The people behind the wheel: Emilien Dang’s story, Rail Baltica (Global Railway Review)

For the latest edition of Global Railway Review’s ‘The People Behind the Wheel’ series, Emilien Dang, Chief Technical Officer and Management Board member at RB Rail AS, shares his insights on railways, engineering, and managing megaprojects.

With 25 years in the railway industry, Emilien discusses his journey and achievements, including his role in the Rail Baltica project. He highlights how this unique project spans Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, connecting to Poland and indirectly to Finland, and the challenges of managing such a large-scale endeavor. Emilien also reflects on the significance of Rail Baltica for the Baltic nations and his personal satisfaction in seeing railway infrastructure projects positively impact people’s lives.

We invite you to read the full interview, published in Global Railway Review, on our website.

Can you tell us a bit about your role at Rail Baltica?

I am the Chief Technical Officer (CTO) and a Member of the Management Board at RB Rail, the joint venture established by Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to lead and co-ordinate the implementation of the Rail Baltica Global Project. I would like to stress that it is the largest infrastructure development project ever undertaken in the Baltic region.

Emilien Dang

Rail Baltica is a greenfield infrastructure project that uniquely involves three countries directly – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – while also connecting to Poland and indirectly to Finland. Unlike other cross-border transport infrastructure projects typically managed by two countries, Rail Baltica’s multinational co-operation is unprecedented. Being part of this project is both a privilege and a significant responsibility, given its profound importance to the region beyond its economic potential.

For the Baltic nations, Rail Baltica means a re-integration into the European standard gauge railway network. This connection, which existed during their independence years before World War II, holds deep symbolic meaning signifying their re-joining of the European community not just economically, but also in terms of infrastructure.

Rail Baltica aims to establish a modern and sustainable rail link spanning approximately 900km, equipped with state-of-the-art ERTMS technology. This project will greatly enhance regional connectivity, promote economic growth and strengthen environmental sustainability within the Baltic region and across the EU.

As part of the trans-European transport corridor, Rail Baltica forms a crucial component of the north-south transport axis. It plays a significant role in various sectors including military mobility, environmental sustainability, transport corridor synergies and the overall impact on the supply chain in both the Baltic region and the EU.

As the CTO, I, along with four other Management Board members, am responsible for RB Rail’s day-to-day management. My role specifically involves managing all technical aspects of the global Rail Baltica project in co-operation with national beneficiaries, which include the three Baltic ministries responsible for the project’s implementation, implementing bodies and key external stakeholders. This includes overseeing the technical aspects of studies, design and construction of the high-speed railway line, setting the technical requirements for the project, and conducting reviews to ensure the construction adheres to these requirements.

What inspired you to seek a career in the transport industry?

I would say that my entry into the transport industry was a result of chance. When I graduated at the end of the 90s, there was no dedicated curriculum for the transport industry in France. At that time, my main personal motivation was to go abroad, travel and explore the world. Specifically, I was keen on moving to the U.S. East Coast.

Having graduated from one of the top engineering schools in France, I seized the opportunity for a job based in Philadelphia through the CSNE programme (Cooperation du Service National à l’Étranger), working for Alstom as a test and commissioning engineer for the ACELA high-speed trains on the AMTRAK Northeast Corridor. The decision was influenced more by the location than by the industry itself.

Now, 25 years later, I am still in the railway business, which has provided me amazing opportunities to live in Australia, Qatar, New York City, France and now Riga. This demonstrates the fascinating nature of our industry and the numerous opportunities it offers, especially for those interested in international experiences.

Setting aside personal anecdotes, what has inspired me to pursue a career in the transport industry is the significant impact our projects can have on people’s daily lives – an impact I have witnessed first-hand as I typically stay with my projects until commissioning. Additionally, over the past decade, I believe the urgency of climate change has made the sustainable and environmental aspects of the railway industry increasingly important and motivating.

Have you experienced any challenges in your role and, if yes, how have you overcome them?

As I mentioned earlier, Rail Baltica is a megaproject implemented by three countries where high-speed rail has not existed before. Inevitably, working on a greenfield project of such scale presents various challenges that we must navigate. One significant challenge is managing a project that crosses multiple borders. Co-ordinating across different regulatory frameworks, cultural norms and administrative processes requires a delicate balance of diplomacy and strategic alignment.

The decision-making process in such a large-scale infrastructure project can be complex. With multiple stakeholders involved, each with their own priorities and perspectives, achieving consensus can be challenging. This requires close co-operation between all project partners and a consensus-oriented mindset.

Building expertise in high-speed rail technologies in a region with limited previous experience is also a formidable task. This encompasses system assurance, system engineering and operational considerations specific to high-speed railways. Given the lack of local professional competencies in some of these areas, we have assembled a strong professional team that includes not only Baltic professionals, but also experts from many other European and international countries. These team members bring valuable international experience from large infrastructure projects, contributing their expertise to Rail Baltica.

Has a career in rail changed your perception of the industry as a whole?

I would say that the general perception of the railway industry from a young graduate’s perspective might sometimes be that it is not as ‘glamorous’ as other sectors such as Aeronautics, IT, high tech, or new tech.

From the inside, however, there are many aspects that are quite technically advanced, such as high-speed trains and driverless technology, along with R&D innovations including artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data. The introduction of digital solutions is enhancing the perception of railways as modern and innovative, particularly from an engineer’s point of view.

As a citizen, one of the most striking changes in perception – or the rise in perception – is the wide socio-economic benefits that railway projects bring to society. In countries where a high-speed rail network has been developed, it has completely changed the way people live. We now think in terms of journey time rather than distance, and many people use high-speed rail for commuting. Railway projects fulfil a mission of connecting people, promoting social equity, and especially in Europe, fostering nation-building and European community integration.

The Rail Baltica project also has a key geopolitical dimension. Furthermore, over the past 25 years, my personal awareness of the urgency of climate change has grown. I believe the railway industry has a crucial role to play in addressing the environmental challenges we face today.

What would be the top three highlights of your career in the industry to date?

Maybe not so much as a top three in terms of professional highlights, but in terms of how profoundly they left a personal mark on me, I would mention these:

Working on the CTRL and being part of the commissioning of the line. You always remember your first love. The CTRL, Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now known as High Speed 1 or HS1), is a high-speed railway in the UK connecting London to the Channel Tunnel. At the time, I was a Test and Commissioning Engineer for the systems. The project was of immense importance as a megaproject, encompassing international collaboration, the latest high-speed rail technology in the UK after decades without new railways, engineering excellence and iconic features like St Pancras. Being part of the commissioning team and witnessing the first train running at 300km/h, and later seeing how it boosted connectivity between Paris, London and Brussels, was extremely rewarding. It made me feel that my work was meaningful. As a young engineer, I learned so much alongside experienced professionals from SNCF, Network Rail and contracting companies, knowledge that I still apply in railway projects today.

The Doha Metro Project, where I served as Project Manager for Signalling Systems. It was a megaproject comprising three lines and 37 stations launched simultaneously. The image that sticks with me is the first driverless test runs and organising VIP rides on the inaugural section. The excitement (and pressure) surrounding this milestone, as the culmination of so much hard work, was truly thrilling.

And finally, this personal career highlight is not a megaproject, but rather a smaller-scale one that holds a special place in my heart for a specific memory. In 2007, I worked for the organisation responsible for project and construction management of the Light Rail Project in Le Mans, France. It was the city’s first modern transport system at the time. As the person responsible for commissioning the project, I will always remember the excitement of the children in the primary school playground when they witnessed the first dynamic test of the new tramway. One of the most motivating aspects of our job is how we impact the daily lives of people.

What key pieces of advice would you give to someone who is interested in a career in rail?

Reflecting on my experience, I would emphasise the wealth of knowledge and passion among seasoned professionals in our industry – lessons that one often cannot find in textbooks. Take the time to learn from these experts.

Simultaneously, embrace the current wave of innovation in our field. Don’t hesitate to be ‘disruptive’ and advocate for new ideas and technologies.

How do you see innovation shaping your role and the rail industry in the next five years?

The impact of innovation on current railway projects must be anticipated during construction. The infrastructure we build is intended to last for decades, much like existing railway lines that are over 100 years old. With sustainability in mind, we understand that we are building for the future. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to consider what innovations will bring to the table in five, 10 years, and aim for scalable systems wherever possible.

A key principle in developing a greenfield railway is the ability to streamline the integration of technology and systems from the outset, alongside the physical infrastructure. This approach avoids the need to retrofit technologies post-commissioning. Rail Baltica thus presents a unique and valuable opportunity to implement a fully digital railway. This system will utilise a range of sensing technologies and prioritise data to enhance operational efficiency and maintenance practices, ultimately reducing costs and improving the overall passenger experience.

Currently, a Wayside Sensing & Systems Study is underway to analyse opportunities and provide recommendations for maximising the capabilities of the Rail Baltica infrastructure during both delivery and operation phases. This study extensively draws on European and global best practices for wayside sensing and monitoring systems, focusing on flexibility, innovation and digitalisation.

The study aims to inform the development of wayside sensing and monitoring systems, contributing to the Control, Command and Signalling (CCS) subsystem design and enterprise IT architecture of the Global Project. It seeks to optimise future railway operational infrastructure in two main areas: 1) Technologies and systems used for sensing and monitoring and 2) related investments and operational costs.

This is just an example of Rail Baltica, but the innovations in the rail industry that I have observed include several key advancements.

Firstly, autonomous trains are becoming a reality with significant progress in driverless technology. Advancements in sensors and control systems enable these trains to operate without human intervention, leading to safer, more efficient and cost-effective rail operations.

Secondly, smart infrastructure is transforming the maintenance and monitoring of rail systems. Predictive maintenance, powered by IoT sensors and big data/AI, can forecast when maintenance is needed, preventing breakdowns and reducing downtime. Additionally, real-time monitoring innovations ensure that any issues with the rail infrastructure are promptly addressed, enhancing overall safety and reliability.

Energy efficiency is another critical area of innovation. The development of electric and hybrid trains is reducing reliance on fossil fuels and lowering emissions. Furthermore, regenerative braking technology captures the energy produced during braking and repurposes it to power the train, thereby increasing energy efficiency.

Suppose you were tasked with solving one of the biggest challenges in the rail industry today using cutting-edge technology. What challenge would you address, and what innovative solution would you propose?

One of the biggest challenges in the rail industry today is ensuring safety and reliability while minimising downtime due to maintenance issues. Unexpected failures in rail infrastructure and rolling stock components often lead to significant delays, operational disruptions and safety hazards. Traditional maintenance practices, which are largely reactive or based on fixed schedules, can be inefficient and may not prevent unforeseen breakdowns.

To address this challenge, cutting-edge technology can be leveraged to develop predictive maintenance and Smart Monitoring Systems. By utilising Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, AI-powered predictive analytics and digital twins, these systems can transform maintenance practices in the rail industry. This innovative solution ensures safety and reliability while minimising downtime, ultimately leading to a more efficient and resilient rail network.

The solution involves equipping trains and rail infrastructure with a network of IoT sensors to monitor key parameters in real-time, such as vibration, temperature, pressure and wear. These sensors continuously gather data to track the condition of various components, including wheels, axles, tracks and signalling equipment. An AI-powered analytics platform then analyses the collected data using predictive algorithms to forecast when components are likely to fail or require maintenance. Pattern recognition helps identify early signs of wear and potential issues before they escalate into significant problems.

Digital twins, which are virtual replicas of trains and infrastructure, play a crucial role in this system. These simulation models allow for scenario testing to predict the impact of different maintenance strategies, optimising schedules and resources. Automated maintenance scheduling further enhances efficiency by dynamically scheduling maintenance activities based on the predictive analytics output, ensuring timely interventions and optimising the allocation of maintenance crews and resources.

A centralised monitoring dashboard provides real-time visualisation of the health status of trains and infrastructure. This dashboard also includes automated alerts and notifications for maintenance teams and operators when potential issues are detected, ensuring prompt action.

The implementation steps for this system could include starting with a pilot programme in collaboration with ERJU in a select segment of the rail network to test and refine the predictive maintenance system. Integrating the IoT sensors with existing systems and establishing a robust data pipeline for continuous data collection and analysis is essential. Collaboration with data scientists and engineers to develop and fine-tune the predictive algorithms, followed by training maintenance staff and operators on the new system, will facilitate a gradual roll-out across the entire network. Continuous monitoring of the system’s performance, gathering feedback and making improvements will enhance accuracy and reliability.

In Rail Baltica, innovation and sustainability studies have been launched to explore the deployment of sensor technology along the project’s infrastructure and the potential for building a ‘digital native’ railway. The systems design for Rail Baltica is at a relatively early stage, with many decisions ahead and numerous opportunities to integrate sensor data, whether real-time, near real-time, or bulk data.

In an ideal world, how do you envision the future of rail evolving?

In an ideal world, I envision rail transport as a highly efficient, sustainable, environmentally responsible and customer-centric mode of transportation. This transformation would leverage cutting-edge technology to meet the demands of modern society, ensuring seamless, hassle-free travel for passengers.

Rail travel would emulate the airplane travel model, providing a seamless experience for customers in terms of ticketing, connections and baggage handling. International interoperability from a technological standpoint would be paramount, enabling smooth cross-border travel, particularly within Europe. This vision of rail transport would integrate advanced systems for real-time tracking, predictive maintenance and energy efficiency, creating a network that is both reliable and eco-friendly.

The future of rail would also prioritise passenger comfort and convenience, offering streamlined services that rival the efficiency and ease of air travel. By adopting these innovations, rail transport can become a preferred choice for both short and long-distance journeys, promoting greater connectivity and sustainability worldwide.