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Time for the digital railway revolution

Atkins | 22 Mar 2016 | Comments

New thinking is needed to tackle the looming capacity crunch for railway systems around the world.

Passenger numbers on the UK rail network climbed to a record high in 2015 with travellers clocking up a record 1.6 billion journeys. Demand for rail shows no signs of slowing: at current growth rates, the journey total is set to hit the three billion mark within 15 years and those extra journeys – around 1.3 million per week – will need to be accommodated within the existing network.

Britain is not the only country where demand is on the rise. France and Germany are also witnessing growth, with passenger kilometres up around 20 per cent over the last ten years. Luxembourg, meanwhile, has seen the biggest increase, with demand rising by more than 60 per cent. To help cater for this, the French government is investing €15 billion in renewals and capacity upgrades, while Germany has earmarked €28 billion for rail modernisation over the next four years.

Birth of the digital railway

Catering for such an upsurge presents big challenges – how can operators set about squeezing more out of networks that are already stretched to the limit? Ambitious plans for new railways – from Crossrail and HS2 in the UK to the Tours-Bordeaux high speed line in France and Switzerland’s trans-Alpine Gotthard Base Tunnel – will ease the pressure but more needs to be done in the long term.

Shifting to a “digital railway” model could be the answer. The concept, developed by the UK’s rail infrastructure owner Network Rail, is a railway in which everything – from signalling to trains, infrastructure and ticketing – is managed digitally with the aim of boosting capacity, efficiency and the customer experience. And it has the capability to change the way railways are designed and planned around the world.

“It shakes to the core the existing working practices and methods that the industry has relied upon for the past 180 years,” says Ben Dunlop, director of Digital Railway at Atkins. “And it challenges almost every facet of the industry.”

According to Dunlop, delivering the digital railway is not only about new technology, but also new attitudes.

“The global rail industry struggles with innovation and rarely embraces technology quickly. It tends to stay with what it knows and keeps itself going based on its traditional thinking rather than looking to the future,” he says.

Signalling is a case in point. In addition to guaranteeing safety, signalling governs capacity. Yet most conventional signalling simply replicates the 19th century “block” system – the principle of distance separation between trains based on fixed geographical points. Because the speed of each individual train is not taken into account, gaps between trains on the same stretch of track are often much bigger than they need to be. The result is lost capacity.

This is not the only limitation. Conventional interlocking, the safety critical “brains” of the railway, cannot easily be re-purposed to meet changing needs. This will increase the costs of implementing the next generation of signalling known as European Rail Traffic Management System/ European Train Control System (ERTMS/ETCS) Level 2 – a high-performance digital system that will soon be standard for new schemes.

“Generally, the signalling technology we have today is late 20th century at best – most of it is far older. It hasn’t really moved on,” says Dunlop. “If you think about the speed at which digital data, software and microprocessors have evolved, and what you can do now compared to what you could do then, we’re miles apart.”

Delivering the digital railway

Intelligent signalling is urgently needed. In the UK, Atkins worked with Network Rail’s heads of signalling to pinpoint exactly what was essential: “They gave us a list of requirements. We then set about identifying and developing a suitable interlocking product to navigate into the UK market. That product is now ready,” says Dunlop.

The new interlocking module differs from its predecessors in a number of important ways. First, it’s future proof and smarter.

“The product works not only in a conventional signalling setup, but also in an ERTMS/ETCS Level 2 environment and beyond,” says Dunlop. “You can connect it to the internet, so you have a signalling system that you can remotely analyse through an IP network. For the first time, maintenance teams will know about signalling problems before the operator does.”

Meeting the rising demand for rail will require big changes in just about every facet of operations. But can those changes be delivered quickly enough? And is it really possible to deliver change on the massive scale required while minimising risk?

One nation with experience in this arena is Denmark. The national rail infrastructure owner – Banedanmark – is now midway through a ground breaking modernisation programme to replace every signal, level crossing and signal box in the country – the first re-signalling scheme to cover an entire country.

The system chosen as a replacement – ERTMS/ETCS Level 2 – underlines the gains that can be made by switching from analogue to digital technology. Among the benefits are extra capacity, improved reliability and lower operating costs. The system uses cab signalling, so there’s a dramatic reduction in lineside equipment.

There are wider benefits. Data generated by the system assists in building new capabilities such as conflict resolution – the ability to predict and prevent snarl ups. Energy savings are possible through better scheduling.

Swift and seamless delivery is a priority. To ensure this, test labs are used to check everything before installation, minimising the need for engineering shut downs. And the customer and suppliers share office space, maximising the opportunities for teamwork.

Atkins is providing multi-disciplinary signalling expertise for the Denmark project and is now working with Norway’s national rail administrator, Jernbaneverket, on a similar nationwide scheme.

Intelligent signalling is the bedrock of the digital railway because it improves fluidity and capacity. But as well as transforming the way railways are operated, digital technology has a decisive part to play in the way new infrastructure is built.

BIM – Building Information Modelling – is one example. BIM is a collaborative three-dimensional tool that is used not only to create designs, but also to assist in the procurement, construction and maintenance of assets. In short, BIM provides digital lifetime support for infrastructure.

The Crossrail tunnelling project in London was one of the first major infrastructure schemes where BIM was used effectively in the UK. And BIM is integral to the design and delivery of the UK’s rail electrification programme where Atkins has created its own automatic electrification design tool over the last three years. Furthermore, Atkins has been in collaboration with industry partners to deliver an Innovate UK funded project to Digitally Enable Electrification (DEE) to bring the project lifecycle of an electrification scheme into the digital age.

“We have been leading the agenda on BIM in certain areas of the railway and we’ve seen significant production increases as a result,” says Dunlop.

In the long term, the rise of intelligent infrastructure is likely to help improve the reliability of assets and reduce costs. Remote condition monitoring based on predictive analytics is already a reality. This allows maintainers to predict problems with vital equipment – such as point motors – before they go wrong.

But this is just the start, believes Dunlop: “There is a good chance that in the future, we will see physical infrastructure being constructed out of materials that have a far greater level of connectivity and self-analysis.”

The rise of advanced composites with self-sensing capabilities – such as fibre-reinforced plastics and smart concrete – paves the way to bringing buildings, bridges, tunnels, retaining walls and even the track itself under the digital umbrella.

“Routine maintenance and inspection would no longer mean shutting the railway down,” says Dunlop. “It’s about building a railway that is data intensive rather than labour intensive.”

Allied with this will be the ability to gain insights from the deluge of data generated by smart assets. “There’s an opportunity for organisations that have strong domain knowledge, understand how assets need to work and have expertise to add value with data analytics.”

Changing trains

Making the digital railway a reality will require root and branch reform of the industry, stresses Dunlop. “While technology is the enabler, business change is probably the most significant part of the digital railway,” he says.

An integrated approach to business change will be needed that spans planning, building, operating and maintaining the infrastructure as well as the train services that run on it.

The need for change is complicated by shifts in the balance of power between train operators and infrastructure owners. In part, this is because the advent of cab signalling means intelligence (and hardware) is migrating away from the trackside and onto the trains themselves.

This process is likely to gain momentum as high-capacity ERTMS/ETCS Level 3 signalling comes in prospect. The costs associated with train control will shift decisively from infrastructure providers to train operators.

Improvements in the reliability of infrastructure can only be good news for the industry.

“What would a zero delay railway look like?” asks Dunlop. With no delay compensation payments to operators and much lower levels of customer dissatisfaction, does that increase or decrease the attraction for private operators to invest in their services? The answer should be increase but in the somewhat opaque world of revenue apportionment and delay attribution it might not be so clear cut.

One thing is for sure, argues Dunlop: the improved customer experience would set expectations to a very high level, and that positive pressure could only drive increased collaboration and efficiency.

Dunlop also questions whether the current regulatory regime is the right one to promote a truly digital railway.

“The legal and commercial framework we have now was set up in the early 1990s when passenger numbers were declining,” he says. “Twenty years on, rail is a growth engine. Is the existing framework an enabler or a blocker?”

Devolution could also jeopardise the digital railway: “If you lost the ability to drive policy from a national perspective, you could end up in a situation where delivering a digital railway could be almost impossible,” he adds.

Despite the headwinds, Dunlop is optimistic about the prospects for a digital railway – provided the strategic steer is right.

“Success hinges on linking everything to the customer experience, so it needs to be easier for train operators and freight operators to contribute – not just the infrastructure operator,” observes Dunlop.

“The programme should probably be split out from Network Rail and given a landing point somewhere it can act as a policy driver. That would be the best enabler the digital railway could have.”

To find out more about how Atkins is helping its clients to shape the future of transportation at this year's InnoTrans, visit the Speakers’ Corner (Hall 15.2) at 11.30am on Wednesday 21 September and come to stand 225A, CityCube A to speak to one of its consultants.

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