The most visible feature of Britain’s railway is its trains. They can be seen speeding over the countryside and through cities, taking passengers to work and on holiday. Decked out in the bright liveries of the various operators, they are very photogenic and are often on television and in magazines.

But under every train is the track – 20,000 miles of it around the country. It too goes through countryside and cities, and over bridges and through tunnels. And because just one fault could bring disaster to a train, and the passengers inside, it all has to be inspected – continuously, methodically and rigorously.

At the same time, the signalling alongside the track, the bridges it runs over, the tunnels it goes through and the stations where passengers board and alight, they all have to be inspected too. It’s a huge job.

So how does the infrastructure owner, Network Rail, carry out that inspection? In former times, it was using people – lots of people.

However, this is the age of technology, so the railway has turned to high-tech companies to come up with ways to carry out this inspection using equipment that can be carried on board trains. This new technology combines mapping, video recording and analytical software to carry out inspections in a fraction of the time it used to take, and far more regularly.

One of the companies which Network Rail engaged with is Omnicom Engineering, a leading-edge engineering company specialising in the development and integration of software and hardware platforms for asset survey and fixed and mobile asset monitoring. Over the past 19 years, it has developed a reputation for providing pioneering products and solutions to the transportation sector utilising the latest technologies. Today, the company delivers products and solutions that, through the provision of accurate asset condition knowledge, enable clients to concentrate on their core business – managing their infrastructure assets.

Company capabilities

The benefits to the infrastructure owners are throughout the asset lifecycle: from surveying for design, condition assessment for maintenance through to determination of renewal requirement. The product range can be deployed readily through purchase or as a service offering and Omnicom’s products have received a number of innovation awards within the UK over the past decade.

Additionally Omnicom specialises in developing bespoke systems to meet specific customer needs by integration of appropriate hardware and software. Advances in technology are providing opportunities to manage the infrastructure base more efficiently and effectively through a combination of technical skill and transport sector domain knowledge.

Some of the skills include the integration of the key components into business solutions, including imaging platforms, inertial measurement, distance measurement (laser), GNSS (global navigation satellite system) and high-speed data capture. A design and build capability, including software development, provides the means to meet customers-specific requirements such as embedded software/firmware, high speed data capture and networking, data processing and storage, data visualisation and decision support tools.

Three-dimensional asset information

For the last 15 years, OmniSurveyor3D® has been used to create ‘as is’ asset inventory designs. Using a system based upon high-resolution digital images integrated with accurate vehicle position and orientation, the application enables users to undertake accurate three‐dimensional measurements and acquire and validate accurate asset information. It is also used for basic signal sighting, using the Signal Sighting Image Models (SSIM) developed for Network Rail Signalling Innovations Group.

The software also allows the user to undertake design verification, route familiarisation and pre‐planning of possessions or site excursions. The OmniSurveyor3D system has been successfully applied to many signalling scheme design projects. The use of accurate asset data captured from the system, together with the Automatic Mapping of the Railway tools, makes designing a scheme plan more efficient.

The provision of both OmniSurveyor3D asset inventory and track centreline data form the basis of ‘as is’ CAD diagrams used in the early planning stages of a re‐ signalling scheme design project. The addition of high speed laser scanning capability gives the ability to create 3D models of the areas being surveyed. This can then be rendered back into OmniSurveyor3D, providing particular benefits in areas such as tunnels where, due to the low lighting, it is difficult to determine the precise location of assets.

On-board inspection

Recently, Omnicom has implemented an image processing system known as OmniVision®, for plain line pattern recognition, to automate the detection of defects. This has been rolled out to five vehicles within the Network Rail maintenance fleet and is being used to gradually replace basic visual inspection.

Drawing on this expertise, the company can provide machine vision feasibility studies for target business processes. A recent study involved development relating to automatic recognition of vegetation encroachment on rail infrastructure, limitations found through the development lifecycle and established a set of recommendations for future work.

Omnicom has detailed knowledge of location technologies. The company has completed work related to the introduction of the European Train Control System to assess various technologies capable of meeting the requirements of determining train location for this system, including the possibility of replacing lineside location beacons with an on-board navigation system.

Utilising its positioning knowledge and tools, Omnicom released its TrackLocator® application (app) to support location determination whilst trackside. It combines this with the phone’s GPS location and converts it to an ELR (engineer’s line reference) and mileage using OmniRTPS® map algorithms. The main screen (user interface) is a simple Google Map background with the user’s location displayed as well as the ELR and mileage that has been calculated.

As well as displaying the live location and map, the app allows the user to take a picture which is then stamped with the ELR, mileage, latitude, longitude, date and time, and to save a note which has auto-included the same information.

Both of these items can then be used with the standard operating system features. TrackLocator is currently available for iOS (6 and 7), Android and Windows8 Mobile.

Omnicom is also working with Network Rail to utilise smart phone and tablet hardware to both record the position of the device, and hence the data being recorded, and to use the 3D accelerometers within the device to measure ‘bumps’ or ‘rough ride’. The recording is sent back to a central server for processing. Multiple recordings are analysed to determine areas of rough ride/poor ride quality on a crowd-sourced basis.

The Ride Quality Monitoring Service consists of a ride quality data collection app for smart phones and tablets and a web-based data processing, storage and visualisation service.

So the railway really has entered a high-tech age. Whether it is a question of determining location, acquiring asset information, inspecting track or even recording ride quality, Omnicom has an app for it.