Next to defence, the earliest rail systems played a very important role in the development of the telecoms industry and, by deduction, today’s cloud or network of networks.

The excess bandwidth from the communications cables that underpin the signals used by trains was “repurposed” – borrowing one of today’s many catch-phrases – to build the first telecoms networks. The name of US telecoms firm Sprint, for one, used to stand for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Network Telecommunications.

A disgruntled employee attacked three microwave towers in Utah in 1961, bringing down the country’s transcontinental telephone system, disrupting the national defence circuit in the process, writes Tung-Hui Hu, in his book ‘A Prehistory of the Cloud’. This event led to classifying the telecoms network as a critical national asset, due to its role in civilian and military defence. It also began efforts that continue to this day to build a communications network that cannot be brought down by terrorism, natural calamity, hackers or a combination of these three.

Technological developments and innovations over the past decade or two have led to the creation of networks among networks. A metro operator has its private network or cloud, whose certain sections, albeit invisible and location-less, will have to link with the networks of the interior ministry and the transport agency, which are usually part of a supra-network that links all government agencies. In parallel, all these agencies and their employees deal with suppliers whose networks have to be interconnected to the government agencies’ networks one way or the other.

This means the internets, a gaffe committed by a former US president, are actually a reality. There are private and public networks, both of which are used for productive and criminal activities alike.

Hu also argues that the civilian cloud and its applications closely resemble military and defence applications. For instance, targeted online marketing with its ‘hits’ or click-throughs actually and quite rightly mimic standard military and warfare operations.

The irony is that while the digital spin-off of the rail industry has evolved dramatically over the past few decades, the rail and transport industry in general did not evolve just as quickly. For example, New York’s Metro Transport Authority, which maintains assets worth $1tn, is struggling to develop a big data strategy to improve its overall operational efficiency.

However, the past few years have yielded several major innovations that promise to improve the way people and goods are being moved, with the US’ Uber and the UAE’s Careem being prime examples. Apart from these apps being cool and convenient, they address huge inter-related issues such as traffic congestion and asset utilisation efficiency while creating new revenue models. Other major innovations include driverless cars that promise to reshape the industry and keep regulators widely awake in terms of reassigning accountability and risks, and agencies responsible for infrastructure development to rethink funding models. 

Apart from these, there are many other innovations such as payments systems, contract management, intelligent traffic management and asset management, among others, that promise to help improve the overall economic contribution of existing transport assets while ensuring safer roads and sustainability objectives are met.

The region’s transport sector is ripe for changes brought by increased innovation.