How is the rail industry protecting itself against cyber criminals?

The challenges of digitalisation

Digitalisation of rail has been an ongoing conversation for years. To date, the focus has, in the most part, been on modernising the legacy systems that make up so much of our rail network. From the use of AI and sensors in infrastructure maintenance and state-of-the-art digital signalling to e-ticketing and personalized journey information for passengers, digitalisation has the potential to optimize networks and vastly improve the passenger experience. In a post-COVID world, technology and innovation have an increasingly important role to play as the industry bids to entice customers back on to its trains. Data sits at the heart of this strategy, forecasting demand, highlighting passenger need and ultimately accelerating change. But a focus on digitalization and data does bring a new set of challenges, none more prominent currently than an enhanced cybersecurity threat against the backdrop of serious geo-political instability.

A steady and significant increase in cyber-attacks

We have already witnessed cyber breaches on the network across Europe. In January, activist hackers attacked Belarusian rail services to disrupt the movement of Russian troops into Ukraine, while in March Italy's railway was targeted by cyber criminals causing a temporary suspension to its network and delays in particular to freight transfer. While the UK is yet to fall victim to a large-scale cyber-attack, the potential threat is increasing and rail is not alone. A report from the ICO earlier this year signified a steady and significant increase in attacks made against UK organisations over the past two years. Almost every industry is being targeted by cyber criminals and are having to increase their defences as a result.

Live departure updates from Zipabout

The impact of a cyber-attack could vary hugely on an industry like rail, from massive scale network outages to smaller timetable glitches. Information services, such as the communication of train positions, could be a key target and would likely cause widespread disruption for travellers across the UK. That's why Zipabout launched our QR codes this Spring to enable passengers to maintain access to live departure times and journey updates should a cyber-attack cause station screens go dark.

Personalised travel information via QR codes

Scanning the QR codes connects passengers via Messenger to National Rail Enquiries or a local train operator and provides them with personalised travel information without the need to use another app or website. The service will also shortly be available on WhatsApp and SMS in order to spread the load across multiple different communication channels and, in the case of SMS, include a route for information which crucially doesn't rely on global social media platforms.

QR code packs for every UK rail station

Since the pandemic, QR codes have become well recognised and are a simple but effective tool to keep passengers updated if their usual sources of information, such as station screens or operator websites, go down. It's a quick way of accessing real-time rail journey information, including, for example, the next three trains leaving the station to a chosen destination, disruption alerts and multi-leg planning. We've made the QR code packs available to all rail operator clients, including EMR and LNER, for every UK station, to give passengers the travel information they need in an event of a cyber-attack on rail information systems. The full list of UK station QR codes are also available on the Zipabout website here.

Zipabout: providing passengers with the confidence to travel

Providing passengers with the confidence to travel independently is core to what we believe in at Zipabout. Using personalised information services, our technology aims to create a better experience for railway users and operators alike. This includes enabling the delivery of real-time information tailored to individual passenger needs, as well as incentives and rewards to encourage sustainable behavioral change. While we know QR codes cannot protect against cyber attacks themselves, our hope – should the screens go dark in a railway station – is that passengers can continue on with their journey, or have the confidence in knowing where to go to find updated journey information.

Alex Froom is CEO of Zipabout, who are designing the future of transport where each journey is personalised, by partnering with transport leaders, government, and event organisations to provide a better, safer journey experience for all.