Rail Engineers understand that, to manage, maintain and renew a cost-effective, efficient and modern railway system, it is imperative to identify all infrastructure assets, where they are located and most importantly, what condition they are in.

That sounds quite straight forward, doesn’t it? It’s certainly reasonable to assume that all this information is available, otherwise the industry would not have been able to cope with the growth and development that it has experienced over the last decade or so.

Now, here comes the inevitable but…how is this data gathered and is it easily accessible and efficiently produced using the benefits of modern technology?

The answer is, of course, no it isn’t – at least not yet. There must be hundreds of different databases, each with its own acronym, that exist up and down the network. The majority exist in their own technical silos, focusing on specific aspects of the infrastructure with limited ability to align with other aspects. For the maintainer, this means that planning is often convoluted and unnecessarily complex. Different priorities are often generated by the different systems, so it is not always clear what the true priority is for the whole system.

Working toward a data-driven railway

The good news is that Network Rail understands that this is both a problem and a great opportunity. The infrastructure owner is embarking on an enterprising and radical journey to move from the position described above to one where these huge banks of data are absorbed and captured into a national intelligence model, one that can serve a data- driven railway in a cohesive, safe and cost effective manner.

Well, that sounds like a quite straightforward task, doesn’t it? Again the answer, of course, is no, otherwise it would have been done already, but Network Rail has certainly grasped the nettle and is beginning to make significant inroads and progress.

To start with, Network Rail already has a whole host of asset management systems, both under development and in use, which call on cutting- edge technology. One example is the Plain Line Pattern Recognition (PLPR) high-speed trains that have been introduced recently. Two of these trains recently covered and inspected 6,000 miles of continuously welded rail (CWR) track in four weeks and there are plans to extend coverage to four trains and 15,000 miles next year.

Harbury Slip Tunnel Information - map view [online]

The trains are fully equipped with modern technology, lasers, infrared cameras and powerful computers that capture images every 0.8mm. These images are analysed using powerful computers to produce condition reports, including loose bolts, track geometry, rail, sleepers and ballast condition. The information is available to the maintenance teams which are able to identify exactly where the fault is and to use skilled resources, that would have previously been involved in the patrolling of the track, to carry out the necessary repairs.

New systems for new assets

In preparation for the electrification of the Great Western main line (GWML), Network Rail has invested in the latest Supervisory, Control and Data System (SCADA) for the overhead line equipment. In addition, the new signalling control centres are now able to collate and coordinate real-time, intelligent traffic management systems throughout the network.

These systems, plus many others, not only provide better information about the condition of the assets but they are slowly being brought together to work alongside an initiative called ORBIS (Offering Rail Better Information Services). This can best be described as an “asset intelligence programme”, a transformation programme designed to improve the way Network Rail acquires its asset information, how this information is captured and stored and, most importantly, how it is then used. Work started in 2011 with an anticipated completion date of 2018.

Workforce involvement

Recognising that front line staff are key to the success of this initiative, 200 workshops, which also included external stakeholders, were held throughout the country. More than 13,000 tablets and smart phones were issued to staff and Wi-Fi was installed in 50 depots. There was no constraint put on the use of this equipment and everyone involved was encouraged to get to know and use it and, most importantly, to think of and suggest ideas for work related Apps that would help them and others to do their job more safely and more efficiently.

One of the apps introduced, My Work, digitised the work order process, removing paperwork and enabling frontline teams to view and complete work orders before uploading directly to Network Rail’s central system (issue 127, May 2015). More than 2.5 million work orders have been closed using the app. As staff confidence grows, there is the opportunity to develop and introduce more sophisticated and powerful applications leading to full asset data collection using this technology. These initiatives can also be aligned to broader business improvement objectives and aspirations.


Throughout the network, maintenance engineers are now able to declutter their work banks and replace old data with more accurate information about location and exact mileage complemented by trackside pictures displaying the fault identified. This information can be analysed using Reliability Centred Maintenance (RCM) techniques, another initiative that is underway, to enable appropriate safety and business priorities to be established.

The ORBIS programme, working to the principles of capturing, storing and exploiting accurate data, enables the work bank data to be coupled with other initiatives such as the Linear Asset Decision Support tool (LADS), integrating 14 asset datasets allowing engineers to make decisions on whether to maintain, refurbish or renew assets, and the Geo-RINM (Rail Infrastructure Network Model) Viewer which allows users to see the UK’s rail network through a single integrated tool for the first time.

The Viewer will include high-quality images and LiDAR data captured during an aerial survey carried out last year of the UK’s 16,000 route kilometres of track and the surrounding rail environment.


Accurate and safe planning

As a consequence, engineers and planners are now able to visually display the area associated with a fault identified within a safe environment, such as an office or a briefing vehicle equipped with 360o media systems. It means that work can be planned accurately without risk. In addition, the work carried out can then be accurately recorded and downloaded onto the asset data base ensuring that asset history is kept up to date; an activity that has not always been well managed in the past.

Following on from this preliminary work, the next stage of ORBIS will look to join up all of the individual assets into a complete system model and achieve a far greater understanding of how these interact together. Some of this work is already underway, carrying out preliminary system mapping and understanding the criticality of different assets to aid the maintenance teams to maximise the reliability of these vital elements that have a direct benefit on performance.

This work becomes more critical as Network Rail continues to demand more capacity and capability out of the existing network while recognising that it needs to understand how the system works to a far greater level of detail. It is one of the outcomes that ORBIS will deliver about asset information.

Meeting future demands

With demand for rail services already stretching much of the UK’s infrastructure to its limit, and major expansions such as HS2 still some years off, the potential for ORBIS to assist in growing capacity is an important consideration. One option for achieving this is to move away from fixed signalling blocks on the rail network towards in-cab signalling, which will enable Network Rail to put a higher density of traffic on certain sections of the rail network. This, in turn, will increase the maintenance workload as the degradation of the network will be accelerated. The other early aspects of ORBIS, such as asset condition, will therefore be crucial in delivering this.

As more sophisticated technology is imported into everyday working within Network Rail, one risk that must be taken into consideration is the possibility of a cyber-attack. Could the hacking of a signal system happen in the UK? It has happened in certain parts of Europe and it does raise the question as to whether there is such a thing as a closed system within an organisation the size of Network Rail. Clearly, this will be an emerging risk that the company will have to be aware of and manage.

ORBIS and the associated asset management systems that are being developed do form a concept that makes sense. The potential is enormous with the need to go trackside reduced, which lowers the risks associated with getting the job done. Knowledge of the assets will improve dramatically, helping to improve decision making with regard to renewal, traffic flows and general route strategy. There will be a significant knock-on benefit to major project work and the overall potential savings will contribute to compliance to CP5 financial targets.

In all, Network Rail is tackling one of the outstanding major challenges, helping to ensure that the UK rail industry will have a robust future using cutting edge technology.