Technology Focus series: The Impact of Blockchain systems on rail

A blockchain is a “secure by design” distributed digital ledger, or distributed database, which is used to record transactions in a peer-to-peer network in a permanent and verifiable way. Each record is called a block, contains a timestamp, and a link to a previous block in the chain. 

The entire blockchain is itself stored on every node/computer on the network and grows in a synchronised way: this ensures that the data in any given block cannot be altered without a modification of all blocks created and stored in the network since the transaction considered. Blockchains are usually public and encrypted, using public/private keys, and cryptographic hash functions to perform “proof-of-work”. This means that all participants contribute to the computational power needed to validate new blocks and maintain the system, and that a potential hacker or attacker would have, to be successful, to spend a computational power equivalent to all the computational power mobilised by the network since the recording of the block attacked, and would have to subvert more than half of all computers on the network.

Railway asset management is likely to be the biggest application of blockchain technology, with the facilitated and decentralised recording and consultation of asset data across parties. The efficient maintenance of rolling stock and infrastructure components is one likely other area of impact. Blockchain offers a way to store information about a component that includes its purchase origin, every occasion when it has been handled and by whom. Scheduled maintenance events can be recorded in the blockchain. Blockchain has also some potential for the monitoring of the carbon footprint of railway components, all throughout the supply chain. Finally, as in other industries, blockchain technology is likely to transform smart ticketing. Among identified potential benefits: elimination of all back-office costs, flexibility of payment time and location, personal data privacy, transparent transaction information, low transaction fees, reduced fraud, easier compensation to passengers, simplified ticket fee structure. However, it should be noted that blockchain technology presents some disruptive characteristics for the smart card technologies currently deployed or developed by the rail industry.

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