SBB is setting the course today to ensure that the company’s leap toward a digital, networked future is a success. In an interview, SBB CEO Andreas Meyer explains which digital solutions this calls for and whether self-driving trains without staff are our future.
To win the bet, we launched a dozen or so smaller pilot projects during the very first year of the challenge. Through these, we now have cleaning robots on duty, the travel center has a short story dispenser and social media screen to shorten waiting times, plus customer information is displayed on large digital screens. E-scooters from Mobility help travelers at Zurich’s main station get to their final destinations.
We’ve also worked together with our tenants to develop a pre-order service we call “SBB FastLane”. Customers can use the “My station” app to order and pay for their sandwich or coffee, then pick them up from the shop without having to stand in line.
Another milestone is the “Augmented Reality App”. Here, we’re setting a new global standard in the provision of three-dimensional customer information at and around Zurich main station. Travelers can simply pick up their smartphone to see arrows superimposed over the camera’s image to guide them to the correct track. The app also overlays information about departure times and offers customers the option of having special deals shown whenever they walk past a store. Of course, all of this is done in full compliance with all data protection regulations.
There’s still potential in the area of data analytics and big data. Simply by virtue of the station’s long history, we’re lagging behind recently built airports, which were built to be “digital” from the very start and were designed specifically with those requirements in mind. After the “Digitalswitzerland Challenge” is over, we are going to have the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) evaluate us and our partners, including tenants of the train stations, universities and vendors, to see if we’ve achieved our ambitious target. We’re also interested in gaining some insights into where our weak spots are and where we need to continue investing. It’s important to us that this bet isn’t just a one-time event limited to Zurich main station. That’s why we’ve set our sights on rolling out those pilot projects that offered our customers true added value to other train stations as well, especially to the larger ones.
We conducted some initial tests with new digital assistance systems for engineers in late 2017. These were used to automatically brake and accelerate a train, in the presence of the engineer, along the Bern–Olten route. The system is comparable to an airplane’s autopilot mode. We took this step in an effort to promote automated train operation. We’re doing all of this within the scope of the “SmartRail 4.0” industry program, which we launched in part with the goal of increasing the capacity of our existing railway infrastructure by 30 percent by the year 2040. We want our customers to benefit from a larger number of trains, a tighter schedule, fewer disruptions and better mobile connections. Yet despite all of that, one thing is certain: automated isn’t synonymous with staff-free trains. I’m convinced that we will still need trained staff on board our trains to ensure that they can operate safely and on schedule. Personally, I wouldn’t board a train without any staff.
I, too, can only offer you my best guesses. But one thing is certain: Taking the train will always be a physical experience. That’s why we value the personal touch. After all, “personal” is a core element of our vision. At the same time, the concept of mobility is undergoing a dynamic, exciting evolution and will change completely before the process is over. Whereas SBB used to define itself purely as a railway company, we now see ourselves as part of a mobility chain. Professional circles are currently anticipating a strong increase in demand for mobility, in part as a result of population growth but also in connection with the development of autonomous vehicles. On the other hand, more flexible working models could reduce demand for transport services. With that in mind, SBB is thinking in terms of scenarios when making long-term plans for integrated mobility and site development. Part of that involves taking a critical look at concepts and assumptions: Will the sharing economy really be the hottest topic? How will autonomous shuttles or robotaxis impact the mobility market?
Our goal is clear: We want to help shape the future of mobility. That means we have to remain flexible as a company and keep an open mind. We are systematically pushing the digital transformation ahead in Switzerland in order to compete internationally. Digitalization is linked to a profound transformation that holds great potential for every industry. It will help us design collaboration to be more efficient, individualize customer interactions, boost capacities on the railway network even further and even establish new business models. We want to leverage Switzerland’s know-how and promote Switzerland as a center of innovation and education. We want to work together with our staff to tackle changes and help them shape mobility and prepare it for the future.
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