safe passage for the people and property entrusted in your care.

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