The fourth dimension: visualizing rail and transit in real-time

Alex Whittle | 01 Jul 2015 | Comments

At its heart, new technology development is driven by the need to solve problems and improve the world as we know it. Technological advancements help us save clients money, offer first-class services, and stretch the limits of what we thought was possible. Technology is particularly important to the rail and transit industry, as increasing urban populations are leading to a rising demand for innovative, efficient travel options.

My professional focus is managing project delivery for major rail and transit programs, which are unique in their long-term planning and development timeframes, huge areas covered, and complex components. These projects involve various construction management concerns, like project planning, coordinating, and sequencing of events, as well as potential project impacts to utilities, power lines, sensitive environmental areas, traffic flow, public events, and site access.

Rail and transit systems are also usually built in highly congested areas (urban centers or multimodal port facilities) where projects can impact a myriad of land owners, agencies, jurisdictions, authorities, utilities, other transportation modes, etc. Meanwhile, both citizens and stakeholders need to stay informed about how projects are progressing, when they will be completed, and how impacts will affect their daily travels. That’s a lot to contemplate and coordinate using Gantt charts and construction drawings in isolation.

Considering the various challenges that rail and transit projects present, the fourth dimension—time—is critical to program management, as is engaging with and better involving the whole stakeholder community.

Thanks to a new approach—4D visual integration support (4D VIS)—we can now integrate scores of data and present it in a simplistic, intuitive, and dynamic way to communicate project details, evaluate opportunities, and plan for the future.

Atkins first developed 4D VIS to help manage a vast, multibillion-dollar military base realignment program involving more than 160 projects spanning 8,000 acres. Our team needed a more holistic way to visualize the many ongoing projects, as well as a better way to manage large amounts of project data and stakeholder information from different sources.

4D VIS integrates 3D building information and planning data (BIM, AutoCAD files, GIS layers, utility data, etc.) with project schedule information to present program sequencing and project progress visually, as well as identify possible issues not normally detected using typical methods. This approach illustrates the program over time, offering the potential to visualize conflicts and perform high-level analyses with all stakeholders through a cloud-based interface.

4D VIS quickly became the team’s method of choice for brainstorming, decision making, conflict identification and resolution, scenario analysis, and stakeholder engagement. It can be applied to any project with a time-based element, whether planning on a regional scale, developing future proofing and resiliency strategies, or implementing large-scale programs.

4D rail visualization
4D rail visualization

Atkins has already begun applying 4D VIS to rail projects (see image), including a recent intermodal transfer facility expansion project in Texas. 4D VIS played an important role in managing construction activities for thousands of feet of new track and provided a holistic view of daily site activities. Leveraging the web to stream data from one source to multiple users, the modeling process was scalable, flexible, and convenient to update.

A master plan is typically a detailed but dreadfully static document that, all too often, sits in a binder collecting dust on a shelf. We now have the technology to compile all of that planning information, track what is actually happening in the field as that plan moves forward, and display real progress instead of offer uncertain predictions. Regional transportation planners can now capture every single intersection, stop sign, parking space, and traffic camera to illustrate, on a global level, how travelers get from place to place given any potential planning scenario.

While 4D capabilities have been available for a while, we must continue to shape and enhance how this technology is applied to our field. As innovation leads to even more dymanic uses of 4D technology, our opportunities to “visualize” the systems of the future will only get better, which means we’ll be able to get around better too.