Digital Innovation Looks to the Skies

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Galileo, Europe's new global navigation satellite system, could revolutionise 'Train Location Management' and transform the passenger's journey.

In September 2015, two more Galileo satellites were launched on a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana. Their successful placement in orbit brings the number in the constellation to ten, a third of the way to a full network of 30.

Galileo is Europe’s global navigation satellite system, designed to complement the American Global Positioning System (GPS). It is set to provide real-time positioning accuracy down to the metre.

Although the European navigation system will not be fully operational until 2020, some smartphones and car navigation devices equipped with compatible chipsets can already receive the signals from the satellites that are now in orbit 23,222 kilometres above Earth.

Now new technological advances mean Galileo could be the trigger for a step change in ‘Train Location Management’ that will revolutionise the rail industry, and transform the passenger’s journey.

An Innovation that Could Change the Rail Industry

In 2013, the author led project T990 for the UK RSSB (Rail Safety and Standards Board)1 while with another organisation. This project set out to develop a high level strategy on train position, and to define a common Train Location Service (TLS), that brings coherence to the provision of trainbourne and trackside positioning capability rather than allowing individual solutions to emerge on the rail network. The TLS would utilise core technologies which deliver signalling safety, train detection and scheduling functions, integrating and enhancing their outputs to provide the basis for a range of beneficial end-user applications.

The TLS would combine location data from all available sources and make it available to any applications needing positional information, such as train control centres or smartphones. It would work independently of locator technology and of the applications making use of location data and would therefore embrace new digital technologies, as and when they are developed.

As part of this study, we explored the readiness of the telecommunications industry and in particular Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS), or more commonly ‘sat-nav’, to provide the supporting technology. Despite a favourable response, implementation has been slow, but new technological advances are changing this.

Sat-nav can pinpoint the geographic location of trains and transmit the information on board the train, in real-time, without the need to cross-check it with the electronic beacons2 fixed on the rail line, as explained below. This has the potential to become a very valuable source of train location information, which is not yet available with current train tracking systems.

This kind of sat-nav locator is already being used by train owners and operators. However, it is limited to providing a geographical position which is not necessarily precise enough to give an accurate location on a given track when tracks, or station platforms, are close together (called track/platform precision or “discrimination”).

Integration of Sat-Nav Derived Train Location Data with Infrastructure-Derived Data

Where track precision is required, current technology depends on there being something (such as a beacon), which adds to the sat-nav’s data. This approach has been adopted by some operators to provide “discrimination”, but these solutions are generally “ad-hoc” and switch from one location technology to the other rather than providing a fully integrated solution.  This approach also entails substantial additional infrastructure costs in fitting and maintaining the track beacons, and the on-board technology to read beacons or balises3 is also expensive.

The real benefits and savings come if sat-nav derived train location data is integrated with infrastructure-derived data in a central database without the need for these additional beacons. This centralised approach would deliver improved and more consistently accurate location readings along the route. Integration of these two types of data will create higher levels of accuracy. This capability is already being used to some extent in Project COMPASS4, a system being developed to enable trains to continue to move when the current signal system fails, and by ORBIS5, but not yet on a fully integrated scale.

The Train Location Service would be capable of tracking the following information for each train:

  • Train service identity
  • Time of last fix
  • Location of train - geospatial (latitude/longitude) and mapped to track
  • Speed
  • Direction (heading)
  • Train length

Information would be tracked in real time and updated whenever new information comes into the system from either the infrastructure or the train. The TLS would need to provide transparent access to information derived from other systems including DARWIN (the UK’s real time train prediction application) and operator databases containing train consist, orientation, etc. Supporting information may also be needed, for instance on door status (open/closed).

TLS Conceptual ArchitectureFigure 1 – TLS Conceptual Architecture.

The real benefits from this approach can be derived if the whole system is designed to be open and transparent, and app developers are able to provide new functionality which can take advantage of the system as it is rolled out across the network (see Figure 1).

The multi-modal opportunities are also exciting. The Train Location Service could be extended to buses; most modern buses are fitted with a GPS locator and could be tracked provided that they carry a special identification that would enable the TLS to search for correspondence with a road rather than a railway track. If necessary, interfacing with separate tracking systems should be relatively simple if buses are provided for in the overall scheme of mobile service identification, and the correspondence of bus stops to train stations is mapped.

The Digital Railway and the Way Forward for High Speed Rail

From broadband data on trains, digital command control, e-ticketing, digital signalling or driverless trains, innovations are shaping and transforming our railways.  The digital railway programme set up by Network Rail, the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the rail network in England, Scotland, and Wales, has the potential to shake up the UK rail industry and transform the customer journey experience.

The industry is already finding clever ways of using digital technology to improve safety and reliability and relieve congestion on our rail lines. However, much more can be achieved by harnessing this technology’s full potential; to accomplish this, digital technologies should be able to communicate with each other, be transferable to other lines and rolling stock, and most importantly be integrated in a common rail system.  This common rail system, would take into account legacy systems whilst allowing for new digital technologies as and when they are developed, without having to adapt them to different train systems. The Train Location System described above could form the core of the digital railway development.

There are some obstacles to developing a fully integrated solution. The UK mainline railway is divided into several individual entities in charge of different functions: train operations, rolling stock, infrastructures; which can be a real barrier to the implementation of a common system. Now that the digital railway programme is in place, there’s momentum to start changing the industry’s strategy.

High Speed Rail Has Some Significant Advantages

The digital railway programme was designed to accelerate the digital enablement of our rail, and provide an opportunity to develop the right overarching solution, including a strategic approach to train information management. Some projects have already successfully taken on board this strategy. For instance HS26, which WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has been working with, is managed separately from the existing mainline network. It has dedicated lines with interfaces to the Network Rail owned infrastructure and has many advantages over the mainline railway. Firstly, it is a new rail line without need to take account of legacy systems except at its interfaces. Secondly, it is a stand-alone vertically integrated railway and, unlike the mainline railway where different companies run the network, provide rolling stock, and operate trains, HS2 will carry out all these activities itself. For these reasons it has the opportunity to take a top-down, integrated, systems approach from the start; it can design the systems’ architecture and select the digital innovations that will create a world-class transport network.

Taking a system-led approach is the hardest part of any project and often comes with some pain and sacrifice when an easier path might seem preferable. We are at the beginning of our high speed rail journey but with skill and judgement we might just look back in 10 years’ time and say it was well worth the struggle.

WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff’s combined expertise in railway operations, technology application and systems engineering enables us to make a positive difference to the delivery of industry outcomes and business case benefits. 

1 RSSB is an independent not-for-profit company owned by rail industry stakeholders, including Network Rail, infrastructure managers, train operating companies and rolling stock companies. Its primary objective is to achieve continuous improvement in health and safety and performance of railways in Great Britain.

2 In navigation, an electronic beacon is a device which marks a fixed location and allows direction-finding equipment to find relative bearing. 

3 A balise is an electronic beacon or transponder placed between the rails of a railway as part of an Automatic Train Protection (ATP) system. 

4 COMbined Positioning Alternative Signalling System, also known as COMPASS.

5 ORBIS (Offering Rail Better Information Services). A Network Rail Project for digitising the management of complex Rail Assets and Infrastructure.

6 High Speed 2 (HS2) is a planned high-speed railway in the UK linking London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester. It would be the second high-speed rail line in Britain, the first being the High Speed 1 line connecting London to the Channel Tunnel.

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