Digital infrastructure and the challenges of railway data management

SYSTRA’s Technical Head of Systems and Signalling DOMINIC TAYLOR talks to PAUL STEPHEN about the hidden challenges of railway data management

This article was first published in the 14 March 2018 edition of Rail Magazine www.railmagazine.com

The digital modernisation of Britain’s largely-Victorian railway network will reach two major milestones later this year.

From May, up to 16 trains per hour will be able to drive automatically through the Thameslink ‘core’ between Blackfriars and St Pancras International using a combination of European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 and Automatic Train Operation (ATO), before rising to 24tph by December 2019.

Meanwhile, from December 2018, Elizabeth Line services will be signalled using an ETCS/ATO combination and also a Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) system when travelling on different sections of the Crossrail route.

SYSTRA has been at the forefront of designing, testing and commissioning the digital signalling technologies that will underpin both of these projects for more than 15 years.

The international transport consultancy and engineering services provider has provided its extensive digital rail expertise to clients in eight different countries, and in a diverse range of contexts.

These range from overlaying ETCS, ATO and Traffic Management Systems onto busy urban routes like Thameslink, to its installation on new-build high-speed railways such as the 300km (187-mile) Southern Europe Atlantic (SEA) line that opened between Tours and Bordeaux in July 2017.

In the UK, the company has also delivered projects on rural lines, having been appointed by Network Rail in October 2006 to design and oversee, on the Cambrian Line, the delivery of NR’s first ever deployment of in-cab signalling.

Where SYSTRA has emerged as a market leader, however, is in its deep understanding not only of the need for sophisticated discrete Digital Railway products from individual suppliers, but of the need to carefully manage the large amounts of configuration data upon which these systems depend to integrate with one another and act as a single system.

To design and test the complex interfaces between the different data feeds that individual components of in-cab and trackside equipment generate, SYSTRA has therefore pioneered the use of established virtual design tools such as BIM (Building Information Modelling) and the use of Infrastructure Digital Replicas for the first time in digital signalling projects.

SYSTRA’s Technical Head of Systems and Signalling Dominic Taylor explains: “The challenges of data management are not always very obvious until you actually come to deliver a project, but we know that Digital Railway has a huge capacity for data consumption - and generation.

“With ETCS and in-cab signalling, there is a huge increase in the need for data accuracy when compared to conventional signalling, so that trains don’t receive redundant information and end up stopping in the wrong place.

“But the big advantage of DR is that you can build the signalling system and test it for some time without installing it on a real railway. That digital infrastructure can be performance-tested off-site, as we’ve done for both Crossrail and Thameslink in order to limit the risks [of failure] when deployed.”

According to Taylor, the use of BIM and Infrastructure Digital Replicas is especially important in the UK, where retrofitting digital technologies to existing infrastructure can be more complex than if building it from new, and where the opportunities for testing in situ are more limited.

He adds: “A lot of the current network runs through brownfield sites where there would be less time to integrate the new systems. Getting it wrong and causing operational disruption can be extremely costly and time-consuming to put right.

“We bring experience from across the globe of using our system engineering and BIM capabilities to help eliminate that risk, however. Having traditionally been applied to the construction sector, these are proven techniques that we’re now applying to Crossrail and HS2. We’ve worked extremely hard for the last couple of years to bring these methods into the world of railway signalling.”

SYSTRA’s specialisms in Digital Railway technologies are not just limited to signalling, however, but also extend into the allied areas of asset data management, mobility as a service and timetable and capacity planning.

The company has therefore developed a suite of tools to help ensure projects deliver not only the headline benefits of DR in terms of increasing capacity and improving traffic management, but in Remote Conditioning Monitoring and enhancing the passenger experience from the diagnostic data being generated.

Once again, SYSTRA has been able to draw on its consultancy and engineering experience in other sectors to pioneer the use of innovative techniques that are new to rail.

Taylor says: “In terms of traffic management and timetable planning, we now have the capability to run advanced simulations to trial new service patterns intensively before we deploy them, and to study the implications of changes to existing services. This is helpful not just for planning new timetables but for re-planning services in real time in order to optimise how they respond to anomalies, which is a very exciting development of Digital Railway.

“You can also do a lot to replicate where assets are and collate information to get better management asset profiles. There’s lots we can learn from other industries such as aviation about mitigating failures and ensuring higher availability of assets. We see lots of opportunity in this area, and it’s something we’re working on.

“Finally, offering mobility as a service and providing passengers with a more comprehensive product for their complete end-to-end journey is also an area where digital technologies can be very powerful. Rather than just selling a train ticket, diagnostic and real-time performance data can help connect rail services to other modes of transport, such as buses or taxis, to offer people more seamless and predictable travel, which reduces congestion and has environmental benefits.”

For more information about SYSTRA and our digital rail services, visit https://www.systra.co.uk/index.php/services/rail-engineering/digital-rail