With watches that can read you your emails, phones that track your calorie intake and tablets that can help you navigate the globe, it’s no wonder that railway innovation has followed suit and got a little smart too.

The Digital Railway is the phrase on everyone’s lips. With more and more passengers using the UK’s infrastructure every day, it is little surprise that everyone’s attention is turning to technology to help solve the railway’s capacity problem.

Under pressure

According to figures provided to the House of Commons Transport Committee by Network Rail, “1.5 million more train services run each year than in 1997, however passenger demand has outstripped that”. So, with the UK infrastructure already full to bursting, and passenger and freight demand showing no sign of slowing, it seems that the only way to deal with capacity concerns is to add more hours to the day!

With more and more services being run, essential maintenance is becoming increasingly important. However, as the services increase, track access times are squeezed. Can the Digital Railway be utilised to handle this increasingly concerning issue? And does increasing capacity have to mean compromising safety, or financial efficiencies?

To get more work done in less time, Network Rail is turning to technology. Its high-output systems are trains of up to half a mile long that can clean and replace ballast and renew track, largely automatically. Operating ‘adjacent line open’, their remit is to maximise output while having as few people on track as possible, as that puts them at risk.

However, there will always be activities which can only be undertaken by having a worker leave the safety of the train’s cabin and to go out lineside. This largely takes place at the beginning and end of possessions as the machines are set up and broken down.

Safe and Efficient Access

Following a fatal accident to a track worker in 2007, Network Rail set up its award-winning ‘Safe and Efficient Access’ project which aims to minimise the amount of time staff have to be on track for the purpose of taking or giving back a possession.

Gordon Williams, as high output programme manager (he’s now with Network Rail Consulting), called on digital technology to operate a step change improvement in safety when securing access for engineering work. Under ‘Safe and Efficient Access’, his goal was to move from an operational railway to a worksite in under two minutes.

One of the pieces of kit he worked with is Dual Inventive’s ZKL 3000 RC – a remote controlled track circuit operating device with a difference. Where track circuits are used, it removes the requirement for the use of detonators and marker boards, which had to be installed by track workers out on a live track. Managed by one ‘registered user’, the system allows for the real- time monitoring of live projects.

Gordon secured trials to utilise the ZKL 3000 RC alongside FTAP (flexible train access point) as part of the project, and subsequent utilisation has reported an average improvement in production time of eleven minutes. As well as improving productivity, improving track worker safety is a primary aim for the project.

“If you are not having to cross the track, you cannot be hit by a train, it’s obvious. You’re not exposed,” said Gordon. “If you focus on safety, efficiency comes. It’s all about making the process as simple as possible.”

Scott Moscardini, who works in the high- output team based in Doncaster, fully agrees with Gordon. He said: “The only danger is in the installation, but this is minimised as it can be done during hours of daylight and light traffic flow. Once everything’s set up, there’s minimal risk.”

As part of the Safe and Efficient Access project, a primary area of attention is Protection Zone working. This Protection Zone provides teams with a method of taking over sections of track, without the need for a possession or line block.

The High Output Ballast Cleaner currently requires 17 separate phone calls in order to move it into position through a worksite, which Gordon calls “a recipe for disaster”. It requires track workers to enter the live site numerous times to place detonators or possession markers, which places them at increased risk and, according to Gordon, it’s not always easy to get them “in the right place, at the right time, safely”.

The Safe and Efficient Access project provides an answer to these problems in the form of the ZKL 3000 RC and the FTAP systems. Together, they produce a Protection Zone, allowing the engineering train to progress through a worksite, guided by FTAP signals, with minimal verbal contact being made by track staff.

The train can move into position when the railway is still operational, so teams don’t have to take and pass back access via the remotely operated ZKL 3000 RC technology until the last minute, providing up to 20 minutes more working time at each Protection Zone.

Gordon believes that the combination of wireless ZKL 3000 RC technology delivered many benefits to the programme, not least a significant increase in safety and productivity.

“The light bulb moment was that, if I deploy it tonight, tomorrow night I don’t have to put someone at risk,” he said.

The rest of the team were keen on the idea as well. “One of the guys on the team in Newcastle’s response to the new product trials was ‘Yes! We’ve been waiting for this for 10 years!’” Gordon laughed. “Wherever we use it, people love it – it’s so simple and safe.”

Many of the challenges historically faced by high-output teams focus around time constraints. Scott Moscardini saw the benefits to his team quickly: “Our work is time critical. It takes a long time to get a line block and, if we lose five minutes, we lose a lot of production. What we didn’t know was that when we use a ZKL 3000 RC, the same job takes literally 10 seconds!”

Game-changing technology

However, is it possible to meet safety, speed and efficiency targets? With the proper utilisation of digital technologies, it would appear so.

Recent project works at Hebden Bridge have highlighted exactly how savings can be made across the board, when traditional line blockage systems are replaced with a digital alternative.

The project is part of re-signalling works currently being undertaken on the MRB line, by Works Delivery Specialist Projects, which requires trough to be replaced and upgraded. This required both the Up and Down lines to be blocked, both individually and simultaneously. However, a possession on this line can only be granted once every six weeks, so line blockages were used to allow for further works to be carried out on mid- week nights.

A further twist was added thanks to a third converging branch line, which had to be blocked at all times. In addition, a track trolley was required on site, which also required additional protection.

A project of this nature would usually require three hand signalmen and a further twelve track workers to safely place and remove the required protection (detonators). Due to the make-up of this particular site, the short length of shifts available and the frequency of trains during the shift, it was estimated that the project would only be able to operate at 60 per cent efficiency, and could not be completed on time, or within budget.

Productivity enhancement was key to the success of the Hebden Bridge project. The implementation of ZKL 3000 RC technology allowed track teams to take and remove a line block in a few seconds, helping build in more productive time per shift – an increase of around 60 minutes per shift. Over the course of the project, this increased the working time by 26 per cent and reduced the number of shifts by 14.

With fewer shifts required to complete the project, it is little surprise that the project also realised significant financial efficiencies. Due to a reduction of man-hours, equipment hire, protection staff and track access planning, the project realised significant efficiencies of over £321,000.

As well as speed and cost-savings, safety was a key consideration for the team, and the project certainly didn’t disappoint. Due to the pre-installation of the ZKL 3000 RC during a time of less risk (daylight hours, times with less frequency of trains, when key planning staff are available) and line blockages being taken remotely, there were significantly fewer movements in operational track for the duration of the project. Whilst it would be expected to see around 700 worker movements over the duration of a three-month project, the Hebden Bride project only recorded six visits into operational track, meaning there were 694 fewer instances of workers being put at risk.

Successful implementation in Europe

However, is the UK a little late in coming to the party when it comes to the implementation of cloud technology in infrastructure maintenance?

Due to intensive rail traffic, frequent maintenance on infrastructure in the Netherlands is a necessity – just like in the UK. ProRail (the Dutch equivalent of Network Rail) made the decision to install nearly 500 ZKL 3000 RCs across their network’s infrastructure. At Amsterdam station, a mass of switches and platform lines are now controlled entirely by ZKL3000 RCs.

In the Netherlands, short possessions are preferable, so ProRail chose to implement ZKL 3000 RCs in order to provide a series of flexible worksites across the country, 105 in Amsterdam alone. After a single year of use, there has been an increase in productivity of around 20 per cent, while nearly 270 working hours were gained by teams not having to implement and remove safety measures, and nearly 500 fewer track worker hours were spent in a place of danger.

John Gower, operations manager for Dual Inventive Ltd, believes that where Amsterdam is leading, the UK is set to follow: “Project Amsterdam is the real forerunner in ZKL 3000 RC usage. It allows teams in the Netherlands unrivalled access to track, superior flexibility, efficiency and improved safety.”