What is a digital twin and is your rail network ready to deploy one?

PostedWillow Team

Traditionally the rail sector has been slow to embrace digital innovation, but that’s evolving fast. The use of digital twins to unlock data is rapidly streamlining rail networks across the globe. But what exactly are they? Here we address common questions and misconceptions about digital twins for rail and help you assess your readiness to implement a digital twin.

Firstly, what is a digital twin for rail?

If you’re unsure, you’re not alone. The term ‘digital twin’ means different things to different people and in different industries. Having developed a twin platform specifically for the rail industry, here’s how we describe it at Willow:

WillowTwin™ for Rail centralizes and structures data from multiple rail systems to create a digital replica of your physical rail network.

By aggregating and normalizing live, static and spatial data from across your rail network, our digital twin platform provides a single source of truth to enable previously unseen insights.

As a result, the digital twin empowers people to make intelligent asset management decisions in real time to deliver benefits of improved track availability and reliability, increased safety, and reduced OPEX costs.

What challenges do digital twins overcome?

Rail networks are typically run using dozens of disparate systems with little or no integration between them, resulting in siloed data and many manual and analog processes.

Owners, operators, and asset managers are left to connect the dots on their own, often making critical decisions based on incomplete or out-of-date information. This issue is escalating as the proliferation of connected devices, cloud computing and digital sensors create an explosion in data.

Digital twins offer an integrated, structured, and automated way to analyze and view data that is accessible and decipherable by any decision makers in your organization from head office to the track team.

What are the misconceptions about digital twins?

What are the misconceptions about digital twins?

They offer a silver bullet

Simply investing in more software without a real understanding of both your rail network operations and digital maturity will not solve your core issues. Success relies on the three pillars of people, processes, and technology. Software is only one piece of the puzzle.

They are fancy 3D models

While spatial data can be enormously valuable, the perception that digital twins let you ‘fly’ around your assets is oversold. They do deliver a user-friendly and accessible way to visualize and use data to make informed decisions, but 3D rendering is only part of the picture.

They undermine your existing IT investment

A common misconception is that digital twins are expensive, complex, and require you to scrap legacy systems. On the contrary, they leverage and unlock data from your existing IT infrastructure as a layer over the top that extracts, integrates, and visualizes your data.

They require perfect data and sensors everywhere

There is a view that you need to have flawless data and real-time sensors across your network to make digital twins work. While sensors add to the model, the raw data you already have can deliver significant benefits and cost savings that build up over time.

Readiness assessment: Are you ready for digital twins?

In markets across Australia, Europe, and North America, digital twins have been used successfully for rail networks that are manual and traditional, as well as for operations that are more progressive and digitally mature.

If your rail network has analog processes or aging legacy systems, you’ll likely be more ready than you think. Simply unlocking, digitizing, and aggregating the ad-hoc data you already have delivers quick and big wins.

If your network is more digitally mature, you will be in a position to progress further down the path in terms of process automation and optimization.

Route to value

Regardless of the starting point, the objective is to progress over time from an experience-based approach using an ad-hoc dataset, all the way through to a model-based approach that uses digital automation and intelligence.

Route to value

While WillowTwin™ for Rail is technology agnostic and plays nicely with your existing technology, one of the most important elements you need for a successful digital twin deployment is a commitment by management for transformation and change.

While we can guide you on the journey including design, deployment, training, and ongoing optimization, we need an internal business and technology champion to help advocate and lead change across internal stakeholders.

What are the steps to deploying a digital twin?

1. Establish: Exactly what assets do you have?

While it seems simple, the first step is to implement your digital twin to catalog all your existing assets and data, and monitor current performance to gain a holistic view of your physical network.

2. Extend: How are they performing?

Next, the digital twin starts to track the quality, condition, and historical behavior of physical assets, using analytics to find behavioral anomalies and operational insights.

3. Intelligence: How could they be optimized?

Armed with real-life data, you can run scenarios and predict future states across rail systems. This will help you to optimize maintenance schedules, moving towards predictive maintenance where potential faults are addressed before they occur so you can escape the disruptive break-and-fix cycle.

4. Evolve: What’s the future?

For long-term management and maintenance, digital twins deliver major ROI over time. Using machine learning, artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, and modeling across all data sources allows you to continuously evolve the network to maximize availability, safety, reliability, and efficiency.

What are the key considerations when starting your digital twin journey?

According to research published in an article by McKinsey, 70% of CEOs are exploring and investing in digital twins, with investment in them forecast to exceed $48 billion by 2026 – a 58% compound annual growth rate.

So with digital twins becoming mainstream, along with any number of software platforms promising to integrate data across assets, how do you get set up for an effective digital twin in the rail sector?

World-class software and data management is essential, however there are a few key questions to ask when assessing digital twin technology platforms and implementation partners for rail:

– Does the provider have deep rail expertise? To transform a rail network, you need the team that designs, develops and supports the platform to understand the day-to-day challenges of operating lightrail, metro, trams, freight and heavy haul rail networks.
– Do they have a global ecosystem and partners to meet your long-term needs such as scalability, security, customisation and integration?
– Can they demonstrate proven results in the rail industry with live digital twin deployments and ROI statistics?
– Do you maintain ownership and control of your data or will it be locked into your software vendor’s platform?

As rail people, it’s important to work with other industry veterans who have the hands-on knowledge to speak your language and partner with you at both an operational and software level.

What are the benefits of an effective digital twin?

Digital network

View your rail network in a single platform to identify availability, punctuality, capacity, speed restrictions, interruptions, and deviations.

Actionable insights

View live data on asset condition, availability, and performance against historical data to identify potential issues for investigation and action through ticketing workflows.

Predictive maintenance

Predict faults and monitor equipment without human intervention through advanced algorithms and comprehensive live and historic data on asset conditions.

Corrective ticketing

Create, triage, assign and track faults through their lifecycle with complete access to asset data, decreasing total time to restore and improve visibility for all stakeholders.

Preventative maintenance

Perform maintenance on an ‘as required’ basis, driven directly by live data on asset health, reducing fixed maintenance costs and providing operational flexibility in maintenance.

Retain and build knowledge

Democratize data within your business so your domain knowledge, IP, and analytics are captured and not lost if key people move on.

Real-time data for decision making

Empower teams across the organization from senior executives to the on-site track worker with access to the information they need on their mobile devices to make informed decisions.

Performance dashboards

Publish up-to-date KPIs with root cause analysis to identify performance measures and enable the right actions and resources to optimize results and track targets.

What results can you expect from an effective digital twin?

Over many long-term partnerships with global railway operators, contractors and government infrastructure projects, Willow has demonstrated that digital twins can improve network availability, safety and reliability, all while lowering costs.

For example, WillowTwin™ for Rail was used to implement condition-based monitoring and predictive maintenance processes for a major passenger rail contractor in Europe.

The results were significant benefits in overall network performance:

– Improved network availability from 97% to >99%
– Reduced track geometry defects by up to 50%
– Cut routine maintenance costs by up to 20%

WillowTwin™ for Rail – Proven results

Attracting and retaining the right digital skills in the rail industry is a global challenge. By tapping into Willow’s specialist team and digital twin technology, your rail network can move faster to leverage data and set up a sustainable platform to unlock potential into the future.

The first step in the process of preparing for a digital twin is to assess and align your asset management and digital platform maturity. You can then tailor the digital twin to start there on the path to value. One size does not fit all.


To discover how you could benefit from WillowTwin™ for Rail, book a complementary digital twin readiness assessment.

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