During the summer, HS2 launched an immersive AR technology that created a replica of its new London hub, the Old Oak Common station.
During the summer, HS2 launched an immersive AR technology that created a replica of its new London hub, the Old Oak Common station.
( Source: HS2 Limited)

Railway How is augmented reality changing the rail industry?

Author / Editor: Jamie Thomson / Erika Granath

The market for augmented reality (AR) technology is growing and the indistry is predicted to be valued at over $18 billion by 2023. In the rail industry, AR is being used in creative ways. From tackling issues of overcrowding, to visualizing designs, its potential for providing a three-dimensional approach to the industry is promising.

Augmented reality is an interactive experience of the physical world, created using digital information. It uses technology to superimpose images, text and sounds on to our physical environment. Unlike Virtual Reality (VR), which creates computer-generated environments, Augmented Reality (AR) adds to our pre-existing physical world.

Visualizing designs

The benefit of AR in the rail industry begins at the planning stage. Every engineering project needs to align with its objectives and AR can help rail companies make more informed decisions when it comes to design.

AR enables rail companies to understand their designs in greater detail. It can provide insights into how a project might impact the surrounding environment, both visually and practically.

For example, last year, British railway company, Network Rail used AR as part of an app that allowed passengers to visualize new footbridges at various stations. The app, called ARki, enabled the public to be involved in the design selection, which in turn, highlighted the innovative engineering in UK rail infrastructure. The end result is three footbridge designs that will be rolled out across stations between now and 2024.

Training rail staff

As in other industries, AR in the rail sector is being used to make staff training more effective and engaging. The technology can be used to provide staff with more realistic scenarios and train them how to act in response.

AR is currently being used to train staff in the construction of the UK’s high-speed rail line, HS2. In partnership with several tech companies, HS2 Ltd is developing augmented reality training for future staff to help them deliver great customer experience, station maintenance and safety.

The AR training will also have the added benefit of contributing to the development of the new Old Oak Common station in West London. Staff who have been trained using AR will be called upon to provide feedback to its designers on their experience of running the hub, so that potential obstacles can be anticipated before designs are confirmed.

Tackling overcrowding

As rail passenger rates increase globally, overcrowding on trains and at stations is a pressing issue for rail operators. Whereas introducing more trains and expanding networks offer a short-term solution, technology holds the key to the future of overcrowding.

Beijing’s subway system carries an average 12.3 million passengers per day and overcrowding is a particular issue in the autumn, ahead of the China International Import Expo. To ease congestion during these busy months, last year, Shanghai tested AR smart glasses that live stream commuter traffic.

The glasses, which are fitted with cameras, use facial and voice recognition to help officers tighten security and identify bottlenecks. Since they were first introduced in Shanghai, the AR technology is now used in several other rail stations throughout China.

Improving customer engagement

According to research conducted by Deloitte, most mid-market companies are already experimenting with AR to improve user experience. Most companies are using AR to provide information and entertainment, and the same goes for rail companies.

One example in the rail industry is Kansas City’s Living History app. The initiative was launched in 2014 to celebrate Union Station’s centenary and invites people to experience a digital exhibition of the station’s history in the form of a virtual tour.

Similarly, Swiss Federal Railways recently launched an AR app that improves wayfinding at Zurich’s main railway station. Designed by tech company, zuehlke, the app uses a smartphone camera to display information on stops, train carriages and bus connections. Using customer feedback, the app is continuously developed to provide a truly customer-focused experience.

Maintaining rail infrastructure

Rail maintenance is an inherently impractical task that depends largely on weather conditions and the accessibility of infrastructures. It can be difficult for rail companies to anticipate maintenance issues and a lot of repair work is reactive rather than preventative.

Augmented reality can help rail companies check tracks remotely and when integrated with weather forecasting, it can help foresee potential issues before they occur. UK-based start-up company, Enable My Team is currently using augmented reality to help rail companies predict track and signalling failures.

Using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, scanners and data analyses, the company gathers information about asset conditions in order to carry out inspections and interventions.

Augmented reality may still be in its relative infancy, but it’s already making waves in the rail sector. As technologies continue to develop, rail companies will benefit from being able to predict future outcomes in a sector that’s notoriously challenging to navigate.