How the internet of things could transform Britain’s railways

Network Rail Telecom and supplier partner Cisco reveal how they are working together to digitise the national railway infrastructure

Network Rail Telecom (NRT) is embarking on an ambitious plan to lever the growth of the internet of things (IoT) to enhance its own internal services' capabilities, in conjunction with supplier partner Cisco.

NRT is ultimately the successor organisation to British Rail Telecommunications, which dates back to the invention of the telegraph and once ran the largest private network in the UK.

It is now responsible for Network Rail’s national telecoms asset management and service provision, and owns all the organisation's telecoms assets, including an 18,500km fibre-optic network.

As well as managing Network Rail’s IT and business communications, NRT also has responsibility for signalling, train radios, lineside communications, level-crossings, station information and security, among other things.

Last September, it signed a contract with Cisco to implement an IP MPLS trackside network to deliver and support a number of new services it hopes to deliver, which could make it a leading use case for the Internet of Things.

For Clayton Nash, NRT's head of telecom product, the programme is all about looking at the national railway infrastructure in a more fragmented fashion.

There are already tens of thousands of sensors deployed up and down the nation’s railway tracks to monitor things such as air and track temperatures and stress gauges. The introduction of IP networking will allow NRT to deploy hundreds of thousands more.

Wichita lineman has got off the line

In practice, this has big implications for how the railways are managed and run, says Nash. Take the maintenance of overhead power lines on parts of the network that draw power from such a supply.

Up to now, Network Rail’s technicians have had to spend large amounts of time at the trackside conducting routine maintenance checks.

However, says Nash: “Having individuals close to bits of track is no longer economically viable. We need to move into centralised facilities, which means we need to be able to remotely view how the railway operates.”

A sensor that can alert a centralised control desk to a problem, or a potential problem, will make this ambition much more achievable. It could even save lives, says Nash.

“We have a huge number of things we need to watch and if we can run the railway as a fully digital service, and not have to have people walking the tracks, it brings cost savings for us and increased safety for our workforce,” he says.

The trackside network will enable NRT to provide Track-to-Train Intelligent Infrastructure to provide data on track status, such as faults or obstacles, improving the safety of passengers and the men and women who walk the lines.

Other connected devices will interact independently with sensors on the network to measure things such as water table levels, which can affect railway embankments should the ground become waterlogged. Meanwhile, in-ground sensors will detect landslides or the potential for them.

Plain Line Pattern Recognition technology will generate a sequence of images as trains move along the tracks, feeding visual and statistical inputs into asset and track maintenance systems, monitoring the status of the track, level-crossings, adjustment switches, defects and joints in real time.

Currently, inspection of rail conditions consumes 1.3 million man hours per year. NRT believes Plain Line Pattern Recognition will cut this by almost half.

No more Ladbroke Groves

The dawn of the IoT has similar implications for signalling – Network Rail has already been cutting back on remote signal boxes – but the ability to introduce in-cab signalling using the European Train Control System has similar implications for cost and safety.

Splitting the railway into smaller segments, or blocks, of track will, in the near future, enable Network Rail to do away with traditional signals and pass over control of speed and movement of the train to an automated system deployed in the driver’s cab, which will constantly communicate with every other train in the area as they move through each block.

NRT estimates in-cab signalling could be up to 40% cheaper than traditional lineside signals, because running trains at their optimum speed will allow more units onto the track, boosting passenger capacity and reducing delays, and helping to avoid a repeat of incidents such as the 1999 Ladbroke Grove crash, caused when a train driver jumped a red trackside signal that he apparently failed to spot.

A smoother ride

Beyond reducing the likelihood of major incidents on the railways, the IoT will also improve the passenger experience in more mundane ways, says Nash.

“We want to be able to understand how many people there are in each carriage and how they are moving around,” he says. “If you can tell where people are on the network and what their journeys look like, then you can plan for disruption better.”

Data collected from CCTV or from station ticket gates can also serve the passengers themselves. NRT hopes to be able to loop real-time information back to passengers through a smartphone journey-planning app.

There are other potential uses as well, such as advice on what carriage to join and where to stand on the platform to position yourself for a swift exit at your destination. Such a service already exists for the London Underground, although it is not provided through TfL.

Opportunities and challenges

For supplier Cisco, the scale of NRT’s nationwide network brings both opportunities and challenges, says Stephen Goodman, CTO of industry and infrastructure.

“From our perspective, working with NRT helps us flesh out our strategy and determine how we can deliver connectivity in hostile, remote environments,” he says. “It gives us a real world use case. And they are coming up with use cases we had never thought of.”

The safety-critical nature of NRT’s work also obliges Cisco to work very closely with it to test and certify its network products. “You cannot just put products trackside,” says Goodman. “You have to go through a rigorous testing and approval process. It can take six to nine months just to get equipment approved for use on a railway.”

The nationwide network will also allow NRT to explore new avenues for commercial use, says Goodman.

“They go into rural areas where telcos don’t, so there is scope to use the fibre-optic network to supply broadband providers,” he adds. “Similarly, for 4G mobile rollout, NRT can go where some carriers cannot.”

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