This first appeared on LinkedIn Nov. 14, 2016.

In the coming years, the digital transformation of rail has the potential to create productivity gains and savings worth billions of dollars. We’ll see these gains in the U.S. and Europe as digital technology unclogs overtaxed transportation networks, reduces downtime and helps companies save on fuel and cut emissions. But the transformation could be even more profound in countries that are building out or modernizing their rail networks.

It’s a potential “leapfrog” moment for countries that are looking to enter infrastructure at the innovation level.

What do I mean by leapfrog? It’s an economic development term that describes how a developing economy can leap over less efficient, more resource intensive or more expensive infrastructure and go straight to superior technologies. The classic leapfrog technology is the mobile phone, which relies on wireless signals instead of costly distribution networks and is swiftly becoming universal.

Right now, customers that are building out their networks have the chance to bake digital into their infrastructure planning from the early stages. That’s because the same economic and technological forces that made smartphones so affordable and widely available have turned our locomotives into sophisticated communications devices. And this technology is enabling us to monitor not just the locomotive, but the whole ecosystem.

We call this the “self-aware” train, which is a bold move to link the engine, the rail cars, the train yard, the tracks and shipping ports in a way that has never been done before – and to do it efficiently, reliably and safely. We’re rolling this out with leading operators like Deutsche Bahn in Germany, which is overhauling their entire fleet.

Some of this work requires retrofitting existing locomotives and other assets in the rail network. But our newer locomotives are innovation ready.

Pakistan Railways, for example, has ordered our Evolution Series locomotives as part of their modernization plan. It will allow them to realize a dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, while also decreasing unplanned maintenance and lowering fuel and maintenance costs.

When they’re ready to see the benefits of the self-aware train, it will be like flipping a switch. Increasing productivity, in the future, could be as easy as pushing an update through a digital rail network. These advances have the power to push industry into the digital era at global scale … if we are willing to adapt. 

About the author

Jamie Miller

President & CEO, GE Transportation

Innovation and transformation are the drivers for Jamie Miller, President and CEO at GE Transportation. For Jamie, a former PwC partner and Controller at Wellpoint before joining GE, technology is the tool to deliver new outcomes and ever-increasing value for GE’s customers, investors and employees.

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