Technology in Rail 2019: A brave new world

28 min


Missed out on this year’s Technology in Rail Conference? Tangent brings you the latest on just a few of the exciting new solutions discussed at the forward-thinking Birmingham event

It’s a cold winter’s morning and you’ve been called into a meeting at work. It rarely happens anymore, these days; most business is conducted via video link or shared online workspaces, with just the occasional face-to-face arrangement. But they do exist, of course: despite widespread automation, human connection is still key to the success of any industry.

Leaving the house, you’re faced with a plethora of transport choices, all of them interlinking so that the chances of ever missing a connecting train, bus, or flight sit comfortably close to zero. Traffic systems use digital technology to ensure roads and infrastructure can seamlessly communicate with vehicles. There are no traffic lights: vehicles move slowly, but never stop. Just as constant is the consistent recording of metrics like pollution and energy consumption across the transport network. In effect, it’s Internet of Things on steroids.

To get to your meeting, you can travel on magnetic levitated superconducting rails, a spin-off from the ‘Hyperloop’ of the past. Or you could hop onboard the subsonic tube transport system, a quick option which could get you to the office at an impressive speed of 750 miles per hour. It’s just as well for your colleagues in mainland Europe who will also be attending the meeting, as the sealed transport system – which allows pods to travel with little air resistance – can transport travellers from the continent to the UK in under an hour. For those who are further away – say, in New York – reusable rockets are a great option to make it to London in just under 30 minutes.

If this sounds like the start of a sci-fi novel to you, think again. Sure, predicting the future is certainly a tricky task; we are definitely not yet riding around flying cars with personal jetpacks in the year 2019, as had been anticipated decades ago. But earlier this year, Samsung decided to take a shot at it anyway in a report bringing together the personal predictions of a series of industry professionals for the year 2069.

 

Representing the transport and infrastructure sector was Dr Rhys Morgan, director of engineering and education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, who boldly predicted a brave new world free of traffic jams and siloed, sluggish modes of getting around.

For the Rail Delivery Group’s Jacqueline Starr, and probably for most of us, this all still sounds a bit surreal. But she also poses a valid question: “Did you think, 30 years ago, pre-internet and pre-smartphones, that by now most of our lives’ information would be in a device no bigger than your hand?”

Of course, talking about futuristic underwater train technology borders on ludicrous at a time where the UK rail industry still faces incredibly basic challenges: an ageing Victorian network that is overcrowded, overworked and, in some places, simply not fit for purpose. If Zurich’s rail network was already entirely electrified back in the 1950s, our persistent reliance on pollutant diesel trains due to underinvestment in key commuter lines should be a national scandal. Sure, let’s look to the future – but let’s be realistic about the obstacles we will face until passengers are straddled onto rockets that take them flying through the upper atmosphere.

Jacqueline compares this to cooking. The former managing director of customer experience, who was recently promoted to chief operating officer, admitted at this year’s Technology in Rail Conference: “I’m a terrible cook. I kind of know what ingredients go into what meal, but I have no clue on quantities or timings. What I tend to produce is an unintended consequence of my efforts.

I don’t know of a stronger emotion than love. So why not use that as a benchmark for the railway of the future?

“So consider rail. Customer, technology, infrastructure, policy, people: these are key ingredients of the future travelling experience. If we fail to develop and invest in the right proportion at the right time, we will fail our customers.”

Opening the conference, which took place on 26 September at the Birmingham Conference & Events Centre, Jacqueline chose to frame the debate around how technology can impact the customer experience and deliver a more personalised experience for passengers. In essence, she focused on love: “Some of you may know differently, but I don’t know of a stronger emotion than love. So why not use that as a benchmark for the railway of the future?”

This provided an excellent complement to the speaker who followed: Jacqueline Young, director of Network Rail’s Intelligent Infrastructure programme, focused on how innovative asset maintenance technology is delivering a more detailed experience for infrastructure managers, and is therefore helping to deliver a more reliable network. (You may remember her from Tangent’s September issue, in which we took an in-depth look at what the programme means for Network Rail’s work bank and for customers themselves.)

Throughout the day, however, speakers from different corners of the rail industry focused on other, wide-ranging and often pioneering technologies that will take us ever closer to that 2069 vision. From augmented reality (AR) goggles and LiFi communication to digital twinning and carbon-neutral rolling stock, Tangent brings you a comprehensive look at just a few of the exciting new products and initiatives that you can expect to see coming down the tracks in the next few years.

Smart eyewear

At Network Rail High Speed, the private but wholly-owned subsidiary of Network Rail, they don’t shy away from the unknown. That’s why they were one of the first, if not the first, railway company to introduce augmented reality in the industry.

This technology comes as part of a two-pronged approach, as explained by João Rocha, senior asset manager at the company. On one end are smart glasses, an essentially wearable computer that can stream high-quality video in real time; at the other is Microsoft HoloLens, which enables holographic 3D projections of digital objects in a real-world environment.

The smart glasses were first introduced by James Bruiners, head of asset management at Network Rail High Speed, who asked the company’s graduates and young employees to trial the piece of tech. “Google Glass is a well-known industry type of product that took the spotlight for its ability to stream informational video live. So what we’ve done is try to build on that technology and on that opportunity to support our frontline teams,” Bruiners explained in a promotional video. “We absolutely found our graduate team were the right people to pilot this with the rest of the business, with our experienced engineers and technicians, to really look at the opportunities and availability. How would the workforce of the future want to engage with all this information that we have? If you think about it from an AR perspective, that ability for us to access data and information in the field that we’ve been developing over decades is absolutely what our young engineers are going to expect from us.”

One of these young engineers, the recently graduated Mohammad Ahmad, was chosen to lead this process on the frontline. “It’s quite straightforward: I just have to replace my safety glasses with the future glasses, as I call it, and it has an HD camera that I can turn on. The camera turns on the microphone as well, so I can record a live video of what I see,” he explained. “What I see here [out on the tracks] is actually seen in the office. In other words, my eye on site is their eye in the office. If they want, they can even point out things at me and it will come to my camera here in front of me. It’s that straightforward; it’s very easy to use, and it’s hands-free.”

According to João, who presented this initiative at the conference, the glasses were introduced because they are “useable through the relatively strict PPE regulations” in the rail business. “That little camera transmits live data remotely from the field to the office or to the control centre, enabling people to have some support in their decision-making, or to improve the decision-making done by control centres,” he said. In the promotional video, James added: “All of that data and knowledge combines in a place where you can actually give people the right information at the right time – as opposed to having to come back to the depot, to go back out again, to potentially find another issue, to come back to the depot. We are de-duplicating those shift patterns, which has a massive impact on wellbeing in our workforce.”

And it means, of course, less boots on ballast – a crucial ambition to maintaining the UK industry’s impressive safety record.

The limits of AR are pretty much your imagination

On the other hand is the Microsoft HoloLens, a nifty piece of mixed-reality technology that we at Tangent even got to try out for ourselves (never mind that we used it to visit Machu Picchu rather than to explore rail infrastructure). Rather than virtual reality (VR), which generates the space around you, the augmented reality goggles insert holographic objects into the environment that you’re already in. “This was pretty popular two years ago with Pokémon Go – you’ve probably heard of people falling off from cliffs playing the game,” João joked. “It allows you to simulate your assets; it allows you to do digital twinning. It has a lot of potential, and it’s relatively simple – a lot simpler to implement than VR, because your coding and your design is all focused on the object that you want.”

The Network Rail High Speed team used the goggles to model pieces of track, overhead equipment, and High Performance Switch System (HPSS) point operating equipment. The interactive maintenance training programme allowed the workforce to familiarise themselves with sensory replacement by maintaining and repairing holographic assets. “You can take pieces out and see what each element does; how to replace it; how to assemble it back together; what the name of each component is, etc. It’s really powerful: you can zoom in, go out, go through the object, put it on a table,” he explained. “It’s really cool and, especially for a new workforce, this will be really powerful for them to learn how to maintain assets on a railway environment. The idea is not necessarily to remove the old training, but to complement that training and make people more effective at it.

“The limits of AR are pretty much your imagination. You can do anything you want, really. Think of HS2, for instance: the possibility of taking your investors or your clients into a piece of land and show them the planned new station and walk them through it in a holographic environment is really powerful.”

Digital twins

The 1968 Olympic Games marked a turning point in the history of high jumping. The sporting event was completely revolutionised when North American athlete Dick Fosbury made the bold choice of ditching the traditional straddle method in favour of what quickly became known as the Fosbury Flop: a back-first technique which sees runners sprint diagonally towards the bar and leap backwards over it. The innovative technique – which gave high jumpers a much lower centre of mass in flight compared to previous methods – was met with scorn at first, with newspapers calling Dick “the world’s laziest high jumper,” but this soon changed when athletes the world over took notice of how the fish-like flop yielded impressive results.

In the eyes of Simon Evans, director of digital engineering at SNC-Lavalin Atkins, there’s more in common between the Fosbury Flop and digital twins than meets the eye.

“When Dick Fosbury first crossed the bar horizontally and facing upwards, the sporting world thought he was mad. That is, of course, until he started breaking records and in 1968 won the Olympic gold,” Simon explained. “In order to do this, it required a complete change of strategy; a willingness to try new ways of working. It also required dedication and training to overcome the old habits and implement the new and better technique, with the old habits ultimately becoming obsolete. The sporting world all use the Fosbury Flop – because it works.

“You can draw parallels between this and digital twins: many aren’t ready to yet adopt this new way of working, but those who are – just like Dick Fosbury was – have radically changed the industry.”

Simon Evans

So what exactly is a digital twin? For those of you who are still unfamiliar with the concept, it’s essentially a digital replica of a physical entity – a building, a piece of track, a whole town if you’d like – that can bridge the gap between the real and the virtual worlds. At its best, it can transmit data seamlessly between the two worlds in a symbiotic relationship that marries Internet of Things with artificial intelligence and machine learning to create living, breathing, digital simulation models of the things around us.

Sounds difficult? To a certain extent, it is – and as a result, it’s often branded more a ‘digital unicorn’ than anything else. But Simon was keen to emphasise that the rail industry must approach digital twinning as an umbrella term that encompasses a wide-ranging scope of investment rather than a one-size-fits-all, expensive little service.

Many aren’t ready to yet adopt this new way of working, but those who are – just like Dick Fosbury was – have radically changed the industry

“This is the idea of there being a type of maturity spectrum that exists within the concept of a digital twin; the way you can more cleanly and easily articulate and define where you are on your journey so that you can understand the end game, but also all the steps along the route,” he told delegates. “As part of this whole topic of digital twins, most people focus on that aspirational end game – that unicorn. But few talk about the incremental steps along the way.”

Think of it this way: the maturity spectrum ranges from 0 to 5 depending on the defining principles behind a twin. These elements are algorithmic in terms of their complexity and connectedness, meaning the higher-order elements – or number 5 – are infinitely more complex than the lower-order elements. This is neither linear nor sequential, meaning a twin can have early or experimental features of higher-order elements before possessing the more foundational, lower-order ones.

At the bottom of the maturity spectrum, or level 0, is reality capture: using whatever device or technique you would like, such as drones or photogrammetry, to collect data that can immediately be leveraged in a point cloud form in order to better understand your spatial context and brownfield assets. To take that further, you could decide to develop parts of that cloud into either a 2D map or a 3D model, but keeping it as an object-based model – that is, lacking any intelligence, metadata, or BIM to support it. “This is what we typically see in the greenfield or newbuild project,” Simon noted. “At this stage, you can get some outline usages to do with design optimisation and coordination, but not really much more than that.”

Take it one step further and it starts to get exciting: you can connect your model to static datasets – such as things like documents, drawings, or asset management systems like SAP Maximo – and enrich it with metadata and BIM information. At this point, you can start to create 4D and 5D simulations and reach BIM stage 2, providing a much richer design and asset management scope.

From there, you can start to connect your twin to live data streams – temperatures, pressures, bearing speeds, whatever it may be – via IoT sensors. You can overlay that data on top of the same environment in order achieve greater operational efficiency, but your model is still working in a strictly one-way stream.

Moving beyond that allows you to explore two-way data integration and interaction; that is, the ability to control a physical asset from the digital twin to create remote and completely immersive operations. That is just one step away from the ultimate digital dream: the achievement of a completely autonomous asset that can operate and maintain itself.

“Of course, you’re never going to create a twin of the world, or a twin of a whole ecosystem, just like many of you who are familiar with the Gemini Principles and the work of the Centre for Digital Built Britain will know,” continued Simon. “The idea being that this twin, as with many, will fit into the overall ecosystem of an organisation like nodes in a network, and become as intrinsically important and valuable to their business operations as a finance or an HR function would.”

The overall idea is to create a single version of the truth: an ecosystem of data that you can connect together and view at any time; information which can be cut in different ways and which can be viewed in subsets by different parts of an organisation.

“There’s quite a lot of excitement in this. Many agree that towards the upper end [of the maturity spectrum] is where you would probably see a digital twin emerging, but our experience with working with this across industry for a few years now is that most organisations are actually only ready for these lower-order elements,” the Atkins director revealed. “They don’t have certainty of their assets at all; they have no idea where their data is. You have to get your foundations in place first.”

An example of how Atkins is using digital twin technology to optimise asset management is by creating a decision support tool that allows people to view and interrogate aerial photography, the digital service model, digital train models, and any connected datasets, as well as perform functions such as sectioning profiles from the data train itself, or drawing time-based or historic comparisons between different datasets. But much more exciting for Simon was the prospect of carrying out live management by using machine vision to automatically characterise and categorise the assets that can be detected on a network.

“In a basic state, all this is doing is using simple machine vision, but the powers of what you can do if you dive into this and take it a step further is huge,” he claimed. “Imagine if you were able to take this across the whole of your rail network, or any infrastructure network of a linear nature, and automatically create, update, and condition-assess all of the assets on it as you go along!”

According to Simon, as thrilling as the gold at the end of the rainbow sounds, digital twinning isn’t about the destination: it’s about the journey. “On that journey, there’s an ability to get value from every single milestone along the route,” he emphasised. “The key with this concept is understanding how you can unlock that value by starting incrementally, rather than just going the whole hog.”

LiFi

Most of us are thrilled about the advent of 5G in the UK, with mobile operators such as EE and Vodafone already rolling out the technology across the country this year. With speeds around 100-150Mbps faster than those of 4G (or, in other words, average speeds of up 200-240Mbps), the new and improved network will allow us to send and receive data at much higher rates than before – which can power anything from much faster Netflix streaming to super-connected autonomous cars and industrial IoT technology.

This massive upscale has been a long time coming, with 5G representing (as the name would suggest) the fifth generation of cellular network technology. The 3G speeds we relied on not that long ago pale in comparison to the world of possibilities that this more advanced generation can open up.

LiFi, on the other hand, is a much newer phenomenon, first introduced by German professor Harald Haas at a 2011 TEDGlobal talk in Edinburgh. Yet already in its first-generation pilot, the technology reached impressive speeds of at least 250Mbps. At present, with just one LED, professionals are able to share 50Gb of information per second in a lab environment.

So what exactly is LiFi, and why aren’t we using it everywhere? The acronym stands for light fidelity, or a communication system that, rather than using radio frequency, transmits data at higher speeds over the visible light, ultraviolet, and infrared spectrums.

Introducing the concept at Technology in Rail Conference was Ed Huibers, head of business development of LiFi systems at Signify, formerly known as Philips Lighting. Ed had just arrived at the event after a troublesome train journey during which he had tried and failed to have a video call, sabotaged by the extremely unstable WiFi connection along the way and an equally unreliable 4G network. Thankfully for the passengers who, like him, desperately try to cope with the rail network’s vast digital deserts, Signify is focusing on how light can be used to offer high-bandwidth connections in suitable commercial environments.

“Today, all WiFi, 4G, and in the future 5G and even 6G in China is using radio spectrum to communicate – which is fine, it was invented 100 years ago and still works properly. But we can now also use the light spectrum to communicate, which gives us a couple of nice advantages,” Ed explained. “One of these is that the wave is shorter, meaning you can put more information in it. The capacity of light communication is much greater than the capacity of radio communication. But there are three major aspects to LiFi that I would like you to remember, because you will see it coming up more and more in the coming years.”

Ed Huibers, Signify

The first, and arguably the standout advantage in times of rife cybercrime, is security. In layman’s terms, because light cannot penetrate through walls, the signal cannot be hacked from a remote location like WiFi can. “You see, the WiFi network of the hotel next door is also available here at the conference centre,” Ed said, pointing to his phone. “WiFi goes through everything. It’s not a problem if you have a hotel, but if you have a bank and you want to keep your records inside the building, putting them in the WiFi environment might not be the best idea. If you use LiFi technology, the signal cannot travel through the wall; there’s an additional layer of security in that.”

The second is the technology’s impressive stability. When someone turns on their hotspot today, for example, it invariably slows down the network for everyone else in the room because they’re all using the same ‘channel.’ While that might usually go unnoticed, more people sharing the same space means more networks interfering with each other, thus rendering the overall experience much slower and less reliable. Buses and trains are a great example of that, though many operators have now introduced bandwidth ceilings in an attempt to curtail previously unlimited access to the same network. “With LiFi technology, we can always have a very stable network with low latency,” Ed explained.

Lastly, of course, is the aforementioned speed difference: with lab pilots already pointing to impressive speeds with just one LED, it certainly seems like the sky is the limit for LiFi technology in future.

“One of the use cases we see in rail, for instance, is the customer experience at the station itself. Assume that LiFi chips will be in your phone and in your laptop. You can then create zones in train stations where people are able to connect to a LiFi network either next to, or instead of, a WiFi network. No disturbance, quite secure because it will be in the line of sight, and overall a very stable connection,” noted Ed.

“The other use case we see is inside the train. We all believe the train will be a much more luxurious mode of transportation in the future. I’m from the Netherlands, where there is a lot of talk about short flights from Amsterdam to Berlin or Paris – and people ask, why not take the train? That’s fine, but I also want to have the same experience in the train. I want to have multimedia; I want to have a good internet connection. We can use LiFi technology to provide that connectivity in the train, not only to the users but to, for instance, multimedia screens.

“Another use case is to see if we can offload data. We’re able to send Gigabytes of information, so why not offload all the data from the train at the train station? The train enters the station, stops, we immediately make a LiFi connection with no disturbance for any radio source, and we send – with Gigabytes per second – data from the train to the cloud. This can be analytics about the train, security footage which has been shot during the trip… All of which can amount to a lot of data.”

What’s most surprising is how burgeoning this technology really is, with Ed revealing that even international corporate giants still rely on arguably outdated equipment to carry out data-intensive work due to a lack of viable alternatives. “I learned that the people who film streets for Google Maps, who drive around for a day recording high-definition film, don’t send information back using a network connection,” he said. “They’re taking out a hard drive, putting it into the mill, and sending it to a country where it’s then processed. The time it would take to send it through a standard network connection is much longer than just shipping it.”

This might all sound a bit futuristic – and in the context of train applications, it may well be. But the technology itself has already been introduced, and it won’t take long until it evolves into widespread commercial use. “We all want to go quicker, to pilot earlier – and Signify actually did this. Last year, we launched a first proof-of-concept product, because we want to have the market test it and play with it, and we want to learn from that technology. This has been done in more than 40 countries,” said Ed.

“We’re also looking at the transportation sector: the automotive industry is highly of interest, as is your future autonomous driving car – that market is really interested in looking at this technology. That’s not for today, but it will definitely be for tomorrow. LiFi will come, it is coming; we will push like hell for that, because we strongly believe in this technology.”

Hydrogen

You may have heard of this one before, so excuse us if this all sounds a bit humdrum – but hydrogen technology will be so paramount to the future of the UK rail industry that we believe it bears repeating.

We are in the midst of a political crisis. In the past four years, we’ve already had two general elections; as we write this, the country is preparing to get out and vote on the third one. Recent polls have suggested a comfortable Conservative majority. Whether this will materialise is yet to be seen, and in the meantime, industries up and down the country are hanging in the balance.

Mike Muldoon, head of business development, UK & Ireland, Alstom

For railways, amongst several other things, one of the direct consequences of this seemingly never-ending political turmoil is indecision over electrification. So far, the Tory approach to electrifying the network has dramatically veered from the status quo, with former transport secretary Chris Grayling taking the divisive step of calling off a series of electrification schemes in 2017 in a move that many have labelled as incredibly short-sighted (to put it lightly). While a general election result that puts Jeremy Corbyn in the driving seat may reverse this trend, as far as the supply chain is concerned the industry must now focus on alternative train technologies that can run on unelectrified routes – all without contributing to the climate emergency.

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this; companies around the world have come up with several different prototypes of rolling stock capable of running without overhead wires while still meeting decarbonisation targets.

“We all know how we could make the railways more environmentally friendly: we just simply electrify the entire network,” said Mike Muldoon, head of business development at Alstom UK & Ireland. “That has been mooted over the last few months in response to the report from the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, but it is, as we know, fraught with other problems in terms of how to implement it, how long it would take, how much it would cost, and how disruptive it would be. Realistically, as the taskforce concluded, we need to mix up our technologies and solutions to do the right thing to improve rail’s performance – not to be the odd ones out by being the only ones bringing diesel engines into city centres in the future.”

Some of the solutions put forward include technologies like lithium ion batteries. These are simple in theory – they’re already everywhere, from our phones to our children’s toys – but can become excessively large and heavy in the context of powering a train, unlike the convenience of liquid-dense diesel tanks.

Hydrogen, on the other hand, is incredibly energy-dense per unit of weight, making it a much more feasible alternative, and one which Alstom has been leading on globally and in the UK with partner Eversholt. The team will be converting Class 321 trains into hydrogen hybrids, which will then be deployed in small fleets around the country to replace dirty DMUs and in order to stimulate a network of experts in operating this technology. Known as ‘Breeze,’ the train combines hydrogen and battery to optimise the use of energy onboard compared to simply relying on a fuel cell – a form of hybrid technology that will come as no surprise to those in the automotive sector who have been reaping its benefits for decades.

Hydrogen Breeze train concept from Alstom

As well as converting the Class 321s into hybrids, Alstom and Eversholt have made a number of changes to the train itself, including uplifted seating capacity, better doors and access, PRM compliance, and WiFi, making it a train fully compatible with the 21st century. Even better, going down the hydrogen route means a clean train free of harmful emissions – in fact, the only reason why they can’t be marketed as entirely zero-emission is because it releases water.

“But of course, you have to question how to produce the hydrogen,” noted Mike, “which can be done in a number of ways. There are industrial processes currently where hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels – which are based on carbon, so we’re back to square one.

“But if you capture the carbon when you produce the hydrogen from the fossil fuels, you suddenly find yourself with a 95% improvement or more from the process, so you’re down to about 5% of the carbon footprint of a train today. That’s a significant improvement. If you then move to electrolysis and produce the hydrogen from electricity generated renewably, you can have a completely zero-carbon-emission train – and that, as far as I know, would make the train the cleanest possible means of land-based powered transport that you can use. Better even than electric trains, because they’re powered from the grid, and that has carbon,” Mike reminded the audience. “There is an opportunity here to be incremental or to be evangelical and go the whole hog. There are also big projects in the country looking at replacing natural gas in the grid with hydrogen, and the synergies and opportunities linking trains to that emerging supply are quite promising.”

So where next for hydrogen? As far as Mike’s team is concerned, the future is bright: a few business cases have to be finalised in accordance with varying franchises, after which the trains can be converted and developed. But if we’re lucky, and if politics permits, we could be seeing a Breeze on the tracks in as soon as 2023.

 


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