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Technology

Master scheduler: Toshiba harnesses AI for delay-free trains

Schedule-optimizing service to roll out in UK, with other transport to follow

The complex British rail network is split across several operators, making it harder to plan timetables by hand.   © Reuters

BERLIN -- Toshiba has developed a service that uses artificial intelligence to draw up train schedules that minimize delays -- a boon for operators dealing with the busy, complex networks in such countries as the U.K.

The technology analyzes such factors as track conditions, train specifications and time spent stopped at stations to come up with improved timetables. Toshiba says its tests found that the AI can reduce the risk of delays by more than 10%. The technology can also be applied to other forms of transportation, such as ships and buses.

The Japanese conglomerate recently won a contract from British train operator Greater Anglia, which looks to come out with new schedules next May. The company serves much of southeast England, including London and its suburbs, carrying 350,000 passengers per day across 180 stations.

Customers will pay a portion of profit gains from reduced delays to Toshiba as compensation. Group company Toshiba Digital & Consulting targets a total of 15 billion yen ($140 million) in revenue by fiscal 2023.

Train timetables are generally crafted by highly skilled veterans. But the U.K. and Japan both have rail networks divided up among a complex web of operators, meaning that employee know-how can go only so far.

The U.K. implemented a major overhaul of train schedules last year that led to widespread delays. Even now, trains there sometimes fail to operate on time because of the mix of old and new rolling stock in operation. The government fines operators that experience excessive delays, providing another avenue for potential savings through Toshiba's technology.

Toshiba anticipates demand from small and midsize rail companies worldwide. The company plans to develop similar services for air travel and land and maritime shipping, and looks to eventually incorporate data from mobility services as well.

Toshiba's profits have languished since the spinoff of its lucrative memory chip operations, but it hopes to mount a comeback through infrastructure-related digital services like this one. The company is the world's third-largest filer of AI-related patents, behind only IBM and Microsoft, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization.

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