Silvia Roldán

Photo: Silvia Roldán, CEO of Metro de Madrid. Credit: Courtesy of the interviewee.

By Sergio López 

When the world came to a standstill, society realized the importance of some of those services that had always been there and were suddenly difficult to continue. Food, commercial shipping and transportation were some of them. In the case of the latter, dealing with its difficulties was a challenge, as people had to keep getting around under totally different conditions. COVID-19 was compounded by other unexpected difficulties, such as the collapse caused by storm Filomena or the rise in energy prices, which have been taking place over the course of the three years that Silvia Roldán, CEO of Metro de Madrid, has been in office. While dealing with these situations that put to the test the most widely used means of transport in the capital (1.3 million users a day), this industrial engineer with a 20-year career in the sector has led an ambitious digital transformation process that has led Metro de Madrid to incorporate the Internet of Things (IoT) in its trains and stations and to reduce its energy consumption. 

Innovation is not only reflected in digitalization and the use of technologies. What strategy has Metro de Madrid applied to adapt to all the changes that have taken place? 

We have gone to an open space work model, in which we seek a collaborative environment and synergies between the different areas. Despite initial reluctance, it is proving to be a success. Sometimes, in public companies there is a tendency to work in separate departments, what we sometimes call Taifa Kingdoms. We have been able to create more flexible, cross-cutting structures that have given us agility. 

“Sometimes, in public companies there is a tendency to work in separate departments”

This agility was seen during the easing of lockdown. We were very concerned because we were going from almost no passengers to a relative return to activity where we wanted to avoid overcrowded trains in the context of the pandemic. One day, while I was waiting in the queue where they made you wait at the entrance of the supermarket, I phoned Isaac [Centellas, head of Engineering and Maintenance at Metro de Madrid] and said, “I've had an idea”. 

It seemed impossible to do something like this in a mass public transport system, but working as a team we started to see solutions: similar experiences in other countries, access, and capacity control systems that we could adapt… Within a month we had a capacity control system deployed in the metro, followed by an application with real-time information. In short, this is possible because of synergies and because you can rely on your entire team. I don't consider myself the best engineer in the world; what I want is to have the best engineers on my team. 

Metro de Madrid is carrying out a program called Station 4.0, with which it is incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) and IoT to its facilities. What does it consist of? 

The so-called Station 4.0 is part of something broader that we have dubbed Smart Rail, the plan that defines our digitalization strategy. Actually, I don't really like to call it a strategy, but rather a natural evolution, because, if I look back, digital transformation has been around since I've been in the rail industry.  

Smart Rail has two visible parts: the Station 4.0 and the T4.0. and the Digital Train, and three others that are not visible to users: the data processing center (DPC), the railNET telecommunications network and the Operational Coordination Center (OCCC). 

Station 4.0 seeks to deploy IoT in stations to improve the traveler experience and the efficiency of our equipment. We want users to be able to access our facilities in a simpler, more intuitive way, with real-time information available to them at all times. We launched the first pilot at Gran Vía station last July. 

How many stations has it already reached and when will it be extended to the entire metro? 

It has already been deployed in 11 stations and we are ready to continue deploying it in the rest gradually. Once the technical requirements have been established, what we will do are processes in public competition so that, based on these requirements and certifications, all the technological suppliers who wish to apply can present themselves.  

It must be understood that when works are carried out at a station there is a significant impact on users, so it must be planned very well. We have several plans simultaneously, such as station renovation and new signaling; so, the day we close a station to undertake works, everything is done, including the adaptation to Station 4.0. 

What is the Digital Train about? 

It means knowing more about what is happening on the train to improve operation and passenger information. The idea is to have predictive maintenance. It is based on IoT technology and uses the sensorization of all the elements of the train to anticipate incidents. For example, when a motor tends to fail, there are peaks in its energy consumption. If we monitor the motors and analyze the consumption curves with a series of algorithms, we anticipate the error. To be able to do this, improvements in communication systems have been essential since this type of train-to-ground communication has significant bandwidth requirements. 

I imagine that these improvements in communications to which you are referring are the same ones that have made it possible to extend telephone coverage to the subway stations that did not yet have it. 

Yes, and this is something I would like to emphasize. There is mobile coverage throughout our network. It is a project that came to an end last summer, but with all the changes that have taken place in the context of the pandemic, I think it has not been given the importance it deserves. Today it is possible to move throughout our infrastructure while maintaining permanent telephone communication.  

You mentioned earlier that Station 4.0 seeks to speed up access to the facilities. Are you considering the possibility of paying directly with a bank card at the turnstiles, as is already the case in other transportation systems? 

That is one of the upcoming projects. We are working together with the Regional Transport Consortium of Madrid so that all public transport in the Community can be paid by bank card, but without stopping the use of the public transport card (TTP), which is fundamental for us. 

Payment by bank card in Metro implies a challenge, since we need to create a toll system at the entrance and exit of the facilities, with an individual ticket for each traveler. This system is necessary for each user to pay according to the fare zones they have traveled through, but, once we have it in place, it will serve for much more, such as having a real-time identification of the origin-destination matrixes and the trips made by each user. With this data, we will have a more agile Metro when it comes to adjusting supply to demand, and we will also have a better understanding of the user profile in each time zone. 

Metro's 1.3 million daily passengers represent a huge volume of data. How does Metro guarantee security in a context with so much sensitive information? 

Here we come to those three less visible aspects: the DPC, the CECOR and RailNET. We are finishing work on our new DPC in Canillejas, where we are going to centralize the operating systems to better manage cybersecurity. It is entirely owned by Metro de Madrid. This is a debate that is everywhere: “Owned or outsourced?” We did a detailed study in economic and technical terms, and we saw that we had the physical space, access to FEDER funds, but what mattered most was that we are a critical infrastructure and that the information we handle is also critical.   

“We are a critical infrastructure and that the information we handle is also critical”

On the other hand, there is the new CECOR. Here we have merged the command center, which is, so to speak, the heart of Metro, with the Center for Maintenance Operations and Monitoring of Installations and Communications (COMMIT), where all the incidents we have in the facilities are received. By unifying them, we can deploy maintenance and action processes in a much faster way. Finally, there is railNET, which involves the renovation of our communications network so that there is sufficient broadband train-to-ground communication to connect all the elements we have mentioned. 

Rising energy prices are posing a challenge for all transport companies. Is reducing energy consumption part of your strategy?  

Undoubtedly, we can say that at the moment the main challenge facing Metro de Madrid is the rise in electricity prices. Metro de Madrid is the main consumer of electricity in the Community of Madrid, so energy efficiency has become a key part of our management. For this reason, the implementation of savings and efficiency plans is of enormous importance, with which we have reduced consumption by more than 25%. 

“The main challenge facing Metro de Madrid is the rise in electricity prices.”

How are these plans progressing? 

The debate that is going on about how energy is managed in Metro de Madrid is not taking place in technical terms. Metro de Madrid is a sustainable mode of transport. It has always been 100% electric and, since 2018, one of the principles that this company has had is efficiency: minimizing consumption and dependence. Before 2017, we consumed 715 million kWh per year. Today we are at 600 kWh per year. To achieve this, many things have been done. For example, replacing all the lighting with LED lighting or improving the operating system. The trains run with economical gears, and we are able to reuse energy, as we have recovery cells and accumulators to take advantage of the energy of the trains when they use regenerative braking.   

Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition.