Sam Sherwood-Hale spoke to Ling Fang, Senior Vice President of Asia Pacific at Alstom about digital rail, the return of passengers to the global rail network and diversity in the industry

You’ve written for us previously about the future of rail transport in Southeast Asia and how it is unquestionably digital. Given the current circumstances that might necessitate acceleration in digital interactions, how have your predictions changed?

Transport and mobility have become rapidly associated with potential spread of the virus—especially in situations where transport is synonymous with enclosed spaces and large concentrations of people, as is often the case on planes or public transport. This is the most immediate challenge that transport systems have been grappling with since the outbreak began, and operators have had to take quick action to protect their staff as well as passengers. Because of the new requirements brought by the pandemic, the trends and expectations in the industry have also changed.

The demand for digitisation and the adoption of green policies and energy solutions in the rail industry has certainly accelerated given the current circumstances. We see this as an opportunity like no other for us to rethink our mobility system holistically. In the rail transport industry, to bring back the trust of passengers, we look at their need for cleaner, safer, and more secure rail systems. Mastria, our artificial intelligence solution, has been successfully put to use in Panama during this period of the pandemic. This digital solution is offered to ensure passenger distancing and safety in trains and stations in operation in projects all over the world. Mastria is based on four main standard functions: multimodal supervision, traffic management, coordination of operations and predictive analysis.

Another clear demand  from rail transport passengers is the reliability of the train service. Automation will certainly improve system efficiency and boost the confidence of passengers. With driverless trains, automation has already delivered positive effects on punctuality and energy savings in operations of freight transport and metros, for example by optimising braking and acceleration processes.

The further development and expansion of urban metro and regional rail networks should also remain a priority to improve freight transport and sustain the lower emissions levels observed during the pandemic. Such projects will be critical to reversing climate change effects, enabling under-served populations to participate in economic growth and strengthening opportunities across the region.

Incorporating rail transportation options into a multimodal network that links rail with airports and maritime ports will also strengthen the overall infrastructure and enhance the region’s competitiveness.

What role did the rail transport industry play in the resilience in the supply chain during the current circumstances?

Among other aspects of daily life, there has been a direct impact of the spread of the coronavirus on public transport, including railways. Many countries have resorted to reducing the frequency of urban rail services to effectively curb crowds and ensure that the train cabins do not become hot spots for spreading the virus. However, trains and rail systems continue to provide essential services at such unprecedented times, transporting people to and from their essential jobs in sectors such as healthcare, or carrying patients between hospitals across long distances. Due to the impact of the pandemic on global supply chain, rail freight has become even more relevant, to keeping economies running, the lights on and the supermarkets filled.

During the pandemic, as countries worked to ensure that food supplies were maintained in stores, freight transport by rail proved to be a safer, faster and more reliable method of transporting goods. This was observed within Europe and also with freight trains travelling between Europe and China. By comparison, food deliveries by truck were subjected to health checkpoints that delayed deliveries. There was also a noticeable reduction in emissions, as road and air travel ground to a halt. Underlining the contribution of road transport to air pollution, however, as people in the region resumed their regular, pre-pandemic activities , those reductions were quickly reversed. Thus the argument is made for governments to encourage the use of rail systems to move away from transportation options that contribute to climate change.

The Asia Pacific region in particular has handled the Covid-19 pandemic well, is Alstom largely on track with their work in the region?

We at Alstom, remain focused on achieving our main goal, which is to be the leading global innovative player for a sustainable and smart mobility. With a focus on sustained growth, green and digital innovation, operational efficiency, and an agile, inclusive and responsible corporate culture, we have set and follow clear priorities. Having pre-defined business continuity and disaster recovery plans had helped us remain robust not only in the region but globally as well.

With a strong liquidity position, a demonstrated ability to deliver execution and profitability and the rapid launch of a cost and cash mitigation plan, the Group is confident in its capacity to weather the crisis as well as to capture opportunities in a resilient rail market and contribute to the transition towards sustainable transport systems.

Alstom has made good progress on projects delivery despite the pandemic. In May 2020, the first of the 12,000-horsepower Prima T8 electric locomotives was put into commercial service by Indian Railways. In line with the Make-in-India mandate, all 800 of the Prima locomotives are being manufactured locally. Additionally the second stretch of the Sydney light rail was also commissioned during the lockdown period.

While the world remains challenged, we move forward by continuing our commitment to protecting employees, customers and society as a whole while preserving the environment. We will continue to develop and market integrated systems that provide the sustainable foundations for the future of transportation while keeping our fundamental principles at the heart of all our actions.

Can you give us an update on the Bombardier deal?

Following the notification of the transaction to the European Commission on 11 June, 2020, Alstom has taken a further step towards finalising its planned acquisition of Bombardier Transportation. On 9 July, Alstom submitted commitments in response to the Commission’s potential concerns. The European Commission approved the deal on 31 July, subject to full compliance with a number of commitments offered by Alstom. The Group’s closing of the acquisition of Bombardier Transportation remains on track for the first half of 2021.

Passengers numbers are steadily rising again, do you anticipate economic resilience in the sector?

In the past months, with the stimulus packages being introduced by governments and with massive support from various organisations served, we’ve seen the ability of governments, companies, investors, and civil society to find ways to partner and seek solutions to shared problems. Such cooperation will be necessary going forward to craft more resilient transport systems to steel business and society against the inevitable crises to come.

As the situation evolves day by day, the question of ‘will the passengers come back’ will linger for some time despite the reopening of most economies, and despite passenger numbers gradually rising. But after the current crisis, we expect a fast recovery of the rail market, sustained by strong fundamentals and increasing demand for sustainable mobility.

The pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the public transport sector, but we have observed that the short-term consequences can actually bring long-term resilience and transformation in the industry.

What are the most impactful lessons we’ve learned so far when it comes to the rail transport sector? What are some lessons that are specific to the Asia Pacific region?

This year’s pandemic, and the resulting unprecedented disruptions to daily commuting, travel and freight activities, has brought these issues into sharp focus providing proof that short-term measures are not enough. Transport systems need to be enhanced, and networks developed, to support economically sustainable and resilient societies going forward.

The pandemic has grown attention to cleanliness, safety, and security of public transport systems. With this, the operators are providing solutions that will ensure the trust in public transports. The pandemic also undermined the reliability and efficiency of transport networks, particularly in freight sectors, thus disrupting the supply chain. To address this, it is imperative that transport stakeholders find solutions to enhance the resilience of their networks. Here again, we see that digital technology could play an important role, and some operators could quickly deploy big data solutions to adapt their operations. The most unexpected consequences from the crisis have been on the environment, with the sudden drop in carbon emissions. As such, the pandemic has pushed governments and organisations to rethink solutions that would be more sustainable in the future.

In Southeast Asia, in particular, the transportation sector has been critical to the continuing rapid growth of megacities and the sustainable economic development of the entire region. The movement of people and goods plays an essential role in the economic, business and social life of individual countries and of ASEAN as a whole.

As the region looks beyond the pandemic and into the future, rail transport can be a critical component of the way forward, as countries seek to manage issues related to rapid urbanisation and take the opportunity to address concerns around sustainability.

How can we maintain a safe, healthy and secured public transport system? What can governments do going forward? What do mass transport agencies need to allow for safety and security of the commuters?

In order to manage travel and freight demands as they recover following the pandemic, governments across the region have to seriously focus on the ripple effects of the situation. Authorities must plan accordingly, and reconsider how transport networks should be built.

To encourage a return to train travel as restrictions ease, the transportation industry will also need to focus on ensuring the health and safety of passengers and employees. Mass transport agencies must act in accordance with the recommendations of local and global authorities, taking whatever measures are necessary to ensure the safety of passengers and contribute to minimising the impact of the pandemic on society at large. Rail operators can reduce concerns about safety by enforcing social distancing and putting in place health protections and technology solutions.

Transport operators can also opt for advanced solutions such as installation of efficient HVAC systems, driverless trains, digital systems to predict occupancy in train cars and on platforms and contactless e-ticketing upgrades.

Is there a requirement to pay attention to digital apps and even cybersecurity?

From predictive maintenance to automated signalling, and from driverless operation to enhanced passenger experience, digital technology is enabling more advanced performance and delivering benefits to authorities, operators and passengers. However, as the rail transport industry moves to embrace the digitalisation of systems and operations, the deployment of new technologies inevitably opens the door to risks, threats and the possibility of cyber-attacks.

The demand for cyber security solutions and services is growing at an impressive pace and it is anticipated to rise further with growing complexity of cyber threats, especially given that the railway transportation is as susceptible to cyber-attacks as any other industry.

We recognise that the transportation cybersecurity has become a critical issue. At Alstom, we take this very seriously and have developed solutions with the appropriate guidelines and procedures for secure installation, configuration, operation and maintenance.

You’ve been with Alstom for 24 years, how have you seen the industry change in that time?

In my 24 years with Alstom, I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to move between roles and countries. I’ve witnessed the growth of the industry amidst evolving market landscapes, liberalisation, competition, changing passenger expectations, and the rise of digital technologies that have provided opportunities, threats and challenges over the years.

The increasing adoption of digitisation and automation is one of the most exciting changes I have observed. Transport operators are now focused on solutions to deliver security and fluidity to passengers and operations, by optimising real-time performance in signalling and multimodality, by offering connectivity and automating driving. Also, now, the use of artificial intelligence aids operators and transport authorities with enhanced passenger flow management tools. The solution allows operators to adapt, easily and in real time, their response to the various social distancing and public gathering requirements that have arisen due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While digital solutions offer passenger safety and convenience, technology also plays an integral role in defending operators against cyber-attacks which were not as prevalent 20 years ago.

Needless to say, the solutions we used back then have evolved tremendously. These past few years, we have seen governments investing in driverless trains, while more recently, we are talking about hydrogen-powered trains. With rapidly changing demographics and consequent massive urbanisation, transport systems will have to be redesigned to meet the increasing demand for mobility while preserving the environment.

The environmental impact of transport may arguably be the most important change in the industry, but with the rising awareness comes the commitment from governments and organisations, such as our Group, to supporting carbon neutrality in transport by building innovative, sustainable mobility solutions with a lower carbon footprint.

Reflecting on your personal journey, you were both the first female and the first Asian person to lead Alstom’s Asia Pacific region. How does the playing field today compare to back then? Is it more level?

As the first Asian woman to sit on the Alstom management committee, I feel this demonstrates that Alstom values diversity and believes in offering opportunities. I’m an example for other women that we should not be afraid to show our confidence and ambition, and we should not hesitate to seize opportunities to demonstrate our capabilities.

Over the past few years, across industries, we have witnessed the growing numbers of working women succeeding in their professional careers. The transport industry in particular has been more welcoming now than before to hiring women and allowing them to achieve a higher status for their profession.

What can the rail industry do to encourage more diversity?

The industry can perhaps take lessons as Alstom tries to exemplify how a company must be open to diversity. With a broad geographical base, the group provides long- and short-term international assignment opportunities for its employees. Alstom supports its people with training, mentoring, and coaching. We offer every employee the chance to succeed. While it has proven challenging to hire diverse talents, especially when courses such as engineering and computer science are not as popular with women, we still ramp up efforts in recruiting more women for varied roles and positions.

In India, Alstom has incorporated the approach of exposing senior women executives to other female colleagues to help them build confidence and serve as role models.