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Digitally enabling electrification

Atkins | 22 Dec 2015 | Comments

Could open standards for data exchange transform the economics of rail electrification?

The UK’s current rail electrification programme is the biggest ever carried out in Britain. Over the next eight years (source), more than 2,000 miles of track will go under the wires, with efficient and environmentally-friendly electric traction replacing traditional diesel power. 

The scale of the project is huge and the routes being electrified are among the busiest in the country. Atkins is the lead design organisation for the electrification of the Great Western main line and is providing engineering design services in the Northwest, West Midlands and Scotland through a National Electrification Programme Framework contract. The Midland main line between Bedford and Sheffield is also being delivered under the framework. 

Electrification on this scale presents a number of challenges. Thousands of masts, portals and cantilevers are required to support the all-important network of overhead wires that deliver power to trains. All of this equipment must be designed, procured, built, commissioned and maintained – a process which requires workflow management not only within but between organisations. 

Then there’s the challenge of working across a site that is, in effect, hundreds of miles in length. Disruption to the operational railway must be kept to a minimum, so meticulous planning is needed to make the most of limited “possessions” – blocks of time when passenger and freight services are stopped to give contractors access to carry out the work. Equally important is the ability to work efficiently in a safety critical environment. 

There are wider systemic challenges too. In common with other branches of engineering, electrification projects are hampered by the limited supply of skilled and experienced engineers. Finding ways to improve productivity is a priority. 

Digitally enabling electrification 

To tackle some of these problems, Atkins and lead partner Laing O’Rourke conceived the Digitally Enabling Electrification (DEE) project. To ensure access to a wider range of specialist skills and knowledge we teamed up with software specialists dhp11 and Imperial College London. 

The aim is to make digital technology a viable and cost-saving solution for electrification; an objective achieved primarily through the adoption of open standards for the exchange of data. The project builds on Atkins’ established expertise in 3D Building Information Modelling (BIM). 

DEE was selected as one of 11 funding winners under the “Enabling the Digital Railway” initiative co-funded by the government’s innovation agency Innovate UK and the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB).

 At the core of the project is understanding how electrification projects can help deliver the Government’s BIM Strategy and become a key component of Network Rail’s Digital Railway programme. 

“We carried out a review of the existing landscape and concluded that while major design and build suppliers have their own bespoke systems, these cannot easily share data with other systems,” says Ray Dudding, who has been leading BIM and Digital Systems for Atkins in the Rail Sector. “This makes it difficult for different organisations to work together on a large scale project.”  

In common with some other design organisations, Atkins has developed its own digital electrification design system over the last 15 years. This has helped to drive internal efficiencies and has delivered benefits to customers, including multi-million pound savings in design. 

In tandem with this, Laing O’Rourke has been leading the construction industry in digital engineering, championing the Design for Manufacture & Assembly (DfMA) process. This allows the company to create structures in a factory environment, minimising time on site, as well as reducing cost and risk. 

Digital design tools deliver huge internal efficiencies, but problems can arise at the points of contact between different organisations working on the same project. This is because data cannot always be shared easily between different design systems. 

“The irony is that even when using its internal automated design BIM system, Atkins would still be contracted to hand over a pile of traditional paper and PDF outputs to the constructor,” says Dudding. “Imagine being at the trackside in the rain trying to make sense of the systems design from a stack of paper, or even scrolling through multiple dumb files on a tablet?” 

In order to make use of an Atkins design, for example, Laing O’Rourke would need to manually re-input information from paper to ensure the data was in a usable format for its own systems. 

“The priority was to come up with an open standard where any designer, manufacturer and constructor could share data,” says Dudding. 

The solution – known as OLEDEF – is the first of its kind to provide an open format for the design of overhead line systems for rail electrification. It uses a standard XML (Extensible Markup Language) format that offers the widest compatibility, so anyone using BIM can benefit. 

What’s more, it’s compatible with work done by Network Rail on a signalling-specific schema using the same markup language – paving the way for greater rail-specific design integration as the BIM industry matures. 

A common data environment 

With the right data format in place, the next step was to optimise workflows. Building on government leadership, the team focused on incorporating PAS 1192 – the code of practice for the collaborative production of engineering and construction information.  All parties develop models with the level of detail relevant to their stage of the lifecycle.   Models and data can then be shared in the common data environment. 

“We have had to answer questions around how our work fits into the typical workflow,” explains Dudding. “We have considered how the common data environment can be applied in design and manufacturing management systems, then how this can be extended into product lifecycle management systems.” 

While a research-based approach was an essential starting point, a demonstration was needed to show how digital techniques could solve real-world problems. In the case of electrification, challenges include reducing the time needed on-site during possessions and minimising the risk of overruns.  

“We found that the Precision Build DfMA techniques we are championing would hit problems unless we found a solution to one particular issue: that it is not possible to guarantee the accurate positioning of the foundations on which the overhead line structures were constructed,” says Dudding.   

Although considerable effort has been put into improving this process in recent years, time is still lost because of the need to adjust overhead line equipment to compensate for variations in the position of foundations. This leads to higher costs and the risk of over runs.  

A trial was set up to demonstrate that digital technology could assist in reducing the time needed to implement a system both when the foundation is accurately placed, and also when the foundation is not positioned as designed. 

Technologies evaluated included point cloud, photogrammetry and LIDAR with traditional surveying acting as a baseline. The means of capturing the survey data were also considered. These included drones, road-rail vehicles, surveyors, trackside personnel and even satellite imagery.  

A number of options were discounted before inviting the leading suppliers to a technology trial at the Network Rail test track at Tuxford in Nottinghamshire. Each supplier first surveyed the piles, then a variety of different types of structure were erected, which the suppliers surveyed. The survey results from all of the suppliers are now being assessed. 

By establishing schema for open data transfers, mapping a path to greater collaborative working and combining new surveying technologies with advanced BIM techniques, the DEE project has already proven its worth. But it’s not just railway electrification schemes that will feel the benefit. “The work we are doing will also be of interest to people in the wider BIM, engineering, information management and construction arenas,” stresses Dudding. 

Atkins and partners are hosting a DEE demonstration day at the National Railway Museum in York in January 2016. To find out more, please contact Sonia Chandi.