Apps on the Underground: transforming London's railway

David Waboso, London Underground director of capital programmes

Smart phone apps are allowing Underground engineers to diagnose Tube health nigggles before they become a problem. And there's more, says David Waboso.

I recently listened to a fascinating BBC programme about how the digital age is transforming the medical profession. For example, smartphones are now being used to help diagnose medical conditions.

A smartphone already has huge processing and communications power, plus a great camera so it’s quite easy, for example, to take an image inside someone’s ear to identify an infection. A picture can be uploaded to a doctor and a diagnosis and prescription given without a trip to the doctor’s office.

Another portable device allows consumers to measure temperature, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure, among other things. So there’s a theme emerging of how cheaper and more powerful digital engineering is revolutionising our daily lives.

Apps on the Tube

At London Underground, we’re also making use of apps and smart phone technology to provide customers with up-to-the-minute information about our services. Transport for London makes a great deal of data widely available to developers. With this data, third party developers create apps that allow staff and customers to see when the next train or bus is due.

"Sam Etchell, has developed an app that allows the ‘vital signs’ of track circuits (a service-critical component in railways) to be monitored remotely on smartphones"

Apps are also replacing things that were historically paper based, such as our table of fares and description of the codes that are displayed at our gate lines, allowing staff to access this information at the touch of a button.

Our engineering and projects teams are using third party apps on mobile devices to help them be more productive, and some of my team are even developing apps in their spare time to this end.

Plugged into the network

One example is ‘Site Report’, an app created by Ivan Perre, an electrical engineer working in our stations team. The app saves time by allowing the user to take site photos, make notes, generate a report and email it within a matter of minutes as opposed to travelling back to the office, creating a report on the PC and emailing it then. It literally saves the user hours of time.

Another of our engineers, Sam Etchell, has developed an app that allows the ‘vital signs’ of track circuits (a service-critical component in railways) to be monitored remotely on smartphones and, critically, allows pre-emptive action to be taken before the track circuit fails.

We are also looking at how engineers could have all the information they require when they go to site, through being fully connected to the condition monitoring network. So they could easily pull up a 3D BIM model, identify the faulty component and bring up a full service history.

Once the fault was resolved, a report could be uploaded then and there, updating the condition monitoring database. A range of sensors such as the microphone, gyroscope and accelerometers could be used to help diagnose certain faults without the need for additional bulky equipment.

Diagnosing the Underground

Just like in medical applications, the sensors available on mobile devices can be used to capture data to help keep the rail network healthy. For example, placing the mobile device on the floor of a train can make use of the inbuilt accelerometer and microphones to pick up real-time noise and vibration and identify if it’s starting to move outside normal parameters, and saves the need for more traditional instrumentation and analysis.

"‘Site Report’ is an app created by Ivan Perre,allows the user to take site photos, make notes, generate a report and email it within a matter of minutes." 

The Tube has undergone a digital revolution in the last decade or so, with CBTC and station control systems installed with massive amounts of processing and telecommunications power on trains, infrastructure and stations. These contain a huge amount of data and diagnostic information and the power of mobile technology and smart phones can also enable much quicker fault to fix times.

Image recognition technology can be deployed by holding up the phone camera to the failed asset display; an app can then convert the information into a diagnosis and provide a clear maintenance instruction to address the fault quickly.

In a similar fashion to the medical industry, this information can also be instantly transferred to system designers or remote experts as required. Currently maintainers need a vast amount of documentation and often have to spend a lot of time finding faults, increasing the time it takes to fix faults and ultimately increasing disruption to our customers.

What's next?

With the digital age and engineering assets rapidly moving to software control systems, it would be possible to harness the power of mobile applications to trigger a remote equipment reset or to instantly deploy a spare standby unit remotely. When critical assets fail, maintainers have to travel through congested London streets or the Tube network to get to site and perform corrective action. This can considerably extend the delay experienced by our customers.

The power of digital engineering should allow maintainers to obtain information remotely and allow them to reset the equipment from a remote location, alternatively the system could be remotely switched to a standby unit instantly thus greatly reducing the impact to service.

Advanced on-train and signalling telemetry in real time can be harnessed by mobile/digital applications to provide a real time understanding of our assets as they are operating throughout the service day. Our assets work extremely hard and are responsible for the reliable movement of thousands of people a day, constantly monitoring their health and intelligent use of this data in real time can greatly improve the service delivered to our customers. Think Formula 1 and the aircraft industry, their engineers instantly know the moment the asset moves away from the ideal condition and can take corrective action.

Advanced technicians could monitor a train’s “health” in real time, providing assurance to operators and controllers that they are in good condition or alternatively, allow a controlled exit from service before causing a service disruption. This type of “predict and prevent” approach has enabled us to reduce delays by 40% between 2007 and 2011, with a further 30% reduction by 2015.

It’s hard to imagine life without our smartphones, yet the iPhone was only introduced in 2008. It’s vital that engineers adopt and adapt to the increasing power and availability of digital technology in the delivery and operations of our national infrastructure.