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BIM well set to solve rail's delivery problem

BIM is now proven as a means for helping the rail sector to solve acute issues of delivery capacity, particularly in electrification, writes Atkins' Ray Dudding

Rail electrification has a high profile in the UK at present and it provides a tremendous opportunity to help improve the UK’s infrastructure. But there are many challenges including key issues with the ability to deliver the programme and the shortage of skilled and experienced engineers within the sector.

So, what can digital engineering bring to the table to help resolve these problems? Over the past two decades I have been leading the introduction of techniques now commonly known as BIM to the engineering of railway infrastructure, including electrification. This has enabled experienced engineers to focus on delivering design by automatically ensuring the engineering integrity of thousands of deliverables while eliminating repetitive, tedious tasks. This has been proven with the successful delivery of the Midland Main Line system design (GRIP 3 in rail speak) using the ‘Tadpole’ toolkit in three months, rather than the nine months it would have taken using traditional CAD methods.  

However, we were still expected to deliver ‘dumb’ drawings and spreadsheets to the constructor, so it didn't matter how digitally enabled the design process was, the benefits of BIM could not be passed fully down the lifecycle.    

The next stage was the challenge set by Innovate UK and the Rail Safety & Standards Board to digitally enable the railway. We partnered with Laing O’Rourke, who proposed applying their pioneering digital engineering construction techniques to electrification. This seemed like an ideal opportunity to pull everything together. Along with software and survey specialists DHP11 and Imperial College joining the partnership, Digitally Enabling Electrification (DEE) was born. 

Two years later, what have we learned? Primarily, a different set of technologies are required to carry out the systems design as opposed to the construction and product management systems needed downstream in the lifecycle. To get these to work as one, we developed an open data exchange format, effectively an extension of the existing Network Rail SDEF Schema to include electrification requirements. This allows the designer, manufacturer and constructor to configure any BIM software to share validated electrification specific data. The standard developed by DEE now needs a custodian to take it forward on behalf of the whole industry to reduce the barriers to entry to digital engineering for other players. 

It is fine to come up with the theory, but this needs proving in practice, so the DEE team applied the wider principles to one small but highly significant issue facing existing electrification projects: the problems encountered when mast foundations cannot be installed in their designed location. We recognised that if the precise location of the installed foundations could be captured and quickly compared with the designed locations this would enable accurate manufacture, off site pre-assembly and rapid installation of the overhead line system.

There are two situations where the results are in quantifiable benefits: Where the foundation location is within design tolerance it would be possible to preconfigure the overhead line equipment off site, significantly reducing the time needed to install, therefore reducing exposure to danger and the time the railway needs to be closed; where the foundation is not positioned where intended, rapid capture and feedback of its precise location would enable redesign before the mast and equipment are installed. This allows contingency in the programme to be reduced, minimising the risk of possession overruns due to any issues needing to be resolved on site 

If experience on current electrification projects is anything to go by, the potential for improving both safety and reducing cost and disruption to passengers is significant.  

But how did we prove this? We tested a range of survey technologies and capture methods on the railway at Network Rail’s Tuxford track, using everything from road and rail vehicles to drones in order to demonstrate how practical the process is in the real world. We presented our findings to the wider industry at The National Railway Museum in January and received an overwhelmingly positive response.

So, what is next? Atkins and Laing O’Rourke plan to take DEE forward on the East/West Rail project. 

 

Ray Dudding is principal BIM consultant, transportation, Atkins

If you would like to contact Jon Masters about this, or any other story, please email jmasters@infrastructure-intelligence.com.