Network Rail promises better journeys with digitised railway as fares increase

Rail fare hikes from train operating companies may have commuters angry but Network Rail’s investment in a “ground breaking” big data transformation project, which it detailed this week, may ultimately improve the service.

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Rail fare hikes from train operating companies may have commuters angry but Network Rail’s investment in a “ground breaking” big data transformation project, which it detailed this week, may ultimately improve the service.

The firm is giving field-workers access to a high resolution visualisation of the entire railway on their mobiles so they can better plan track renewal and maintenance.

The application, dubbed the Geo-RINM Viewer, allows field-workers to picture the entire rail network in minute detail - down to the positioning of a tree trunk.

Initially released to 4,600 users, the Rail Infrastructure Network Model will be available to an additional 7,000 more staff by the end of the year.

Developed with integrator CSC, the tool is part of the rail firm's wider digitisation project called ORBIS (Offering Rail Better Information Services).

The five-year, £330 million pound investment will prepare the UK’s Victorian-era infrastructure to support the estimated 400 million extra passenger journeys by 2020.

Centralising Network Rail’s asset data, like track, level crossing and train parts, is necessary to turn the firm from a “fix and fail” model to “predict and prevent”, ORBIS director Steve  Dyke explained.

Following the deployment of 13,000 iPads and iPhones to its field-workers, the firm will give access to its data incrementally so it can test what is most useful. This will stop it from falling over in areas of poor connectivity, and will ensure that workers are making the most of the tools on a step-by-step basis.

It hopes to rollout a full map with all its national aerial data, complete with additional datasets to all Network Rail users and other train operating companies.

Dyke said that organisations like the British Transport Police will be use Network Rail’s data services once the project is complete.  

How has mapping helped the business so far?

Visualising the location of trees near a track has a huge impact on Network Rail’s efficiency and costs already, Dyke said this morning during an unveiling of the application.

Trees cost Network Rail dearly as they can affect safety, maintenance costs and fines for delays. Giving the business better visibility of hazardous trees is hugely beneficial.

“This is absolutely critical information for a route managing director. He doesn’t know the volume of leaves and if leaves fall on the railway, then trains get delayed.

Leaves can cause trains to skid, causing a flat spot on the wheel which will cause cracks on the track, Dyke added.

“You can look at the density in the trees and identify which are the greatest risk. If three tons of leaves fall down they also bring the overhead line down so then I have got to re-string the whole line again. The evaluation of density allows the route managing director to get two people on overtime to go and chop those trees down…This is enabling a massive change in how they can manage vegetation.”

As project ORBIS captures more of Network Rail's data, it will be updated and continue to deliver more intelligence to change the way the firm works, Dyke said.

It will use drones to improve its data in coming years, Dyke revealed. 

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