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Electrification: the digital design challenge

Ben Dunlop | 09 Sep 2016 | Comments

There are now more people using the railways than at any time since the 1920s and more capacity is needed. New lines, such as HS2 and Crossrail, are part of the solution, but squeezing more out of existing routes and boosting their green credentials is equally important.

Electrification holds the key. After two decades of very limited expansion, the GB rail network is increasing its coverage of electrified infrastructure at an unprecedented rate. £3 billion has been committed over the next 10 years to increasing the number of electrified lines nationally from 39% to 51% by the end of CP6.

Government/industry change

Unlike previous electrification campaigns, there is the added complexity of ensuring all future electrification projects are compliant with BS1192, the British Standard code of practice for the collaborative production of architectural, engineering and construction information. This provides a significant challenge for the sector which demands a step change in working methods.

The current skills shortage, coupled with a historic reliance on manual design processes, necessarily precipitated innovation to meet the requirements of the demanding programme of planned works, ensuring quality and timely delivery. Delivering a design of improved quality, increasing the use of digital data platforms, optimising design solutions, all whilst reducing timescales and cost, would not be achievable without automating large elements of the Overhead Line Equipment (OLE) design process. Finding ways to improve productivity and streamline processes is now an industry-wide challenge.

Atkins' solution

The decision to embrace technology was an easy one. Yet the absence of a commercially available integrated OLE software application, encompassing all elements associated with OLE design and which was not aligned to a specific supplier or system, posed a problem. Atkins' Transportation division' solution was to develop a suite of in-house integrated tools named TADPOLE (Tools Assisting Design and Production of Overhead Line Equipment).

The TADPOLE concept grew from the knowledge of many experienced Atkins' OLE engineers and software specialists and has been created by those same engineers. This has ensured the end product is user friendly, fit for purpose, easily adopted and successfully deployed on projects. It was developed as a modular system to provide the flexibility to customise and interchange modules according to project requirements. It also allows users to manually utilise the modules on other applications outside the TADPOLE environment.

TADPOLE allows the exchange of data utilising an open source data file (XML format) to automate repetitive design processes. It standardises outputs to remove risk and optimises design solutions.

TADPOLE has grown organically in response to project needs, prioritising the OLE design modules which return the greatest benefits. These modules of TADPOLE provide a firm footing from which further modules and systems can be developed.

Additionally, Atkins was successful in securing funding from Innovate UK for a research project to develop the application of Digital Engineering in the Railway Industry. The two-year Digitally Enabling Electrification (DEE) research project, which was part of the government innovation strategy for digitalising the railway, focused on railway electrification. The team, including Laing O'Rourke, dhp11 and Imperial College London, developed approaches that increase the efficiency and validity of data passing through all stages of the lifecycle, from survey, design and manufacture through to construction and operations. By exploiting digital technologies, the project team has demonstrated how the industry can benefit from the establishment of an integrated Building Information Modelling (BIM)-compliant environment, which enables common methods of exchanging and structuring data throughout the lifecycle of an OLE asset.

Success so far

Atkins' Transportation division is currently employed on the majority of key electrification projects which make up the National Electrification Programme. Various modules of TADPOLE have been utilised to varying levels on the majority of these including, but not limited to, Great Western Electrification, North West Electrification and Midland Mainline Electrification, by an established team of engineers dedicated to best practice in OLE design worldwide.

Given the scale of the projects and the steep learning curve the entire industry has been on, due to the significant step-change in electrification expansion, the level of delivery would not have been possible using conventional methods. The modular nature of TADPOLE and the in-house ownership of the tools has allowed Atkins' OLE team to react quickly to change and be flexible in response to client requirements.

The future of DEE is also now being taken forward at an industry level through Atkins' chairmanship of the Digital Data Exchange working group for Electrification, which is bringing together an expanding group of stakeholders to help shape and define the protocols to the next level.

Call to action

The industry needs to embrace new technologies while retaining existing knowledge and competence. TADPOLE provides a familiar interface for the engineers to design with, which comes together in a modular nature to provide a highly customisable, consistent and detailed design output in line with current BIM methodology.

The next challenge is actually to adopt the same philosophy that has been employed with TADPOLE by interfacing outside of the design team into other disciplines, construction teams, asset management, maintenance etc. This would mean that the information can be shared consistently and between different systems.

Our work with TADPOLE, combined with discussions with Network Rail and the supply chain, has highlighted a number of key strategic improvements that could be made. This would allow electrification design to move into the digital world and help promote innovation in design tools across the supply chain, rather than being tied to a particular supplier. The improvements would include developing a common data exchange format, maintaining a controlled central database for design ranges, the standardisation of asset tagging and a revised, consistent BIM strategy.

Implementation of the above would provide the industry with a baseline upon which to develop. As demonstrated by the DEE research project for example, vast efficiencies can be achieved with customised systems using hierarchical data models, such as OLEDEF.xml. This also opens up the market to limitless innovative software across all stages of the product lifecycle.

The next evolution of this will be to start to repeat the process for other engineering disciplines, so they too have digital data models which integrate together to create a whole infrastructure model. Once this vision becomes a reality, we will start to genuinely be on the road to a digital railway.

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.