Rail needs to exploit data better and take a systems approach

Digital technology and the application of data is crucial to improving the operation and maintenance of rail networks. Andy Walker reports from Bentley Systems’ Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore on what the company’s rail experts see as the key challenges to be addressed.

Bentley Systems' director of product management, design engineering, Ian Rosam (left) and rail asset performance manager, Andrew Smith.

In recent years, the rail sector has dramatically increased its use of data and taken advantage of technological advances to make improvements to the network. Challenges still remain though and taking a digital approach is only part of the solution.   

“The main thing is capturing the network that we have and understanding it – in the UK we know the assets that are out there but actually there’s a lot of missing information and we need to understand the quality of that,” says Ian Rosam, director product management, design engineering at Bentley Systems. 

“The challenge that faces us is cost overruns and we are seeing it across the network, with electrification being curtailed and cut back,” Rosam says. “It comes back to the quality of the understanding of the network that we have got. This is where technology like reality models can assist because you’re more informed up front in terms of those design decisions,” he says.

Gaining that better understanding of the network is crucial in saving costs and doing construction better, says Rosam. “A good example might be the location of an electrification mast - where do you position that and can your position it there? And also, traditional survey techniques - you have to get track access, you have to get possession, which is a real challenge and then you’ve got to get access to that location where you need to do the inspection,” he explains. “Trying to reduce the number of possessions that you need to make informed decisions is a challenge for the designer because you are limited in those possessions,” Rosam says.

“From the construction side of things, the same situation occurs. If you don’t have the good quality information as to where that structure can go and you need to make changes on site, typically you’re going to end up with ‘we can’t do this work now, we have to move onto another location and go back to the designer for it to be redesigned’. So, the number of possessions becomes a real challenge for the UK market because access onto the track is limited.”

Rosam said that Bentley’s Open Rail Designer, out for two years now, has been making a difference and they now have some basic level of electrification equipment being added in. “We are also partnering with Siemens on Open Rail Overhead Line Designer. That’s a combination of the Open Rail design technology with the Siemens equipment, libraries and components for electrification that come together into essentially what is a digital twin of the network,” he says.

Making the most of the rail network’s known digital information is vital, says Andrew Smith, Bentley Systems rail asset performance manager. “We need to take full advantage of the data that we already have in the rail network,” he says. “We are not data poor - we have a vast amount of data about what’s going on in our network in terms of usage, maintenance, inspections, measurements and designs in many places. What we are not doing is taking full advantage of that in order to be able to make optimal decisions,” says Smith.

There is a need to operate differently, he said, and see the rail network much more as a system rather than an asset. “We are tending to operate microscopically and putting blinkers on in many cases – and I’m talking globally here,” Smith says. “Having the right kit is not enough, when you use it you’ve got to change the processes and the way by which you work. We provide people with a toolkit that enables them to work differently to be able to increase efficiencies and reliability. If you don’t actually use the tool, then you are not going to realise the efficiencies that come out of the far end.

“What you’re responsible for is a large, safety critical national system. It’s not a series of assets, it is a system. You have to treat it as a system, manage and maintain it as a system and make decisions at that level in order to build and optimise what you are doing more microscopically underneath,” says Smith.

Ian Rosam and Andrew Smith spoke to Andy Walker at the Bentley Systems Year in Infrastructure Conference 2019 in Singapore.

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