Transforming the Baltic: A Deep Dive with Andy Billington on Rail Baltica’s Sustainable Future
Share this article

Andy, could you tell us a bit about your background and how you came to be involved with Rail Baltica, particularly in the realms of digitalisation and analytics?

My background is, probably unusual. The rail industry tends to be mostly people who joined it either directly from university or as apprentices who just worked in the rail industry. As for my background, I'm an electronics engineer and IT consultant, who worked in the telecoms and datacentre spaces. Then I was brought into a project in Transport for London to look at some rolling stock, some potential problems with the train and getting the data off the trains. And since then, I've been sort of sitting in between rail and IT. So digitalization and those kind of things, it's kind of almost a perfect fit. And for this kind of event, because I can talk to both audiences.

How did you end up in Estonia?

I had been visiting the region for a while. Estonia particularly, and got to the point where Tallinn in particular, but also one of the islands had begun to feel a bit more like home than London did. So I decided at that point, it's time to move, started looking to see what opportunities there were. Then at an event in London, I met the Rail Baltica team and had a conversation that was meant to be initially very short, became quite a lot longer. Still here five years later!

Rail Baltica has been hailed as a transformative railway project for the Baltic States. Can you shed some light on the broader vision for the project, especially in terms of sustainability and innovation?

One of the key things that we're looking at is to try and have net zero emissions during the operation phase. Obviously, during construction that's a lot more complicated. But for the operational phase, we can look at 100% renewable energy if the energy grid mix allows that. We can look at things such as what will the transformative effect be on local communities so for example, a journey that at the moment might take two hours by road could be down to 42 minutes, and that will be a transformative change. Just one example could be Tallinn and Riga: at the moment it is four and a half hours by road and we're looking at under two hours by rail. So, again, if we can provide more sustainable transport, that's also a better and faster service for people. It should be a win-win for everybody.

We've heard that Rail Baltica is pioneering several digital infrastructure options, such as 5G and optical fibre technologies. How do these digital enhancements play into the broader goal of sustainable mobility?

Without going into too much railway technical detail, there's a big transition happening in the way that Railway signalling works away from GSM, basically 2G currently, to a more modular flexible system. That basically starts with 5G because that's the current specification. Unlike the older system, it's actually being written into the 3GPP mobile industry standards. So we won't have a repeat of a rail-industry-only version that caused some problems with supply chains (having limited number of suppliers and so on). . We should be able to have more of a modular system so that if you need to upgrade your system, you only upgrade the components you need to upgrade.

That also translates to reducing energy with more efficient signaling and networking. We're looking at practicalities of using optical fiber sensing along the railway. Instead of having discrete sensors every let's say every 100 meters, we can use a single continuous optical fiber and then we have one or two sensor nodes every few maybe every 40 or 50 kilometers instead of lots of little nodes that have got to have batteries, that could have to have somebody to go out and fix them. So we can be more sustainable in that way as well with fewer field visits,so fewer people having to go onto the railway to make changes which is also safer, right? So if we can use sensors to also cut down the number of times people have to go out onto the track, it can be safer for the workers as well. That could potentially lead to fewer disruptions. Obviously, if you put workers on the track, you have to stop the trains. And if we can reduce the number of times people have to go to the track, that should help as well.

How is Rail Baltica approaching data integration and standardization, and how do these efforts contribute to creating a more sustainable and efficient rail network?

Standardization has pretty much been the theme, that we shouldn't look to invent new standards, if standards already exist. What lessons can we learn from some places that may seem a little unusual? What lessons can we learn for pharmaceuticals where the supply chain integrity is really critical? And the tracking of pharmaceuticals from source to destination is absolutely critical, so can we have that level of tracking of components? Can we make sure that the component IDs are understandable no matter which supplier they come from, and not have each supplier putting their own labelling system on things.

The advantage of us being Greenfield is that we can do those things from the start. So not with let's say for example, an older railway infrastructure like BNSF in the United States, if they were to try and retrofit those kinds of things, it would take them years and cost a lot of money. We're in a better position to do those kinds of things are going to start so that if we can count that lifetime traceability, we can also look at lifecycle costs. And in the event that something is discovered to have a chemical problems, and three years after it's been deployed, if we've got the traceability we can go and find where was it deployed.

The application of machine learning to process sensor data is intriguing. How do you envision this technology advancing Rail Baltica's goals of sustainability and efficient operations?

We’ve been looking at it, but there are some problems with machine learning in rail. And that is anything that is safety critical, you have to prove how it works. You couldn't have a self learning algorithm that is hard to explain, you can’t have a black box. You have to be able to prove and depending on how critical it is, you have to prove using mathematical formal methods how it works, which is just not possible for some machine learning. There are some applications where it can be used. There were some applications where we know it can't be and at the moment we're looking at the areas where it's not possible today but it might be possible by the time when we have operating services.

There's a lot of work being done in other railways across Europe, that we're monitoring pretty closely to see who's doing what, and there's some particularly interesting work being done. Without naming companies, this one particularly interesting work being done in the Netherlands and in the UK, on machine learning for predicting maintenance, predicting faults, and also planning the maintenance that you minimize disruption for passengers in your maintenance planning.

Can you tell us about collaborations between rail companies? Do you have much contact with other providers?

In a lot of areas it's quite close. There was also the European Rail Joint Undertaking, which is actually an EU body, which coordinates all of the rail research that has EU funding. That includes infrastructure managers, like Deutsche Bahn, Network Rail in the UK which is now back in it. There are operators like NS in the Netherlands, like SNCF in France, so everyone's collaborating on the areas of common interest. There are some areas where local conditions mean it's not relevant for everybody else. There are some areas where there are parallels that might not immediately be obvious. So we're building a line across three countries. That means three languages. One of the interesting groups for us to talk to is Swiss railways, because they also have three languages to contend with. So that's where we had some interesting conversations with them in the past.

If we can provide more sustainable transport, that's also a better and faster service for people. It should be a win-win for everybody.
Andy Billington, Innovation and Digital Architecture Senior Expert at Rail Baltica

Quickly stepping out of the Rail Baltica topic, can you tell us a bit about Talinn and its current smart mobility infrastructure? How does it compare to other European capitals when it comes to EV and micromobility options?

There are quite a lot of things going on. In terms of passenger options, there are escooters and new ebikes for micromobility. Ther are about four different operators. There are small sort of six or eight seater autonomous buses for specific local areas. If there were big events on, they'll use those for transport. But even for deliveries, there are delivery robots from a company called Starship, which about 70 centimeters long, about 50 centimeters high, and people interact with them as if they were pets, which is quite funny the first time you see it. There's also a company called Clevocn which has just started doing deliveries with an autonomous electric vehicle for DHL. That's already in production use, It's not a pilot anymore. They're actually rolling that out.

Then as you get towards bigger transport infrastructure. One of the things that's very smart is the journey planning. The things like the timetables are very accurate. I had some visitors from the UK at an event last summer, and I looked at the display on the bus stop and said the bus will be here in 30 seconds, they both just laughed. “How can it possibly be that accurate?” As they finished laughing, the bus arrived. So the data integration is good there.

What's potentially the next step? I'm not sure. But one of the things that we are looking at is the standards used for data integration across transport sectors. How can we make sure that for example, at the railway station, you can see when the next plane is leaving from the airport or when the next ferry for Helsinki is going, so you’ll know whether you're going to make it or whether you need to change your booking. And potentially, we could provide data services that would allow a third party to just do an end-to- end journey. The key to making those things work, is everybody choosing the right standards and actually implementing it.

It’s tradition here at MOTION Magazine to ask our guests if they already drive an electric vehicle. Do you have one and if not, what would be your dream E-Vehicle?

I don't drive an electric vehicle,because for most of my life, I lived in central London - so I don't drive. Within Tallinn, there is a very good tram system and it's extending over the next few years. And also, one thing that may be of interest to people, for Tallinn city residents, public transport is free of charge. There's a travel entitlement card that you are entitled to if you register to live in the city. So public transport is very heavily used, partly because of that. There are actually fewer cars on the road now than there were when I first visited because the public transport has improved tremendously and people are starting to use it more and more.