CIO interview - Deutsche Bahn builds central IT platform for change

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth December 5, 2023
Deutsche Bahn is stepping up its efforts for centralized change to be more sustainable, digital and reliable

An image of Dorothée Appel, CIO for Corporate IT Management & Services at Deutsche Bahn
(Image sourced via Deutsche Bahn)

Stand on a railway platform and look down the line, and you can see a complex series of interconnections. Each of the two rails is connected by sleepers, and then there are signals, gauges, power lines, sidings, and rolling stock. A railway is, therefore, totally dependent on interconnection. A rail business has to operate those interconnections effectively to provide customer services, enable employees to do their jobs and allow the business to operate. To do that efficiently in 2023 means being a digital rail operator. Dorothée Appel, CIO for Corporate IT Management & Services at Deutsche Bahn, has joined the state-owned German firm to deliver that interconnection.

Deutsche Bahn is Europe’s largest rail operator and provides a full range of rail services across Germany including local, freight and its high-speed ICE services that connect Germany’s major cities, as well as those of neighbouring nations. Deutsche Bahn is a matrix of businesses, providing train travel, rail infrastructure, an energy firm, consulting and its own technology company.

Platform change

Appel joined Deutsche Bahn in April 2023 as CIO for its corporate management operations, which is the holding company for the various Deutsche Bahn entities. She says of her remit: 

I am responsible for over 450 IT applications within this area. These applications range from local applications in the legal department to Group-wide applications for all entities of Deutsche Bahn, such as procurement, accounting, HR management or payroll. I am also responsible for the SAP-based platforms for the maintenance of rail and road vehicles. 

Another important area of responsibility is the management of IT end devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones for the whole group and the basic software equipment for these devices. This also includes the services from the Office 365 portfolio and other IT platforms used throughout the Group, like API management.

Some of these applications can have 6000 simultaneous users. As Deutsche Bahn plans for its future, Appel is leading the development of a platform to increase connectivity within the holding company; she says: 

If you travel from Munich to Hamburg, there are many processes involved, and we are building a platform to digitize processes so there are not as many hand-overs.

As a consequence, many upstream and downstream processes need to be connected so that both employees and customers do not experience process breaks, which then result in service delays. This is why we are building a platform inside of Corporate Management IT to digitally connect processes across our network of different partners.

Corporate management may not sound very exciting, but the procurement systems, for example, are absolutely critical to the success of our core operating business: driving trains and buses.

As CIO Appel says, she is currently modelling the many process changes, including the data that is and will be generated by this programme of work. She says this will also help Deutsche Bahn respond to failures in the network, such as a signal breaking down. 

Germany is a diverse country in terms of landscapes and economy, and Appel is factoring this in, she says: 

You should never aim at 100% standardization; you need clear standards, but there are local reasons that mean you may need to opt for different speeds of change, for example. 

In six months, I’m really in the learning stages, and it is a really complex organization.

Deutsche Bahn’s own technology business DB Systel, will be one of Appel’s most important partners in this transformation. Appel says:

DB Systel offers a full range of services from planning and implementation to the operation of IT applications. We also procure additional IT specialists via this internal service provider in order to keep procurement efforts at a minimum. It is very tightly coordinated with good contract frameworks in place, so it works very efficiently.

Deutsche Bahn is currently migrating its SAP estate across to the SAP S/4HANA platform to modernise its core technology and, like many, is looking at the role artificial intelligence (AI) will have on its business. Appel adds: 

In a decentralized organization like Deutsche Bahn, various departments have been looking into the potential of AI, each in relation to the use cases of the individual specific departments. This was the right way to quickly pick up speed and develop the topic of AI without any major hurdles. We are currently working on bundling and aligning them technologically. 

We have established a central AI department called “AI Factory”, which works with DB Systel and the various departments to bundle AI topics and initiatives, to set standards and to share knowledge. Deutsche Bahn generally handles large volumes of data, which is why we see great potential in AI technologies.  We are already using AI successfully in some specific applications, such as train scheduling or predictive maintenance. But this is just the beginning.

Deutsche Bahn has come in for criticism of late for train delays, and the CIO doesn’t skirt these: 

We do have some punctuality issues, and the task is to restructure our infrastructure and digitize it to deal with these issues, that is a huge task which is important to society. I don’t own a car, so I do experience these issues myself.

Appel describes the digitization of rail as a generational issue as she believes rail is a vital component in tackling the climate emergency, as Germany seeks to move more passenger and freight transport away from roads and onto rail. She says: 

That was the core reason I thought this was the right place to be as a CIO, as the purpose makes sense. For Germany to meet its CO2 reduction targets, everything has to scale up, so we have to scale up the core IT.

Appel joined Deutsche Bahn from major Dutch financial services provider ABN AMRO, where she was CIO for retail and business banking for over two years, her second banking role, having been IT COO for fellow Dutch bank ING between 2016 and 2018 and CIO for insurance firm Zurich Group in Germany in between. On the face of it, these are very different sectors, but the CIO sees commonalities: 

Over the past 10 years, many different topics have been dealt with under the header of digitalization. In the beginning, we were primarily concerned with redesigning and automating processes across the various industries - the financial services sector and rail naturally have this in common. 

In the same way, we are all using the internet and mobile applications, for example, to provide our customers with a new and much better customer experience. Without a doubt, I brought this experience with me to the rail.

In the financial services industry in the Netherlands, I have strongly dived into the topic of sustainable IT – now I have the chance to put this expertise into action to significantly increase passenger and freight transport.

My take 

In the sustainable business debate, some are not sure where and when CIOs should take the lead. Appel and Deutsche Bahn’s story shows how technology and technology leadership are a foundation (alongside many other initiatives) to make businesses less environmentally damaging. However, as Appel reveals, this often means a wholesale modernization of the technology estate in order to move to a new operating method. In tandem, challenges around investment levels and customer expectations remain in place. 

As a regular user of the Deutsche Bahn service, I see the challenges it faces, but also that the core service is streets ahead of many other nations, so I will be watching this transformation and its timetable with keen interest. 

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