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Digital Drive: ICT redefines transport operations

August 26, 2014
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India has the world’s second largest road network, one of the largest railway networks and well-developed water and air transport infrastructure. The emergence of open source mapping tools, widespread mobile network coverage, declining mobile device costs and increasing internet usage by public agencies have provided significant opportunities to support transport planning and management. 

Transportation agencies across all modes – rail, road, water and air – are increasingly adopting tracking services for getting real-time information and safety solutions to ensure people and material safety. Information and communication technology (ICT) solutions are being used to streamline travel-related processes like bookings and reservations. By helping disseminate information on market prices, and transport and logistics costs, ICT helps in lowering information barriers and reducing the costs associated with market transactions. 

Transportation in India 

Indian Railways and road transport account for 90 per cent of the total passenger traffic in the country. With a total route network of about 64,600 km spread across 7,146 stations and 19,000 trains operating on the routes every day, India’s railway network is recognised as one of the largest railway systems in the world under a single management. Road activity has also increased progressively over the years as connectivity between cities, towns and villages has improved. The 4.7 million km road network transports over 60 per cent of all goods in India and 85 per cent of the country’s total passenger traffic. 

Another important segment of the transport sector, aviation has been on a high growth trajectory and has registered an impressive growth of 8.2 per cent in passenger traffic and 0.9 per cent in cargo traffic during 2003-13. 

The Indian ports and shipping industry also plays a crucial role in sustaining trade and commerce growth. India currently ranks sixteenth among maritime countries, with a long coastline of about 7,517 km, and 13 major ports (12 government and one corporate) and about 200 non-major ports operating on the western and eastern coasts. According to the Ministry of Shipping, around 95 per cent of the country’s trade by volume and 70 per cent by value takes place through maritime transport. 

Communication needs and trends

Despite growth across all transportation segments, the sector has not been able to keep pace with the growing demands of the emerging economy. The transportation system remains highly congested and has huge scope for improvement, both in terms of efficiency and size. This is where ICT can play an important role in information collection, dissemination and analysis. 

The major players in the sector are, therefore, taking various initiatives and deploying advanced technologies to improve communication and management in the transportation sector. 

Starting on a small scale, the mechanisation and automation of the transportation sector has evolved from limited functionality to become an integral part of the overall system. The main objective of the change has been to connect the centres to different worksites and keep track, in real-time, of projects and operations in remote areas. Many cities have shifted to the intelligent transportation system (ITS) to improve efficiency, monitoring and safety in the transport sector. For instance, the Indore bus rapid transit corridor has signal priority, vehicle tracking and automatic fare collection as part of the ITS. Similarly, the advanced parking management systems in Palika Bazaar in New Delhi function with electronic parking guidance and VMS smart cards. ICT-based systems have led to better transport coordination, which helps multimodal passenger and freight transport. 

In the aviation sector, key IT and telecom initiatives include ticket reservations, passenger check-in and flight planning systems, on-board telephony and multimedia facilities, and secure internet solutions including e-commerce and e-business. Recently, the multi-airport Airport Operations Control Centre was launched at Chennai airport. The system is capable of managing multiple airports through the common airport operational database. 

Smartphone technologies are capable of mapping, tracking and routing with the availability of real-time data. This has led to increased expectations from transport users and improvements in the safety of transport operations. The transportation sector today has evolved to necessitate telecom and IT use in its day-to-day operations as well as build a customised communication network. 

tele.net recently conducted a survey of select transportation companies to study their IT and telecom initiatives over the past one year as well as to assess their technological needs.

The following questions were included in the survey: 

  • What is the current status of your company’s IT/telecom infrastructure?
  • What additions have you made to the IT/telecom infrastructure in the past one year? How have your business processes improved with the addition/upgradation?
  • What are the various applications that your company is currently using? What new applications are you planning to deploy in the near future?
  • Are you using cloud computing services? If so, what is the level of adoption and if not, what are your plans in this regard?
  • Has your company tied up with a managed services provider to meet your IT/telecom needs? If so, elaborate on the scope and involvement of the managed services provider in your operations.
  • What are some of the key issues faced during the management and upgradation of the IT/telecom infrastructure?
  • What steps have you taken to ensure data and network security?
  • What are your future plans in terms of upgradation of the IT/telecom infrastructure – investments planned for telecom needs and new technology deployments? 

IT/Telecom upgradation

As Indian cities witness increasing urbanisation, public/private transportation is becoming more complex. In light of this, transport companies are rapidly increasing their fleet size to cater better to the growing demand. However, managing this expanding fleet while ensuring efficient business processes is a daunting task. To deal with this, transport companies have undertaken significant technology upgrades in recent years. 

According to Ravi Prakash Gupta, head, information technology, Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System (DIMTS), “The transport industry is looking for a solution (commoditised or customised) where assets can be tracked and real-time data can be obtained. This data can then be analysed in real time to make informed business decisions, which would enhance the productivity and performance of the asset, resulting in enhanced profitability to the organisation.” 

DIMTS hosts a state-of-the-art solution for the transport industry. This not only covers fleet management but also solutions to capture measurement and dispensation of fluids as well as solutions that are customisable and expandable to any variable that needs to be measured. The organisation is capable of receiving data for over 250,000 vehicles in a day. Apart from this, DIMTS also hosts a disaster recovery centre at a different location and has various standard operating procedures in place for business continuity planning. In the event of outages, it has backup telecom lines from different vendors. 

In the past one year, DIMTS has enhanced the capabilities of its disaster recovery centre to cover more vehicles. A real-time helpdesk informs clients of scheduled maintenance activities and the estimated time to recovery. “Further, we have a redundant leased line to ensure continuous data flow and have built redundant last mile connectivity,” says Gupta. Implementation of the balanced scorecard methodology in the driver quality management system has reduced inefficiencies to less than half of the earlier observed incidents and has improved driver (and conductor) behaviour. Use of runtime business intelligence (BI) dashboards has made the DIMTS team more aware and responsive to operational issues. 

Similarly, the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) created an IT wing in January 2013 to better manage its systems and put in place advanced procedures. Bhopal City Link Limited (BCLL) is also undertaking a complete modernisation of its operations with the deployment of ITS. 

Key applications

The transport sector deploys a vast bouquet of enterprise and other business applications. At present, the majority of the companies use the customer relationship management (CRM) application, the GPS-based fleet management solution, billing management solutions, management information system, video surveillance of assets, passenger announcement and information systems, inventory management software, automated fare collection, revenue management, and human resource management. DIMTS uses a CRM developed in-house by a team of data scientists, who are constantly designing new algorithms and improving the existing ones. “The team leading it comprises engineers from the IITs and IIMs with an average experience of 17 years. We aim to improve on the BI dashboard for better information flow. We are also using the data to develop congestion modelling and various mathematical models for analysis,” says Gupta. 

Most of the respondents state that their companies have chalked out plans to deploy a host of new applications to improve business efficiency. For instance, BMTC is planning to develop a mobile application for commuters, with real-time information and to provide free Wi-Fi services in some of its buses. 

Meanwhile, DIMTS is using big data analytics solutions for faster reporting, lower response time, interactive analysis and an intuitive dashboard for its application management. To achieve this, the organisation is improvising its enterprise resource planning solution, which has a ticketing, vehicle tracking and bus management system; financial reconciliation; and driver quality management system with biometrics. 

Technology and telecom/IT applications has also helped Home Safe, Delhi's premier chauffeur service provider, streamline the process of reaching out to its customers and serving them better. "We have developed a system of identifying the nearest driver to the customers, delivering fast and cost effective service. Apart from feedback, we also track drivers and their driving habits." says Abhi Mediratta,  Tech Lead, Home Safe.

Managed services providers and vendors

Companies in the transport domain have tied up with several managed services providers. “The scope of services and uptime is negotiated keeping in mind the client’s requirements,” says Gupta. DIMTS has entered into contractual relationships with telecom service providers for secure and redundant GPRS access, and a dedicated access point name (APN) for bulk SIMs; and data network providers (which in some cases also happen to be telecom service providers) to provide a spoke and hub architecture for connecting the points (on fibre or Wi-Max point-to-point backhaul) with the operation and command centre at a centralised location. “The emphasis is on providing high availability link connectivity on air interface on leased lines, to withstand fibre cuts,” says Gupta. While BMTC uses the services of Tata Teleservices Limited for MPLS connectivity, BCLL has tied up with Harman International Private Limited for ITS.

Other service providers that offer a mix of telecom and IT services to companies operating in the transportation sector include Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, Tata Communications, Bharti Airtel, Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited, Reliance Communications, Wipro, IBM, Oracle, Ericsson, Alcatel Lucent and Sify Technologies. 

Key issues and concerns

According to Chandramauli Shukla, chief executive officer, BCLL, “There are always challenges with modernising a system. The key challenge for us is posed by the dependent infrastructure that needs to mature to support IT modernisation.” 

Integration (or in some cases a complete migration) of legacy systems with advanced IT and telecom systems is a key concern. Other issues include selection of appropriate technologies, increasing cost of technology and equipment, managing network downtime and limited telecom/IT products and solutions that are specific to the transport sector. 

“It is very difficult to implement IT solutions in a non-IT sector like transport,” says Kumar Pushkar, director, IT, BMTC. “Most of the applications are being developed on an outsourced basis, under the supervision and direction of our internal team. The biggest challenge is to put the applications to practical use.” 

DIMTS’s Gupta identifies uptime and performance as two key areas of focus while upgrading systems. “Since the operations run in 24x7x365 mode, we have to make sure that any change does not decrease the performance or take the system down,” he says. “Care is taken to ensure that critical parts of the network, such as network servers, are always up, or traffic is diverted to the disaster recovery system. Constant dry runs are undertaken to check the health of the system, in case a situation arises.”

Ensuring data and network security 

Transportation companies utilise firewalls, undertake security audits and install security operation control centres. For instance, DIMTS takes various steps to identify and contain any malicious attack on the network. Data security is maintained by backups, disaster recovery options as well as constant monitoring of the hardware, which hosts the data. For data security in the database server, regular backup and replication to the data recovery system is done. For preventing unauthorised access, high grade firewalls are in place. For protecting data while in transit, encryption of packets is done. Similarly, USB access, non-company email ids and certain data-sharing websites are disabled for employees so that data is not copied.

Security features of BCLL’s ITS include firewall on devices, security on hardware, port monitoring, securing communication data,  intrusion detection, encoding stored data, security at the SIM level and private APN. 

The way forward

Most of the respondents are planning to expand and strengthen their IT/telecom systems further in the next one to two years. They are open to adopting new technologies, making public transportation services more convenient and their business processes more efficient. 

DIMTS is currently working on improving advance analytics solutions for route optimisation, GPS-based user preference profiling, targeted advertising, real-time-prediction of service failure, indoor navigation, and intelligent urban infrastructure based on population movement. 

BMTC has already chalked out a long list of applications that it is in the process of deploying or plans to deploy during 2014. These include a common mobility smartcard-based fare collection system, ITS with GPS on board and a real-time based public information system, a planning and scheduling software application, and a vehicle health diagnostic and monitoring system. 

Net, net, the deployment of advanced IT/telecom infrastructure will usher in business efficiencies as well as profitability for transportation companies.

 
 
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