Products & Technology, Safety, Standards & Regulation, Technology and IT

Fitting the signal to the system

There’s no doubt that the coming generation of intermodal terminals will take the next step forward in efficiency, backed by the latest in automation technology. Already, the Moorebank intermodal facility is touted as the world’s first fully automated intermodal terminal, comprising automated load and discharge of containers, and automated handling of containers to and from trucks.

Having these automated processes will enable equipment to communicate with each other, increasing up-time and improving efficiency.

In this case, why shouldn’t the systems that provide the critical link between the automated intermodal terminal and the wider rail network also interface with the intermodal’s machinery and equipment, while providing an automated and safe rail control system?

This is the question that Richard Ogilvie, director at Rail Control Systems Australia (RCS Australia), is asking.

“What traditionally has happened with intermodal facilities is that train control systems have been put in by the same people that have done the mainline signalling and you often end up with a system that’s perhaps not fit for purpose for the facility. It’s either inflexible or it’s overkill and it doesn’t really suit their needs and they have to interface more often with another organisation’s train control centre to make their moves,” Ogilvie tells Rail Express.

Over the past few years, Ogilvie and the team at RCS Australia have been highlighting the benefits of signalling systems constructed from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products. With components drawn from the process automation and control industry, RCS Australia provides the systems integration and rail knowledge to design and fit these systems to the size and scale required for intermodal facilities and other private sidings.

“It’s very scalable and very flexible,” said RCS Australia engineering leader Bret Parker. “You can build it just to control the signalling and then as your other systems come online you can add parts to it from those manufacturers using the standardised interfaces to get to the level of automation that you want to achieve.”

Using standard industrial safety

Controllers, protocols and interfaces means that the technology is familiar to those working on it, even if they come from outside of the rail industry.

“If there are systems for controlling the movement of cranes, reach stackers or gates, the signalling system is readily able to be interfaced with that and can be modified by the people who usually look after that equipment because they’ll be familiar with that style of technology,” said Parker.

With a COTS system, describes Ogilvie, the flexibility that the array of hardware and software makes possible means that the system can be designed to be fit for purpose, and if that purpose changes, can be scaled to suit.

“You can tailor it through levels of complexity and automation to suit what you need. You might have an operator of a busy facility who has multiple trains moving at once, who needs to ensure separation of those and wants to do that remotely under the control of a master operator. That’s one level. At the other extreme you might have a facility who, from a safety perspective, just finds it’s better not to have drivers getting out of cabs and having to operate sets of switches. You can put a small level of automation in there so that can be done either remotely from the cab or from the line side, or remotely from another site. You can really pick your sweet spot anywhere in-between.”

Not only is the technology flexible, but by having a system that is fit for purpose, this is able to support network rules while providing controls that are designed for the needs of the facility.

“By using a COTS type system, you have the ability to move away from rigid and sometimes inflexible signalling procedures that traditional signalling technologies would force upon you,” said Ogilvie. “If you use a COTS system that is more flexible and more powerful and able to deal with more situations and interface to other systems then you can end up with a better solution to your facility.”

Having a system such as this in place means that rail signalling technology can be another automated link in the wider system.

“COTS signalling technology has the ability to provide an interface to a larger integrated system, with digitisation and measurements of weights coming through from vehicles and other measurement systems that might be online at an intermodal facility. There could be a seamless integration and a single control centre for a whole range of different equipment types, not just the signalling system,” said Parker.

Ogilvie, concurred, noting that the potential for integration is immense.

“COTS systems by their very nature are more than capable of running things like RFID systems or interfacing directly to them, weigh bridges, acoustic bearing detectors, all those sorts of analogue signals can all plug directly into your COTS system and you have the ability to bring it all together.”

Visualising this in the control room means that rather than an operator having one screen that ties together a number of processes and then a separate monitor for signalling, it can all be brought together.

“There’s a real opportunity to bring those systems together and make them work, so you reduce hardware, interfaces, and complexity and you give a better picture overall to the operator and the user,” said Ogilvie.

Switching off from the daily grind

One beneficiary of this COTS technology has been Boral. The cement and construction materials manufacturer, which utilises rail for the transport of its products and materials, called on RCS Australia to install a signalling solution for two sets of points near Marulan, in NSW.

A single branch line connected two separate quarries with the main line and one junction in particular was located on a steep grade. Having manually operated points not only reduced efficiencies but was causing significant rail wear through the starting and stopping of loaded freight trains.

Cameron Atkinson, acting rail infrastructure manager at Boral Cement, described the advantages of the system.

“It allows for the trains to come and go, controlled remotely by the main controller. This essentially means the train driver doesn’t have to get out and switch the points manually, which in turn means better production times and cost efficiency for our train operations. The points are on a fairly steep incline, so having manually operated points there increases the capacity of rail wear which therefore is a bigger cost to our business. Having this lowers our costs, increases our time efficiency and cost effectiveness when we’re delivering the product.”

Atkinson also noted that the new system improves workflows for train staff.

“Train drivers don’t like getting out there and changing the points, especially when for one of the quarries there’s five trains in there a day, so there’s 10 movements past those points At the other quarry there’s eight movements, so it’s a high volume area. By being a single line coming into that, if that train doesn’t stop and move, the other train has to hold back just next to the mainline which is about 6 kilometres away, so there’s 20 minutes of travel time gained.”

What made the COTS solution particularly beneficial was its familiarity to a business like Boral, whose engineers and staff were familiar with similarly designed process control solutions.

“They have electricians and technicians who maintain their safety controllers across all their range of equipment, and because the COTS equipment looks and smells and behaves like what they’re used to then it’s not then considered a black box that no one’s ever seen before,” said Ogilvie. “They’re able to go out, interrogate it, look at it, treat it and even have a maintaining and holding requirement that’s much smaller because it’s the same equipment that’s used for other unctions across their site.”

These benefits came into stark relief in late 2020 when the network controllers suddenly could no longer control the points after a storm damaged equipment inside the cabinet.

“I went out there and the team assistant was showing error codes on all four different fields,” said Atkinson. “I ended up talking to Daniel Grivicic, senior systems and safety engineer at RCS Australia, and he couldn’t help me more. He was on the phone whenever I needed to be, and he worked with us for probably two to three days with our electricians and electrical engineers that we had on site.”

With a bit of remote assistance, the on-site electrical engineers were able to find a fault with the controller, but unfortunately Boral did not hold any spares. A call was made back to Grivicic who was able to quickly ship a replacement part. Ogilvie then travelled to site to oversee installation.

“We were able to recognise the part they had was no longer produced by the manufacturer, but because it’s a COTS system there was a straightforward and easy to implement upgrade solution,” he said. “We were able to work with them, show them how the upgrade path works, and do the work from an engineering perspective.

“To be honest they would be perfectly capable of installing that component themselves, it just happened we were nearby, and we went and helped them out.”

Rather than having to wait for a proprietary part to become available, RCS Australia were able to purchase the replacement component immediately. In this case, the existing PLC had been discontinued, however due to it being a COTS component, the next generation replacement was easy to install.

“If you didn’t know what you were looking at you would think it’s exactly the same unit, it all plugged in like for like, same bracket, same size, same everything,” said Atkinson.

While the Boral system is relatively simple, the COTS system installed there has been scaled to the size of the user need. Having been in place since 2013, Atkinson is exploring with RCS Australia what possibilities there are to have the technology deployed at other locations in Boral’s network.

“That’s readily expandable to more sets of points in that area or to control other bits and pieces,” said Parker. “It doesn’t need to stay like that and it’s very scalable from that point of view, you can start small and build up.”

Not only is the system scalable but added to the initial cost savings are the benefits over the lifetime of the technology, as seen by Boral.

“It’s really that whole of life cost for an operator, to understand that they have an obsolescence path, they have a system that they can maintain using not necessarily railway background staff. They will always have an assurance that they can go to a manufacturer and get the part that they need,” said Ogilvie.

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