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Infrastructure Management

Britain's Train Operator Network Rail Visualises a Smarter Network

It’s a pretty safe bet that when there’s a problem with Great Britain’s rail network people will vent their displeasure quickly, especially if they’re on one of the thousands of services congregating in London at peak times or on the trunk lines linking major cities such as Newcastle, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. The notorious Beeching cuts might have reduced the scope of the British rail network in the 1960s but with road arteries so clogged, the train is still a critical and growing part of transport infrastructure in the country. That’s why the owner and operator Network Rail’s latest project to digitise and visualise that infrastructure is so important.

I met Network Rail project leaders recently with its partner, the services giant CSC, to see and discuss the recently launched Geo-RINM Viewer. The name, an abbreviation of Rail Infrastructure Network Model, isn’t the most exciting, but the system appears remarkably slick. It’s a 3D web-based geographic information system to help those that plan and maintain the network. The result should be a safer, more efficient and economical system.

The Geo-RINM Viewer is part of the broader £330m ORBIS (Offering Rail Better Information Services) programme and provides Network Rail and its partners with a crow’s view of the whole network. They can then zoom in on every aspect of that view to see what’s going on and take action accordingly.

For ORBIS programme director Steve Dyke it’s about delivering “the right maintenance in the right place at the right time”.

In some ways, Dyke has an unenviable task, set against a backdrop of a projected 50% increase in passenger journeys by 2019. That’s about 225 million more passenger journeys and, as Dyke says, “all on an aging [19th-century] Victorian infrastructure”.

Dyke’s conundrum is the need to increase capacity and reliability while reducing cost. Those old bridges built over 100 years ago won’t support double-decker trains so the answer to coping with growth in demand is longer trains. But, as Dyke says, any addition to rolling stock volume means “more hammer on track”. ORBIS is a programme that it is hoped will move Network Rail “to move from ‘fix on fail’ to a ‘predict to prevent’ paradigm” and the Geo-RINM Viewer will play a big part.

Network Rail took its cue from another UK infrastructure project, the National Criminal Intelligence Service that provided insight into crime trends. ORBIS is a collaborative decision-support system designed to make Network Rail a smarter environment. To that end, Dyke and fellow executives have sanctioned some 13,000 iOS devices and related apps for staff and not locked them down so that employees can work more effectively.

“We wanted to provide apps that would make their lives better,” he adds.

The Geo-RINM Viewer provided a unique opportunity to capture the snaking, crisscrossing labyrinth of the network that cuts across England, Scotland and Wales. Camera-equipped helicopters captured 225 terabytes of images and Network Rail took advantage of the project to standardise its schema and vocabulary to make communications more efficient.

The scale of the task is matched by its depth. Network Rail needs to know everything: not just track conditions and the locations of broken rails but also more obscure factors such as the height of trees, their locations, proximity to track and the likelihood they will fall on power lines or create leaf fall that makes tracks slippery. Rail engineers need to know what can be replaced with what materials and how, but also about nearby places of interest, local wildlife, the gradients of the land and so on.

“I can’t just shove more trains on a track without understanding the full impact – the National Grid, the environment, earth workings that break tracks…” says Dyke.

The Geo-RINM Viewer provides that big picture but this is not a single-hit project. The land changes, trees grow and environmental factors alter, so the survey will be refreshed every year with a full review implemented every five years. In the future, Dyke says, there might be new opportunities to create efficiencies – pictures might be grabbed by cameras on drones rather than via manned helicopters, for example.

Dyke expects the Geo-RINM project not only to change the way Network Rail operates but also the way that train operators, supply-chain partners and emergency services are run. He’s also keen on sharing hard-won knowledge with others that could use this sort of visibility, such as utilities.

It’s a hugely challenging project but by taking advantage of the latest GIS and device capabilities, Dyke believes that Network Rail is on track. 

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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