Liverpool Central CMD seemed an odd venue for a party – for a celebration. It’s near Ranelagh Street, with its tired shopping facades, in Fairclough Street – impressive name, but rather drab – down, down below road level to some imposing high security gates, palisade fencing and numerous portable buildings. You find it by following the marked pathway between the operational railway yard, hurrying under more bridges, past more portacabins up to an anonymous three storey (portable) building ahead. Then up three storeys to the party.

This was obviously a venue for those who knew where they were going. There were no balloons anywhere. In fact, this was an internal Network Rail event – and yet Rail Engineer got an invite.

Millionth work order

So, who’s birthday was it? It wasn’t a birthday apparently, but there was a star who was getting an award. Not that he expected it. Project manager Paul Ellis, the lucky recipient of a golden iPad, is the guy who just happened to close the millionth work order via his iPad carried out under the Offering Rail Better Information Services (ORBIS) programme. Little did he suspect when he tapped the information into his own – and plain – high- tech device that photographers, suits, fame and lunch would descend onto Fairclough Street.

Paul was the star. Clutching his golden iPad (it was a 3D printed replica), it was Paul whose photo will adorn the Network Rail news media. But to one side there was someone equally proud who explained the whole event to Rail Engineer, and that was Patrick Bossert, Network Rail’s director of digital transformation.

He explained ORBIS, what it is, what it does and why it has become so important for the efficient running of the modern railway.


Step back a few years – not many – just four years perhaps. By then Network Rail had been in existence for ten years (it really is that long!). From the dark post-privatisation years, Network Rail had made significant efficiency and safety improvements. But the graphs had started to level off and this had been detected by Peter Henderson – Network Rail’s then asset management director. His remit to Patrick – a recent recruit from the telecoms industry – was to see how the railways could be smarter. Up until then, all the effort had been to work the system harder but, after ten years, harder was not enough.

For decades the railway had been gathering data – a chunk here, another chunk there. It was stored all over the place – one server in the South, another in the North, even a PC under someone’s desk. Could it be shared? Not easily. But technology has moved on. The internet has enabled data to be shared – to be coordinated.

Predict rather than forecast

ORBIS is addressing the way we collect and evaluate the data to turn it into useful information, which in turn can be joined to other information and analysed to generate predictive insight. Information specifications and standards have become properly defined against business needs rather than pure engineering requirements.

For example, there used to be 132 attributes for a point heater strip, whereas all you need to know is when was it installed, how many watts it uses and how many hours it has run.

“We’ve been working with Bentley Systems on the linear asset decision support tool (LADS) which has 30 or 40 different analytical lenses on our track asset. This is now phenomenally good at predicting how certain aspects of track will deteriorate.

“We feed in traffic data, which means we can start to genuinely predict rather than simply forecast. This gives us an insight into granularity the like of which we’ve never had before. We can say for every point-end how many tonnes have travelled over it and how many times it has moved. And that has prompted us to look at the make-up of the whole network. It has suggested that up to 20% of our point assets, which attract a huge cost, could be removed.

“One of the radical things we did – and this sent out quite a shock wave through the industry – was to announce that we were going to roll out iPhones and iPads to all our front-line staff. Even more unusual was our wish that they would be issued unlocked, so people can put their own email on, their own music, their own applications. The deal was, though, they would have to come to work with it charged up!

“This was such a change as our own desktop PCs are so locked down that nothing can be installed, nothing can be changed without permission. The open issue of this technology said to our people ‘we trust you’ and that was a really key thing. And it was very well received.”


The reason Apple and iPad were chosen was because it provides an environment that is very easy to secure and manage. One application cannot interfere with the operation of another. Some of the more open source options just don’t offer this.

Where is ORBIS? There are around 300 programme staff in London, delivering new capability to Network Rail’s Asset Information operations business which has 150 people in Milton Keynes, 40 people in Derby, and another 40 in York. Between them, they deliver a broad range of data to intelligence services.

Ellipse holds all the work management and hierarchical asset condition data. There’s a cloud server that holds the linear data – as there’s just terabytes and terabytes of that. Information on over 20,000 miles of linear asset across eight disciplines is gathered every two weeks!

“Over time we may go to everything hosted in the cloud when we get better data communication right across the network, but we had to choose a flexible environment,” Patrick Bossert continued. “You can use the kit out on site whether you’ve got a connection or not, but the moment your phone or iPad sees a data service it will opportunistically synchronise in the background and bring everything up to date. This was a critical part of getting the balance right between technology and practicality. Ten years from now, probably everything will be in the cloud with ubiquitous data coverage, but for now we had to go for a pragmatic approach and I think we nailed it just right.

“Most big programmes in government are two- thirds technology, one-third change. ORBIS is the other way round. Two-thirds change, one-third technology.

“And we’ve shown that we’ve been incredibly successful in implementing a new type of delivery model in partnership with our IT department
and its suppliers, to the point where ORBIS is generating efficiencies as a programme and is able to hand back some of its funding to the business through its efficient delivery.

“Over two control periods, on the programme for £330 million investment we can see directly £700 million in return in more effectively-targeted renewals.

“Information is giving us the ability to make really informed business decisions – which will make the railway far more effective in the way it works.

“Digital gives us an opportunity to actually build far more accountability and empowerment back to where it matters. It is really important that you’re doing a job with the right tools, feeling empowered to do the whole job.”

And it was digital empowerment that enabled Paul Ellis to decide that he could close off his points check, press the button on his iPad and bring party fever to Fairclough Street.

God knows, it needs it.