Digital innovation with a customer focus

Rather than seeing digitialisation as an end in itself, rail projects are using signalling technology to answer pressing questions.

Driving the digital transformation of industry are four levers – digital data, connectivity, automation, and digital customer access – according to global consultancy Roland Berger.

In the rail industry, these levers are being pulled, however instead of being an end in itself, the move towards digital rail is an enabler of a host of other improvements to services.

These outcomes were on display at the Train Control and Management Systems summit, held in Sydney from February 19 to 21. While each individual project used its own combination of data, connectivity, automation, and digital customer access, the end outcome was driven by the industry need.

One of these projects is the Australian Rail Track Corporation’s (ARTC) Advanced Train Management System (ATMS). Although begun over a decade ago in 2008 with a proof of concept trial, as ARTC operation readiness manager – ATMS, Gary Evans described, the technology has been driven by its outcome and is nearing its first deployment in 2020.

“ATMS will bring improvements in our network rail capacity, operational flexibility, train service availability, transit times, and rail safety, and it will replace trackside signalling by providing precise locations of trains.”

While adopting virtual block authority management similar to other advanced train control systems, ATMS retains the trackside infrastructure.

“Trackside infrastructure is something ARTC does very well and the project monitors the environment, the occupancy of the points, so our system has track circuits over the switches,” said Evans.

Across the ARTC network of 8,500km of track, interlocking between sections of signalling and track will be centralised.

“It’s a high-fidelity track database, it’s rated to Safety Integrity Level (SIL) 3 and it enables virtual block authority management. The blocks within which the trains operate are usually a physical block and they are separated by signals, what we do with this system is that we can break it down into virtual, electronic blocks and currently, for the proof of concept we ran about 200m electronic blocks, the ones that we are using at the moment are 500m in length,” said Evans.

The new virtual block system will allow a granularity of control not previously possible.

“In terms of train operation, a train will go through a physical block today every 20 minutes. A train that will go through this same infrastructure will probably consume in the order of eight of these electronic blocks but as it is moving through it will report back at 15 second intervals,” said Evans.

“ATMS is rated for four minute headways for 1,800m trains travelling at 115 km/h.”

While the technology in itself is a step forward for the control and management of train systems, the implementation of the ATMS and the use of the four levels of digital transformation is ultimately about delivering a service for the customer, in this case, freight operators across Australia. This has led to ATMS’s unique features. Having to serve a number of freight operators at various points throughout the freight network that stretches from Kalgoorlie to Newcastle, has led to interoperability being a key facet of ATMS. Retaining trackside infrastructure allows for unequipped train traffic to use the system, and the trainborne interface was developed in consultation with operators.

“We did a lot of work with the operators on the driver interface unit. The first one that was put in front of them was a European-style one, which was a dial type set up and we almost had a walkout of the operators because it didn’t give them a lot of information and it required them to be fixated with that dashboard whereas they wanted something that didn’t require that. We worked together collaborative to come up with the current system.”

The resulting interface gives drivers a 10km look ahead, and relays information on train speed and speed limits in real time. Using location determination systems onboard the train, the system can alert a driver, operator, and controller if the train is exceeding limits.

Evans summarised the benefits of the ATMS system.

“Improved safety authority and speed level enforcement, improved trackside safety for trackside workers, increased rail capacity, improved service reliability, improving the structure of maintenance costs, more flexibility in the network, and safer management of trains.”

While Australia’s rail industry has been plagued by different technologies and standards in each state, the ARTC regards ATMS as a technology to synchronise rail control and management, for the benefit of the end user.

“ARTC’s customers traverse three states so it’s very important for us to take the lead and ATMS provides us a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually have a harmonised rule set,” said Evans.

Having this in place will allow for further innovations driven by the digitalisation of rail control.

“Future enhancements that we will work through is a path to semi automation or automation of operational systems, and integration with fuel and energy management systems.”

Having data on how a train is travelling will allow operators to more efficiently plan routes while identifying driving behaviours that increase fuel costs.

For example, rather than running at full speed through a section of track before coming to a complete stop at a signal, freight drivers can be told the optimum speed to travel to reach that signal as it turns green. Looking further afield, ATMS could lead to driver-only operation. In these cases, digital rail is not so much about the technology itself, but the enhancements that can come from its implementation.

“ARTC wants to be an enabler for its customers and not a disabler,” said Evans.

DIGITALISATION AS A SOLUTION TO DEMOGRAPHIC, ENVIRONMENTAL CHALLENGES
As Australian rail infrastructure managers and operators adopt their local digital systems, international examples provide guidance on the motivations and outcomes of digitalisation programs. Perhaps none are more comprehensive than the digital rail system being rolled out across all of Germany’s 33,000km of rail. Beginning with the trans-European corridor, the Stuttgart S-Bahn and specified high speed lines, Joern Schlichting, head of the ETCS program at Deutsche Bahn (DB), outlined the significance of the project.

“In terms of automatic train operation (ATO) and ETCS, this is the future. That means fundamentally, a new rail system.”

According to Schlichting, Germany’s existing rail control system was performing sufficiently, and not reaching obsolescence. This made the attractiveness of the business case for adopting ETCS, however penalties within the agreement with other EU member states overcame that.

“The projected penalties would have been at least €1 billion if we didn’t equip these corridors. So, the German government said if we have to spend €1bn on penalties or equipment, let’s spend it on equipment.”

This presented an opportunity for DB and its rail infrastructure arm, DB Netz to rethink how the adoption of ETCS could be a further enabler for other issues the rail network was facing.

“Why not stop to think about how could we make the best out of it?”

This approach enabled DB to utilise the digital rail technology to confront two critical issues facing the sector – a demographic exodus and a modal shift from road to rail to reduce carbon emissions.

“What we found that is as long as we talked about ETCS as a technology issue in terms of replacing one thing by another thing there was no business case. As soon as we started to think about what the real business drivers are – what are our threats – then we found out our demographic issue is one of the worst,” said Schlichting.

In 2011, DB estimated that in the next 10-15 years, 50 per cent of mission-critical staff will retire. Replacing this staff cohort with a younger generation would require a rethink of the type of work train operators would be doing, particularly in regards to legacy systems such as interlockings.

“With these old interlockings, we have one maintenance area where we have 18 generations of interlockings, so you can imagine it’s a nightmare for people working there to be able to maintain them.”

Moving to digital systems would overcome this legacy issue and enable a younger, digital-native generation to easily fit into the systems and ways of working.

“Actually ETCS is more of an enabler. ETCS is a tool in order to bring about a completely new redesign of the rail system,” said Schlichting.

The other element that digitalisation could go towards is the relative carbon footprint of transport in Germany. Although Germany has committed to a 95 per cent carbon reduction by 2050, transport has been a sector that has been stubborn in reducing its emissions, falling by only 0.6 per cent between 1990 and 2018, compared to energy which dropped by 33 per cent. The magnitude of the task is not lost on Schlichting.

“We have to move transport from road to rail, so that means we need to create the capacity, but in the past our network has been shrinking.”

Driven by cost cutting directives, DB has reduced its workforce from 120,000 to 40,000 in the past 15 years and has also torn up tracks and points. However, now the system is required to double passenger traffic by 2030, and cargo traffic by 30 per cent. Digitalisation and the improvement of signalling thus becomes a way to increase the shrinking system’s capacity.

“How can we do this with an existing network that has been shrinking in the past and without having any money at the time for loads of new lines?” asked Schlichting.“Digitising it is the chance to create more traffic.”

At the core of this digitalisation push is the adoption of ETCS technology, common across Europe, which with a focus on outcomes, Schlichting describes as a “language”. Once the system and vehicles are talking to each other in this language, then further technology improvements can be introduced when the users demand it, just like new vocabulary.

An artist’s impression of Sydney Trains’ Rail Operations Centre.

DESIGNING A CUSTOMER FOCUS INTO RAIL OPERATIONS
In some ways, Sydney Trains is experiencing a similar issue to DB, albeit on a smaller scale, as population pressures and urban development cause more Sydneysiders to use the network. As the acting executive director, Digital Systems Business Integration (DSBI) at Sydney Trains, Andrew Constantinou sees these impacts in the operations of the network.

“Increased patronage effectively translates into our ability to create more services and our ability to create reliable services and that’s where the ROC plays into.”

The Rail Operations Centre (ROC) is a new, purpose-built building in Alexandria, Sydney which has brought together the rail management centre, the infrastructure control centre, security monitoring facility and two signal boxes, covering most of the geography of Sydney Rail. A customer and operator demand for precise, accurate information has led to the streamlining of operations into one centre and finding a way to simplify communications.

“Part of the scope is to develop a new concept of operations,” said Constantinou. “We have introduced a new incident management system that took away a lot of those phone calls, and developed a dashboard so that all areas in the ROC can understand what is the mission for that particular incident and who is dealing with what priorities.”

In this case, the digital systems that were built into the ROC had to be designed with the end user in mind, the rail operator, and to minimise disruptions on the network.

“It really starts with bringing all your people together. We started with seven design principles and I focus on the top two – collaboration and communication – because if you can build a high-performing control room floor that fosters good communication and good collaboration, you start ticking the other boxes which are underneath it,” said Constantinou.

While individual controllers’ roles were driven by the train systems they were operating, the human demands of communication were paramount.

“We looked at what communication happened. So what communication happened face to face, on the control room floor, over the telephone, and through various subsystems?

“We did that two-fold. We did that in normal mode and we did that in degraded mode. That gave us an idea around who spoke to whom and when did they speak to whom,” said Constantinou.

Ahead of designing the space, Constantinou’s team conducted a role matrix to see where the patterns in operations were, particularly in degraded mode.

With the Sydney Trains network compressing from 15 lines across the suburban network into six in the CBD, getting those critical staff together would be key for functional communication.

“We were able to say 50 roles in network operations were similar and should be sitting next to each other,” said Constantinou. “We quickly worked out which ones were the more critical to operations, which of those roles needed more supervision, which should be configured in a way that they have more supervision around them, and that led to a functional link analysis to understand if there were any functional commonality in the roles.”

With these findings, operations staff were then given a VR headset so that they could inspect the draft design and see how it fitted with their behaviour.

“We set up outside every control centre with a basic fit out where people would come in and put on the masks. They would walk around the desks and the control room floor and we would take every comment down to see how we could respond to it,” said Constantinou.

Following this was trial runs in defined scenarios, such as a tree falling over a rail corridor and a train colliding with the tree.

“You can see the phone calls that go in from the driver to the area controller and the different colours are typically people who would’ve been located in different control centres,” said Constantinou.

“They would’ve, through situational awareness, overheard the conversation because they’re sitting at the right proximity, or they would’ve been able to swing around and talk to these people.

“If you start doing the maths, it’s all the way from a two minute to a 10-minute saving threading through that scenario, so it’s good to know we can save time,” said Constantinou.

At the newly designed ROC, which opened in mid 2019, data, connectivity, and customer access came together, however with the outcome determined by the end user, not the technology itself.

Digitalisation key to future of rail

As Transport for NSW (TfNSW) begins work on its new digital systems facility in Chullora, delegates at the Train Control Management Systems conference heard how the installation of digital systems can lead to a rail system fit for the future.

The conference, held on February 20 was opened with a presentation from Joern Schlichting, head of the ETCS programme at Deutsche Bahn, who described how through digitalisation, Germany was building a “fundamentally new rail system”.

In implementing the ETCS programme, Deutsche Bahn will respond to two major challenges the industry is facing, and which are shared by operators in Australia. These are the need to enable the rail network to carry larger volumes of people on existing tracks and overcome the issue of high numbers of staff reaching retirement age. Rather than an end outcome, said Schlichting, “ETCS is a tool in order to think about completely new redesign of the railway system”.

As part of the ETCS migration strategy in Germany, a wholescale digitalisation of the rail network will be undertaken. These include digital interlockings and railway vehicles, and will ultimately provide a platform for the future integration of other technologies, such as automatic operations, and the ability for trains to recognise obstacles and the environment on their own.

“ETCS is not a technology, it is a language,” said Schlichting.

While these technological changes will allow for more frequent and efficient services, the migration to digital platforms is also thought to attract a new generation of rail workers, as many involved in train control reach retirement age.

These are concerns shared by the Australian rail industry, as it adopts ETCS. In NSW, TfNSW is upgrading its infrastructure to ETCS level 2 as part of its Digital Systems project. In Queensland, ETCS will be integrated into the Cross River Rail project.