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Signature Rail Roundtable Discussions: Event Summaries

Roundtable Discussion: Rail Operators from the US, Canada, UK, Sweden and Norway share experiences and find common ground.

In December, the Signature Rail team brought together a group of specialist rail planners from rail operators around the world to share experiences and plan ahead for 2021.

This occasion presented a valuable opportunity to listen while our longstanding customers shared insights, and to hear from newer customers who have recently committed to using Signature Rail’s tools for timetable planning in their networks. We were also joined by several planners from operators that we hope will join us next year.

As organisers we wanted everyone to be able to share insights freely and candidly, so no recordings were made and the UK-style ‘Chatham House’ rules were applied. Before the sessions, we had wondered whether conversation might ‘dry up’ on the day, but we needn’t have been concerned!

Both of the sessions ran out of time as a broad range insights, concerns and needs were discussed at length. We took away four key themes from this valuable time:

  1. All rail operators across the western world face the same serious challenges, principally relating to substantial declines in ridership and prolonged uncertainty as a result. These circumstances profoundly impact short term timetable planning; for example, one of our customers was concurrently running 11 ready-to-deploy timetable scenarios in an attempt to calibrate with service requirements and anticipated demand. Before Covid-19, it was normal to have just two timetable changes in any given year. In 2021, it is going to be difficult to plan rail services to match the recovery or partial recovery of passengers using public transportation and there will be a need for flexibility and agility in planning.
  2. We understood that severe cost pressure was ubiquitous. All rail operators are now receiving emergency support from authorities in some form or another to plug the revenue gap. It was felt that long and short term planning would come under increasing cost scrutiny, in an attempt to avoid scenarios where the least efficient rolling stock runs to a schedule that carries a handful of passengers, or the increasing cost of holding crews on standby for services that aren’t required. There was also broader acknowledgment of the need to address the overall cost of operations, especially for some markets where private sector organisations are being underwritten by Government funds i.e. taxpayers.
  3. All of us raised the need for more optimisation using algorithms to help validate scenarios faster, but in a traceable way as scrutiny from funding authorities increases. We discussed the value of vehicle and crew optimisers and their impact not only on diagram validation but also on broader issues such as the overall rolling stock needs and the optimal deployment of large numbers of crew who are impacted by the disruption.
  4. Data and especially ‘big data’ was a common theme across all rail operators i.e. the need for systems to export and import data more easily and quickly. While there are ongoing data needs for planners themselves, it was understood that there are more stakeholders and decision-makers who need greater levels of access to information. Fast and effective reporting in multiple formats with credible data is very important for everyone in the discussion.

Having listened to our customers, we at Signature Rail are resolved to bringing forward our plans for a business intelligence data cube to enable planners to interrogate and deep mine data quickly and cost effectively. This will improve the reporting environment without adding process or heavy financial commitment. If any of our participants and current customers would like to be part of an accelerator program to develop such a solution, please let us know.

We are grateful for the time everyone devoted to being part of such a valuable discussion closing off a stressful and traumatic year. Our thanks to everyone who joined us and shared their insights and experiences as rail planning specialists who have kept our rail services going.

We plan to undertake four similar customer engagements throughout 2021 to ensure we stay aligned and will continue to report on our progress.