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Blockchain: The Wheels of Future Railway
In this article, the upheaval of the burgeoning trend of Blockchain technology shall be discussed and how it will impact various areas of railway industry in the near future.
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Blockchain technology is one of the noteworthy discoveries in digitization where the coalesce of cryptography with data authentication on a distributed network was initially targeted to make online financial transactions secure but its unique advantages are now opening window to various other commercial applications such as - smart contracts, car industry, healthcare, internet of things (IoT), marriage certificates, e-voting wills and insurance, food safety and travel. Let us investigate this technology and its suitability to address the issues of Railways.
Blockchain technology can be perceived as a kind of open distributed digital ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in an authentic way.
Rather than relying on a third trusted party such as a bank, it uses a peer to peer approach where verification and validation are done by the nodes of the distributed network. Not only this technology eliminates the involvement of a Third Party for the purpose of authentication (very often these Third parties become the source of security breach) but also chops the extra transaction cost that goes to them. Using this approach, the possibility of fraudulent transaction is minimized to zero because the group of transactions called blocks is not only protected by digital signature that subsequently goes through a mathematical puzzle for time alignment, but also needs to be the longest and fastest one in the network amongst the existing good nodes to succeed. This means that all transactions are fully secured and fraudulent transactions, if any shall form a long chain of such blocks which will be transparently visible to all parties clearly identifying the perpetrators for disciplinary action and also such fraudulent transactions will be next to impossible to get overlooked. Thus this mechanism is completely secured from hacking by outsiders through spoofing, phishing, etc.
Traditional System of Financial Transaction
Features useful for Railway Applications
Beyond the endless financial applications that would disrupt the economy of countries, the possibility of Blockchain technology to circumvent transportation industry comes from its several unique characteristics:
Cryptographically secure: Owing to the consensus mechanism, cryptographic security has a high threshold.
Transparency: The entries made on a public Blockchain cannot be altered and hence offers a time-stamped version of the „truth?.
Integrity: The data on Blockchain is always complete, accurate, reliable and authentic. Once consensus is achieved on a data entry by the miners, it cannot be altered. Moreover, the data available in a single public ledger shared among several parties is more reliable than multiple databases.
Cheap and Efficient: Blockchain eliminates the need of a centralized repository and authentication by a third dedicated party which reduces the cost and at the same time offers more efficiency.
Possible Applications in Railway Industry
In Blockchain, all participants share the same copies of relevant data. In concrete terms, this means that all trains can communicate with each other via smart contracts and with the track elements such as signals, points, track circuits or level crossings. This simplifies the infrastructure and the availability of the entire system can also be improved.
Initial tests in Darmstadt’s dispatcher training facility for infrastructure operators in Germany show that the trainsets can choose their own routes, lock them and release them again. This shall happen without a central control centre and yet without a conflict. The state of the infrastructure elements is recorded in a tamper-proof, transparent general ledger and is constantly updated. Conceptually, Blockchain can be used for all other transactions for example, for checking the driver’s license and driver authorization and billing the infrastructure. As of now, the technology is in an experimental state where potential use cases are being developed and tested to affect the following areas:
Reward Points/loyalty schemes
Rewarding travelers for their continued purchasing of a travel ticket has become an important marketing tool for credit card companies and railways. For this, loyalty programs need to be accurate and user-friendly to ease the complexity involved in keeping an account of passenger’s loyalty points and redemption as per the defined policies. Recently, San Francisco has developed a Blockchain-based loyalty Software named ‘Loyyal’. The platform not only seeks to improve the interoperability between multiple schemes but also allows invoicing and payment transfer between partners using smart contracts.
Redemption of reward points from one service to another such as automatic credit of points after a train journey, which can further be used to pay an online cab service shall add to a better travel experience.
Improving identity management in travel
For undertaking the journey in any reserved class on Indian railway, a prescribed proof of identity shall be available online. On the blockchain, identification of the passenger, change of booking or enquiry can be done using traveller IDs which eliminates the need to carry any hard copy of id proof during travel.
Predictive maintenance: Trains have complex mechanical and electrical systems with hundreds of thousands of moving parts. To deliver a reliable service, trains need regular maintenance that can be triggered when a certain mileage is reached, after a particular time period, or by monitoring the condition of parts. Condition monitoring involves checking the operation of the equipment and only changing something if it shows signs of deterioration.
The IoT and the availability of complementary technologies have even made it possible to predict the failure of some items of equipment. The use of Blockchain technology coupled with the ever-evolving sensor technology of trains or infrastructure components can be seen as the basis of modern maintenance, in which the individual components independently register their requirements.
With the propagation of IoT based condition monitoring, there will be a complex network interconnecting the sensors to the controllers which would be aggregated to the centralized data centres storing vital data serving as nerve centres for command and control. With such levels of concentration of data, the potential for threats is immense. Here Blockchain technology can be used to secure the network from tampering, misuse and with “proof of work” a clear audit trail is available for the authorities to monitor.
Trenitalia, the primary train operator in Italy is building a prototype to enable it to predict failures before they happen, rather than just react to them. It has put IoT sensors on its locomotives and passenger cars and is using analytics and in-memory computing to gauge the health of its trains in real-time.
The project will change Trenitalia’s business model, allowing it to schedule more trips and make each one more profitable. The railway company will be able to better plan parts inventories and determine which lines are consistently performing poorly and need upgrades. The new system will save €100 million a year, according to ARC Advisory Group.
Decentralized Train Operation: Currently the signalling in Indian Railway is carried out by centralized systems which give instructions to train operator. The biggest challenges with such an approach include system failure, loss of communication, data security, human error, driver’s death, or ad-hoc traffic diversion needs. In consideration to these inevitable factors, railway frameworks need to have safety frameworks to prevent collisions and derailments. But such dispatching and safety frameworks come with their own demerits such as complexity, huge cost, manpower overheads, heterogeneous nature and interoperability issues. But also this can be controlled by the adoption of blockchain technology which can all at once handle for ad-hoc traffic, deviations, construction-caused alterations, equipment failures etc by converting it to a modular “Transportation Operating System”.
This decentralized system shall make it possible for the trains and track elements to work as first-level active participants and carry out several actions such as route locking, setting a changing point position, communicating with other trains, automatic speed control and braking, GPS drove Train localization. All these actions shall be network-driven and ensure compliance with the standard working rules. The reliability of which shall be derived from the matching of physical reality (trackside equipment) and the IT counterpart (Digital twin). This would enable the detection of trackside malfunctions and the prevention of accidents.
Going by the cardinal principles of Railway Signaling which give utmost priority to the safety of human life, the validation of every decision on the go shall be done by strong authorities as multiple parties such as station masters. Or even a better alternative will be to involve the signalling rules and control procedures in the smart contract, a copy of which shall be carried by each train to be followed while making their own route-based decisions. In this case, a Blockchain API shall be superimposed over such Rail network enabling all the trains with conflicting movements for a particular route to act as the ‘active nodes’ dynamically and make a ‘consensus-based-decision’ as elaborated in the schematic below.
Automatic billing: Rail networks often provide access to other passenger and freight railways at regulated infrastructure charges. Also, the passengers have to buy tickets manually and the payments to subcontractors and vendors are made through traditional methods. Blockchain technology can enable all these payments to happen instantly on a secure network using Blockchain ledger. Swiss Federal Railways, government-owned railway company of Switzerland, for instance sells bit coins at its ticket machines.
Interoperataibility between different Blockchains
There are several variants on the basic theme, with different design choices made at various points. Also, even if the Blockchain technology used is identical, two different Railway deployments may not be able to talk to each other.
Uncertainties pertaining to regulation, technology, energy consumption, cybersecurity and integration with existing systems are also one of the challenges Blockchain technology has to overcome.
Privacy against auditors
The unrestricted access available to the auditors may itself be misused, either intentionally or inadvertently. This needs to be considered and where possible, mitigations should be applied.
Arbitrary entities may not know the details of transactions between others but despite not knowing the identity behind any specific transactions, it may be possible to mine the data from several transactions and use their combined information to figure out who the parties may be, perhaps by connecting this data with external events. This needs to be resolved.
The system also needs to make sure that some specific parties, such as duly appointed auditors or a regulatory body, or their appointees, are able to access specific data to a level they need to perform their functions. For this, the system needs to regulate restricted access for external parties/auditors.
Limit of Scalability
Based on the type of application, Blockchain network may face scalability constraints such as network bandwidth and data storage. In addition, there can be hardware limitations driven by software and administrative configurations interface related limitations on the basis of consumer technology penetration. Other factors such as size of block and time gap between two consecutive blocks also effect the scalability. More the size of the block, more will be the number of concurrent transactions taking place.
So, while designing a Blockchain platform, there is a compromise between security, privacy, functionality, risk, and scalability which must be taken into consideration.
The technology like Blockchain can be a critical component in such modernization efforts of Indian Railways, considering the fact that the modern train control technologies such as ETCS L2 / CBTC are IP based and susceptible to cybersecurity threats and hacking.
In this paper, I have introduced Blockchain-based decentralized railway control and its prototype implementation, which combines traditional safety principles with cutting-edge IT technology. Trains can determine possible routes and book them directly (both ad-hoc and in advance), based on transparent and binding smart contracts which ensure conflict-free resource booking. At the same time, my approach coexists with centralized batch planning that produces long-term timetable and which integrates pre-planned construction sites - across railway undertakings.
Given a myriad of existing structures and practices which Blockchain technology can penetrate, not only the integrity of their output and efficiency shall improve, our way of working and interacting with these processes shall also shift to a new level. With this, existing ones shall be lesser used and gradually eliminated from both social and business models. Technology leads to more technologies, making development a never ending chain of which Blockchain is one of the steps.
Together, the partners shall examine how Blockchain technology can enable a more significant and efficient use of railway infrastructure - flexible, scalable and self-organized for controlling railway operations.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.