The term Digital Railway has certainly caught the rail industry’s imagination, yet prospective users and suppliers still have diverse and widespread views as to what it really means.

Network Rail coined the term back in 2015 and produced an ambitious plan to introduce digital technology in virtually every one of its many activities (issue 132, October 2015). Whilst conceptually correct, it lacked realism as to how it could be delivered or financed and a more pragmatic view has since emerged with the appointment of David Waboso as the Digital Railway leader. He has set out three broadly defined objectives focussed on capacity, performance and safety (issue 147, January 2017).

Having established the Network Rail vision, one supplier’s view on achieving this was given by Alstom, which foresees a much greater involvement by the supply industry in the design, provision and maintenance of the resulting systems, including provision of finance through some kind of joint partnership (issue 150, April 2017). Although in some ways attractive, there are minefields of commercial, operational, safety and personnel matters to be overcome, all of which will take time, tact and patience to achieve a workable solution, let alone getting the buy in of the wider supply chain.

It seemed appropriate to get another opinion from industry, so Rail Engineer went to global engineering and technology giant Thales. As well as transport, the company serves the aerospace, defence and security sectors, providing the technology that enables two out of three flights around the world to take off and land safely, and a founding member of the Aircraft Carrier Alliance for building Britain’s two new ‘big ships’.

In transport, Thales employs over 8,000 people globally, including 1,200 in the UK, who work to deliver solutions that transform Britain’s journeys – the vision of the business today. The Thales view of the Digital Railway is one of pragmatism, with targeted intervention into the technology, but also recognising the need to address the cultural and behavioural challenges necessary for successful implementation and benefits realisation. David Palmer, who heads up the main line business within Transport, told Rail Engineer more about it.

Programme for change

The rail industry is enjoying unprecedented growth in the passenger sector, and digital technology can offer much needed capacity gains and performance improvements. David Palmer commented: “To realise that potential, we must embrace and sustain a collaborative, industry-wide approach, where suppliers and operators of infrastructure and train equipment can together maximise the benefits of digital systems to deliver a much bigger and quicker impact to the passenger journey experience, thus ensuring rail can compete effectively with other transport modes.

“Yes, technology is important in the Digital Railway vision, but changing people’s attitude to establish a culture of cross-industry teamwork and collaboration, is essential to achieve the potential.

“In Thales, we talk about an ‘Olympic mindset’. For London 2012, the transport industry worked, without any contractual or commercial arrangement, to ensure the transport network, both in London and at Olympic venues all over the country, delivered success on the world stage. True collaboration made that happen, and we need that spirit and commitment to the rail industry”.

Thales would wish to promote this vision and build on examples from where it is already happening.

Increasing capacity

In the Metro environment, the introduction of the Thales Seltrac CBTC system to the Jubilee and Northern lines and DLR, (also the forthcoming 4LM – the ‘four lines moderniation’ of the sub surface lines), has enabled signalling systems to give much greater train throughput and thus increased passenger capacity – 20 per cent on the Northern line, over 30 per cent on the Jubilee and expected up to 65 per cent on parts of the 4LM.

“The key to these successful deliveries is the collaborative, ‘one team’ approach that we developed in partnership with London Underground,” said David. Tube passengers and operators are benefitting from modern digital technology that also yields improved safety and reliability.

Equipping ERTMS/ETCS to main line railways that form the core links between the UK’s cities will hopefully yield the same benefits and is seen by many as the principal element of the Digital Railway. It is also, probably, the hardest to implement, as there are huge challenges with the integration into existing signalling systems, with the fitting of rolling stock being particularly challenging from a logistics perspective. Thales has been active in ETCS development since its earliest days and has provided Level 2 systems in Austria, Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, as well as being a main contractor in the Danish Railways nationwide rollout.


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The position in the UK is complicated, with continuing uncertainty on the routes and timescales for deployment. Becoming more certain is rolling stock fitment, where Thales has an on-board unit readily available with the approval process well advanced. The company has been selected as the preferred supplier for ETCS’s OBU Retrofit package 1 (class 43) under the ERTMS rollout programme. Funded by Network Rail and managed by the National Joint ROSCO Project (NJRP), it forms part of the UK’s Digital Railway vision that will help to deliver additional route capacity in the UK. Thales is mobilising to deliver the ‘first in class’ and subsequent fleet fitting.

Like many others, Thales sees merit in the development of ERTMS Level 3, including the proposed ETCS Hybrid L3 where some existing track circuits or axle counters are retained to detect non L3 fitted trains (issue 151, May 2017). ProRail and Network Rail are collaborating to demonstrate the benefits of ETCS Hybrid L3 and Thales is optimistic of being engaged along with other suppliers in order to help build this confidence. It is anticipated that a demonstration at the UK ENIF test site near Hertford will take place in 2017.

Traffic management systems

Achieving capacity gains and minimising disruption by optimised management of pinch points and route conflictions through the use of traffic management techniques, was envisaged as a quick win when three proprietary systems were evaluated in 2014. Following this initial analysis, Thales was awarded contracts to equip the Romford and Cardiff ROCs with TMS using ARAMIS (Advanced Railway Automation, Management and Information System), integrated to the Siemens Westcad-E Signalling control system.

Whilst other traffic management projects have now begun in the UK, the deployments in Romford and Cardiff have meant both the customer and supplier working together, sharing the goal of how best to introduce new technology, including significant but valuable lessons on integrating into the UK network.

Areas of concern have been the lack of source records for the signalling areas, the nuances of the UK network compared to how operations are run overseas, the significant increase in functionality (particularly around interfaces to conventional systems), and the complication of implementing TMS at the same time as major re-signalling work. Working collaboratively to address these challenges has been important, but extra time has been needed to plan in detail the migration from the current operational processes to the new way of working.

Traffic Management has to be technology-based, but key to success will be operator interaction with the system, human factors, appropriate training and stakeholder engagement, all of which need significant attention.

The ARAMIS TM system is a fully modular solution that is designed for full integration with the signalling, enabling routes to be set (or cancelled) automatically, dependent on the real-time acquisition of information from timetable, train describer, interlockings, radio block centres and other sources.

At both Romford and Cardiff, the system is however being implemented incrementally. Thales is using lessons learned in other countries with the system being initially deployed in Operational Decision Support mode. This gives screen-based advice to the signallers, but entrusts them with the final route setting. Both control centres will have this operational by the end of 2017, the Romford one being applied to the Upminster control centre for the C2C service to Southend. Full integration at Romford ROC will follow in due course.

The benefits of TMS, however, go beyond decision support to operators in signalling centres. Integrating TM to the passenger information systems such as Darwin and online journey planning systems will improve the accuracy of the information provided, particularly important to the traveller at times of disruption.

As David Palmer comments “TMS has been slower to take off in the UK than perhaps originally envisaged, but the collaboration between the Digital Railway team and the supply chain through the early contractor involvement activity makes future investment look more assured.”

Improving reliability and performance

Predict and prevent asset monitoring and analytics is now featuring in most operator’s digital railway strategy and drives significant benefit with reduced in-service failures, maintenance interventions and costs. The ultimate goal is to eradicate delays and cancellations caused by faulty or ageing infrastructure and to reduce the need for people to repair assets on the tracks during operational hours. By foreseeing when an asset is trending towards failure, the workforce can repair or replace it when the railway is paused for the night, thus benefitting safety conditions for trackside workers.

Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM) has been around for some time, with many operators making good use of it. Thales has provided Network Rail with RCM and Intelligent Infrastructure systems and services since 2008 that now monitor over 43,000 assets.

Thales’s next generation product, Eclipse, is specifically developed to provide decision support and predictive maintenance services for rail operators and maintainers, building on its existing solutions but also embracing the maturing RCM market. Leveraging EU joint funded asset research and utilising the latest cloud based platform, Eclipse delivers an asset condition and performance advisory service which will enable rail infrastructure managers to have an ISO 13374 compliant system for prognostic and advisory asset information.

The Thales vision for Eclipse is “to realise a railway where asset failures are not service affecting and all maintenance interventions are planned”. Being standards-based, it is vendor asset agnostic and incorporates a security module that ensures asset owners retain full control of their data to enable big-data analysis of complex data challenges that rail operators currently face.

“Eclipse has given Thales a platform for knowledge transfer amongst its employees,” said David Palmer. “The project scope has required many skill sets to come together. Graduates and apprentices fresh from college or university know how to manipulate data to give usable and concise information, but have limited knowledge on how it should be meaningfully interpreted. Combining this with the experience of seasoned engineers brings recognition to the criticality of the equipment being assessed, thus adding to the value of the team.”

Improving passenger experience

Getting accurate and consistent train-running and journey-planning information out to both front line rail staff and the passenger remains an ever present challenge and is regularly criticised in the media when things go wrong. The Darwin system has existed since 2009, with earlier systems in use before that. The objective is to collect train-running information from a variety of sources and continually compare this information to the intended timetable. Algorithms then assess the impact of out-of-course running and make the results available to station information systems and online travel information apps across the nation.

Thales has been the developer of the Darwin project and continues to manage the system architecture and performance from its Cheadle premises, which specialises in delivery of advanced decision support systems and integration. The system is continually evolving and the company works closely with the Rail Delivery Group to improve the provision of accurate, consistent and timely customer information.

Although online information is increasingly important to mobile and tablet users, observing the platform indicator or hearing the announcement at the station is the final confirmation that people actually need to feel in control and informed about their journey. The technology associated with station equipment has vastly improved over the years, but has it reached an optimum?

Thales thinks not and its digital, scalable APIS (Advanced Passenger Information System), with the ability to deliver audible and visual content, has been developed to provide airport style information at rail stations. It is already deployed overseas and Thales intend bringing it to the UK in due course.

Digital transport

Digital technology clearly exists and is not the barrier to the transformation opportunity the rail industry is facing. The imperative is working in a truly collaborative way to achieve the vision of the Digital Railway, with passenger and freight customer satisfaction being key. Thales believes that the main challenge the industry faces is to embrace the transformational change that technology enables, and creating the right collaborative “Olympic mindset” at the core of project development and delivery.

One cannot leave a discussion with Thales on the Digital Railway without mention of the cyber threat that a digital environment brings. Thales has a strong pedigree in measures to combat security breaches, and investment continues to stay ahead of emerging threats – perhaps a subject for another article.

This article has concentrated on the Digital Railway but Thales sees digital systems being applicable to many other forms of transport. It has a punchline – “Great Journeys Start Here”’ – so transfer of technology between different sectors makes business sense.

The Network Rail vision for the Digital Railway is viewed as realistic and Thales is part of making this vision a reality.

Thanks to David Palmer and others in Thales for openly sharing their views.

This article was written by Clive Kessell.


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