The Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace (F2A) project, which is being delivered by Network Rail and its principal contractor Balfour Beatty Rail, will create additional capacity for high speed train services on the East Coast Main Line by upgrading the existing route between Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace while removing the current bottleneck in this area. The upgrade involves junction remodelling, renewal of switches and crossings, track slews and all the associated OLE and signalling modifications. It will also see station improvements at both Finsbury Park and Alexandra Palace, including new platforms and modifications and extensions to existing platforms.

The issues

The complexity of the area, as well as the need for construction to take place alongside operational lines, prompted Network Rail and Balfour Beatty Rail to look for innovative solutions which would ensure that the works were delivered safely.

The team’s objective was to reduce the amount of Red Zone working and the requirement for site surveys while improving workforce engagement and providing clearer briefings. To do this, a new technology called Mission Room was selected. Developed by a spin-off from the University of Nottingham, Mission Room is an “immersive” graphic system, so named as it gives the viewer the ability to be immersed, or to stand inside, the location concerned.

In this particular application, the F2A Project installed a customised version of Mission Room to allow staff rapid and safe virtual access to key parts of the four mile length of the project. This was to ensure that everyone had the same mental picture before going out on site.

The technology

Mission Room consists of an integrated set of components which can be configured to provide immersive experiences by surrounding viewers with visual and audio, giving them a true understanding of what it is like to be actually on site.

The main elements of the technology include a set of four, custom built, high definition cameras, capable of filming 360° video at 30 frames per second, supported by a software system to create, edit and manage the projects.

For the best three-dimensional experience, the Mission Room Arena is used to play back the video. This is a three-metre cube which users stand inside while surrounded by 360° video projection and multi-channel sound. For classroom training, a 270° system using three 60” screens provides partial immersion. Both versions of the system are controlled by a wireless handset which allows users to interact and control the immersive experience.

So, for example, once the Mission Cam video system has captured 360° video of trackside operations, this is then edited to select sections and produce key clips which can be experienced inside a Mission Room Arena delivery system. Users can choose which clips to view and can select various overlays of important information placed in its correct spatial context.

The installation

As Mission Room was new to the rail sector, it was decided to produce a demonstrator application based on a small part of the project area around Finsbury Park Station. To address the differing objectives of the design team for virtual site surveys, while accommodating large team briefings, it was decided to use both a 360° arena and a 270° three-screen system. A special camera system was also proposed to meet the specific demands of regular on-site filming and this would interface via a special build of the editing software.

Due to space constraints, a 2.5 metre version of the arena cube was constructed, along with a 3 x 60” open system for larger group activities. Special hardware interfacing was integrated to allow the two systems to run simultaneously from the same processor. The bespoke 360° camera system was also designed and built to interact with a specifically configured editing software.

Physical installation of the Mission Room infrastructure into the project offices took place over three days. Meanwhile, the initial capture of images of the site was undertaken using the new cameras. Project users were trained in using the special software configuration of the editing system.

This was the first time that this innovative system had been used within a railway construction project. Project management understood that, for the benefits to be realised, team members would need to adapt their existing methods to incorporate the new technology. Therefore, plans were drawn up to introduce the system into regular project processes, meetings and communication sessions.

The benefits

The F2A Project team has been able to use Mission Room for visual surveys of the site, reducing the need for site surveys and placing people in the proximity of open lines. It has enhanced the project’s ability to plan by aiding understanding of the site in much greater detail, including the capacity to identify potential hazards or complexities.

The immersive 360° Mission Room Arena has been used to take stakeholders, including First Capital Connect and station managers at the stations being enhanced, direct to the sites in the comfort of the project offices and at the click of a button. Details of the works can easily be explained by virtually “walking” visitors through worksites and explaining the changes that are being made. Feedback has been highly positive and has supported a greater buy-in to the works.

The Mission Room has also enhanced communications to the workforce in pre-possession briefings and planning meetings. Further value has been gained by using the immersive 360° environment to raise the awareness of site conditions and, in particular, by being able to emphasise the close proximity to open lines and live OLE (a key safety risk on the project).

The F2A project still has over a year to run. Based on this early success, project managers are confident that use of the new Mission Room installation will not only fulfil their original objectives of reducing red zone working and site surveys, but they will also gain many other valuable benefits.