Intelligent infrastructure and the art of the possible

21 min


The Intelligent Infrastructure programme promises to revolutionise how Network Rail manages and renews its asset portfolio, but there’s still a long road ahead before the tech-enabled scheme becomes business as usual. Is the leader behind the brand-new CP6 project up to the challenge?

Jacqueline Young is a master of detail.

Ever since renovating her place in London during the Great Recession of 2008, she has acquired a taste for property development: scoping out old vacant homes in dire need of help, plagued by corrosion and collapsing structures, and making it her personal mission to bring them back to life.

Her first proper dabble in interior design was with a 700-year-old cottage, a Grade B-listed building that used to be part of a castle, and whose courtyard is said to be where Scottish Parliament met for an emergency meeting in 1346. Her eyes were immediately set on the house’s 500-year-old barrel-arched ceiling and vault, which together acted as motivation to improve everything else; from the tiles and doors to the carpets and new radiators, Jacqueline handpicked it all herself.

The 200-year-old townhouse she’s currently doing up also had a standout feature – a Georgian staircase that unfurls into the middle of the property – that made it that much easier to deal with the dry and white rot and crumbling structure that initially afflicted the property. “I just love being creative and imaginative. I love building something off a glimmer of hope,” she admitted. “I’m not the kind of person who can just sit around doing nothing.”

One would think this doesn’t bode very well for her job, which involves travelling for four-and-a-half hours twice a week: once on Monday morning, on her way to work at Network Rail’s Euston House headquarters, and once on Friday afternoon, on her way back to Glasgow where she lives with her family. A combined nine hours straddled to a chair – no matter how comfortable those Virgin Trains seats may be nowadays – sound like an energetic person’s worst nightmare.

But Jacqueline is every bit as positive as she is zestful: for her, those introspective moments on the West Coast Main Line provide the perfect opportunity to catch up on her emails – of which, as programme director for Intelligent Infrastructure at Network Rail, she has many – and even have a lightbulb moment or two about how to deal with a stubborn work problem. On top of that, it gives her the chance to become the very person she works so tirelessly to satisfy: a passenger.

“In terms of me as a person, I’m creative, I’m inquisitive, and I care,” she told Tangent, though she didn’t have to: these traits shone through every time she talked about her job. “I care about the team around me, but really importantly, I care about the passenger. If you’re in the passenger’s shoes, what would they do? It’s about remembering how they feel when they’re travelling on the railway. Network Rail’s transformation programme is about putting the passenger and the freight customer at the heart of what we do. Me travelling on a train for four-and-a-half hours really drives that message home.”

On the days where overhead wires don’t come down or sag – thank you, summer heatwave – and no cows decide to cross train tracks, Jacqueline takes advantage of the quiet environment to sort through her email inbox, a trait she developed early in life. For her, taking the time to go through unread messages, answer any pending questions, and ensure no one is left hanging makes a huge difference to showing her team she is invested in them.

“One of the things that I try to do is make sure everyone has enough time with me,” she explained. “Another great thing [about staying on top of your emails] is that you can set the direction: if you intervene early on a potential issue or give people the encouragement they need, then that’s really key.”

What we’re doing is innovative, but it’s really about taking some of the simple technology we already use in our personal lives and applying it to the railway

Naturally, the parallels here write themselves: someone whose job it is to detect faults before they appear – the Intelligent Infrastructure programme is all about predicting and preventing to improve maintenance regimes – is also diligent with her correspondence to ensure she can deal with problems before they really become problems. Albeit only in the role since the start of CP6, it’s safe to say it already fits Jacqueline like a glove.

A finance professional by background (she has a BSc in accounting from the University of Hull), Jacqueline had her fair share of experience in the rail industry before taking up the job: she’s had stints as head of finance, efficiency and strategy at ScotRail, and as senior investment analyst and group investment controller at Network Rail. These are peppered in a more varied portfolio which includes positions at a number of government organisations. Rather than rail, the golden thread that stitches together all of these past experiences is a thirst for business transformation.

“I love technology and I love change. In terms of where I come from, it’s all about technology-enabled change programmes,” Jacqueline said. “And in terms of my passion for the job – why I keep coming back – it’s about driving positive change. It’s about improving the customer experience. I really like what we’re doing: using and enhancing data to make better decisions; harnessing and exploiting an asset that we already have and wrapping intelligence around it. What we’re doing is innovative, but it’s really about taking some of the simple technology we already use in our personal lives and applying it to the railway.”

Powered by intelligence

So what exactly is the Intelligent Infrastructure programme? In short, it’s a CP6 asset management scheme that seeks to revolutionise the way Network Rail operates the network by shifting business from traditional planning and maintenance schedules to a more proactive, ‘predict and prevent’ approach. Using remote and automated monitoring, advanced data analytics, and decision support tools across the infrastructure owner’s many assets – such as track, signalling, and electrical power – the programme aims to reduce lifecycle cost, bolster worker safety, and drive a 10% service-affecting failure improvement.

I really like what we’re doing: using and enhancing data to make better decisions; harnessing and exploiting an asset that we already have and wrapping intelligence around it

This is a step away from the more traditional fix-on-fail maintenance regime currently in place, towards a more intelligence-led method that relies on ever-changing asset data to prioritise critical work and fix potential faults before they can disrupt a passenger’s journey.

Or, in simpler terms, think of it like online grocery shopping: machine learning tools mean that digitally-enabled services such as buying food and drink from online retailers are made easier through predictive algorithms. The more often you shop, the more accurate these algorithms become, and the better the retailer can make product suggestions based on your preferences. That’s what Intelligence Infrastructure is going to be doing: pointing people to the right decisions and telling them what they should look out for, all based on collected data.

Sky is the limit

The methods used to capture this data are varied, from national helicopter surveys to handheld iDevices used by track workers, and everything in between. These air operations, performed during winter so as to provide a better view of the earthworks beneath the tree canopy, will likely be carried out at least every control period; the first was completed under ORBIS, CP5’s asset management programme, while Intelligent Infrastructure is halfway through finishing the second survey. Think of it like Google Earth, but for railways: it shows you embankment positions, OLE stanchions, drains, culverts, signals, you name it – as well as infrared imagery to analyse vegetation encroachment alongside the railway. The team uses the Star SAFIRE 380-HD – a high-definition system that is fully hardened for air operations so that it can work in all conditions – which provides a gyro-stabilised image with metadata embedded in the video. For visual imaging, they use a gyro-stabilised Canon camera that can be fitted with a variety of different lenses (one of them, the 600mm lens, takes photos so close up that you can read identification plates from an altitude of 1,000 feet; the 300mm lens is used for inspecting lineside buildings and structures; and the 85mm lens is usually used for RouteView imagery.)

But despite their enormous benefits to the industry’s understanding of the network, it’s not feasible to conduct helicopter surveys every year (at least not yet). In the future, as survey technology improves, the rail industry will be able to exploit new ways of capturing aerial terrain data.

Other methods of data collection are used to supplement the helicopter surveys, including forward-facing video captured by in-service trains (the majority of rolling stock already has this technology), fixed monitoring sensors on tracks, and the famous Flying Banana – a flagship, state-of-the-art New Measurement Train, affectionately nicknamed due to its bright yellow colour, which monitors and records track geometry data at speeds of up to 125mph. The pioneering yellow train is equipped with measurement systems, track scanners, and high-res cameras. It checks conditions of almost all mainlines on a four-week cycle.

 

Mimicking this approach are UGMS, or Unmanned Geometry Measurement Systems, which can be found in some of the new train fleets already in service. “We’re beginning to really prove their value, and we’re hoping that as we do this, we can increase their deployment onto the TOC fleets. But not every train has to have UGMS on it – you only need between 6-10% for full network coverage,” Jacqueline explained. “We use the data that’s collected from our yellow trains and then we can supplement it with UGMS data, making it hugely powerful and truly transformational in terms of how you could potentially augment maintenance regimes.”

Track teams – Network Rail’s Orange Army, as they’re called – also play their part in capturing data using handheld iDevices to access and collect asset information while on the job. Shifting from paper to digital records of work carried out, as well as faults fixed, gives the routes up-to-date data to better understand their assets and how and why they fail. But Jacqueline added: “The more data we collect automatically rather than by intervening, the better.”

The massive swathes of data collected via these tools are then separated into different workstreams – five at present (track, signalling, E&P, civils, and operational property), but with a view to bring them up to 11. These workstreams are supported by core enablers Ellipse and II Foundations: the first is a central enterprise asset management system containing the asset, condition, and work records, while the second proves the platform for analytics delivered by the discipline workstreams.

As with any programme, and especially for one so open to creative talent and thinking outside the box, it will be crucial that Intelligent Infrastructure remains agile. “Let’s say we’re able to think of the next best thing since sliced bread,” Jacqueline posited. “We would work with our finance colleagues to understand the benefits and establish the appropriate funding mechanism.”

Smarter renewals

Everyone who was already involved in the rail industry back then will remember that CP5 was not a great period for renewals. In its 2016 assessment of Network Rail, the ORR warned that soaring renewal costs would thrust the organisation into a worse financial position than expected in CP6, and predicted some “adverse effects” on asset condition and performance as a result. In 2017, the Railway Industry Association argued that downturns in renewals towards the end of CP5 posed a “significant threat” to the future of the sector and an expected slowdown in work.

Former transport secretary Chris Grayling tried to remedy this bleak outlook in his funding statement for CP6, which promised a higher volume of renewals activity in order to maintain current safety levels, reliability, and punctuality. Network Rail offered up another solution in the form of ‘contestable’ schemes, or the opening-up of smaller renewal work to third-party funders instead of adopting the traditional contracting process. These pilots would offer the delivery manager role as part of the contract in what Network Rail hopes will paint a better picture of how its projects can be undertaken in the future.

Intelligent Infrastructure will, at its core, be an enabler to these changes. While not in itself a silver bullet to Network Rail’s renewals portfolio, it is expected to drive significant benefits by strengthening the infrastructure manager’s decision-making capabilities. “If we have reliable data about the condition of an asset, we can then decide: should that asset be replaced in two years, 10 years, or tomorrow?” Jacqueline noted. “It should allow us to elongate some renewals, but likewise and conversely, you might have to accelerate some renewals because the asset condition is so poor. But if the asset condition is poor and you end up taking out part of the network temporarily, then that will incur schedule 8 and schedule 4 payments to affected operators.” In other words, pay now to save later.

Logic would then follow that if the programme is helping shape a smarter, more cost-efficient approach to renewals, then the burden on the taxpayer will be reduced and, hopefully, that money can be funnelled back into the things that passengers want more of: clean trains, available seats, cheap tickets, and punctual services.

Homegrown talent

Jacqueline’s ultimate goal is to make Intelligent Infrastructure more than just a traditional delivery programme: instead, it should become a centre of excellence. “How can we get people to want more of us? One of the things I really enjoy doing is getting people to want more,” she explained. “What we’d like to do is act as a facilitator; use Intelligent Infrastructure to join the industry together.

“The greatest interventions aren’t meant to be confined to Network Rail; if you intervene in Network Rail, you should get the benefit across TOCs and FOCs too. And likewise, if you work with TOCs, there’s even more data to be exploited. That’s what I really enjoy: the art of the possible. It’s about providing an umbrella, whether it be a programme umbrella or a centre of excellence, and it’s about getting people to think differently.

“It’s not necessarily about challenging the norm; it’s about getting people to arrive at the outcome differently. The railway has got 200 years of doing the same thing, just in a slightly different way. We want to transform what we do to get to a different outcome altogether.”

Key to this aspiration will be ensuring that the programme is buttressed by the right talent. At the moment, her team has around 30 people, as does Tim Flower’s – her Network Rail colleague and professional head of maintenance. But despite separate teams, the two leaders run the programme together, with his engineers and her programme experts acting as one integrated group.

To grow their capacity, Tim and Jacqueline are hiring another 55 people to support both Intelligent Infrastructure and ORBIS (in fact, recruitment is still underway, if any readers are interested in becoming a part of the team.) “One of the reasons why we’re going to spend so long recruiting in slightly different ways is because we want to encourage the very best talent,” she stated. “We want to grow our own, we want to aid business continuity, we want to aid succession planning; we need to be more resilient. For a truly resilient team, you need to have the right tools and processes in place, and you need to think about where these people want to go. My role as a leader is not just to deliver our specifications and outputs: it’s to help shape and grow the people underneath me.”

Jacqueline is no stranger to going the extra mile in order to connect with her colleagues so that she can better steer their professional direction, either. Early in her career, when she was already managing people who were double her age and, in her words, “knew far more than I did,” she committed to reading football results and joined the Campaign for Real Ale – despite her distaste for beer – so that she could take that first step of bonding with her colleagues in a meaningful way.

“The adage is that a team is built up of lots of different people,” she explained. “It’s a breadth of experience. It’s everyone from young bright things to the people who are coming up to retirement age, and everything in between. People are at different stages in their career and want different things. My role is to help them get to where they want to be – because if they’re happy, and growing, and learning, then they’re going to give us their very best.”

Jacqueline is looking for a different type of person (be it an apprentice, a graduate, or an old hand) to your traditional orange-clad track worker, too. Because of its focus on data analytics and machine learning, the II programme is miles away from Network Rail’s business-as-usual infrastructure schemes, and thus requires a different skillset that even strangers to the rail sector might already possess. “A lot of what we want to do is essentially around different ways of harnessing technology and looking at different algorithms, as well as getting people to be imaginative and creative; that kind of thing can be applied to gaming, for example,” she said. “It’s about making connections between what people do in their personal lives and what they can do in their work life, and making sure that there’s a cross-pollination of skills.”

Given her finance background and niche taste for historic architecture, Jacqueline is living proof that the rail industry is a vast sector with a broad requirement for transferable skills.

Not your typical supply chain

The suppliers involved in the programme might not be your usual suspects, either. The two partners already onboard – North Highland and Deloitte – don’t even feature in Network Rail’s list of top 20 suppliers for 2017-18. “We need to work with suppliers to identify what we could do vs. what we should do vs. how we influence what they’re building. After all, the easiest way to reduce your renewals cost is to not renew – whether that’s through better specification of materials or the asset telling you what needs to happen,” pointed out Jacqueline. “But we don’t need your traditional construction company, because we’re not constructing anything. We don’t need the traditional rail builders. The people who we’re talking to are a bit different.

“Ultimately, we need to open up the industry to different players, and that’s one of the reasons why we want to work with SMEs and other organisations: they come from a different background and come with different ideas. The type of thing that we’re doing hasn’t been done in rail before, so why would we need to go to an exclusively rail-based company? It helps, of course, but we need to be transplanting great practice from aviation or big data – Google, Rolls-Royce, whatever it is. We need to be bringing that into the rail industry.”

Her team is currently in commercial negotiations with bidders for client-side delivery – programme managers and business analysts – as well as the other three lots of work, including Ellipse, systems integration, and data analytics. “We’re hoping that we can turn the suppliers who are onboarding at the moment into true partners, and that we can adopt an alliancing model,” she added. “In order for us to get the best outcomes, we need to open ourselves up to the best suppliers. The best suppliers make the best partners, who will in turn help us form the strongest alliance.”

Routes and regions

The early specification work for the Intelligent Infrastructure programme started around two years ago. Back then, Network Rail had just unveiled eight new devolved routes, each with their own managing director responsible for aligning FOCs, TOCs and suppliers. As you may well know, these have now been extended to five regions and 14 routes in total, all of which went live on 24 June, in an effort to shift power further away from the centre – but the specifications developed by the devolved businesses in tandem with the Intelligent Infrastructure team still stand.

On 5 August, a couple of days before Jacqueline spoke to Tangent, the team had just launched a track-based proof of concept that pinpoints patterns of data from measurement trains and UGMS in order to prompt better decision-making. Route asset managers have been intimately engaged with this project, with Jacqueline specifically naming Nick Millington, head of maintenance delivery in the Western region, as being “hugely involved” with the pilot.

“Working with routes is absolutely critical,” she told Tangent. “We are an enabling programme, and for us to be here there has to be that pull and that drive from the regions and the routes. The whole ethos of the programme was about what the then-routes wanted. It wasn’t just us having ideas and saying, ‘We’re going to make you come with us on this journey!’ There was a huge amount of work done in terms of specification; all of that was put into the hopper, so to speak, and then it was all prioritised. The things that we’re taking through now – in terms of track and signalling, for example – is all based on route desire; it’s based on what they wanted in order to make their lives better, rather than all the things we thought they’d fancy.”

Of course, beyond just routes, the way Network Rail works is also changing. If the new transport secretary Grant Shapps is anything like his predecessor, he’ll want to carry on the legacy of track and train integration by giving TOCs greater responsibility over infrastructure (KeolisAmey in Wales is a good example of this). What happens to the programme then?

For us to be here there has to be that pull and that drive from the regions and the routes

“I think the proof will be in the pudding,” said Jacqueline, sounding more confident than fazed. “We need to demonstrate the credibility of the programme early on, which we are doing, and the value of a centrally-enabled scheme delivered nationally and locally. I don’t want to push anybody in any direction; I want people to be naturally drawn to the programme because they think it’s the right thing to do. It needs to speak for itself.

“We can also go a long way in helping to improve the relationship locally between TOCs and the infrastructure provider. But if we can’t get people to come and play with us now, in hugely simplistic terms, then we haven’t got a hope in hell!”

Beyond CP6

For a programme of limitless potential, bound only by the confines of technology itself, it’s easy to get lost in thought wondering what the future of Intelligent Infrastructure might look like beyond CP6. But for its new leader, no matter the route taken, the objective of the programme must remain the same: enabling industry-wide system decision-making. This must go beyond the walls of Network Rail and spill over to operators and the supply chain.

“It’s all about that decision-making being based on industry-wide data,” she added. “It’s about having the ambition; it’s about people collaborating. It’s around nurturing talent and growing our own. It’s about recognising good practice, and about being able to influence others and being credible. This can’t be a technology programme. This has to be a business change programme, enabled by technology.”

New beginnings

Jacqueline Young is a master of detail.

In her free time, she likes renovating old properties; making careful decisions with money to find the most efficient ways of breathing new life into threadbare spaces. It starts, first, at the core: a strengthened structure, a treatment of the timbers, new windows and fixtures; and then it looks inwards: a change of the carpet, a fresh coat of paint, a new radiator or two. Before you know it, what was once a centuries-old asset is transformed into a brand-new environment: one which retains the charm of decades past without losing sight of its contextual future.

The Intelligent Infrastructure programme may be bigger than Jacqueline, but with her at the helm, it’s in a safe pair of hands.


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