Mining data

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The phrase “data is the new oil” was coined in 2006. Like oil, data is of little value unless it is extracted, refined, processed, and distributed. This metaphor also alludes to the case of Standard Oil which, in the early 20th century, the US Supreme Court ruled to be an illegal monopoly. Today there are similar concerns about companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft dominating the data marketplace. Yet data should be easily shared if the best use is to be made of it.

Data was the theme of the Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) Unlocking Innovation event ‘Intelligent Railways’ held on 7 December at the University of Birmingham UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN) centre of excellence in digital systems.

The event consisted of keynote presentations, also available online, which were followed by presentations by various companies at their exhibition stands and tours of the UKKRIN laboratories. It was hosted by RIA’s innovation director, Milda Manomaityte, who advised that the focus of the event was better use of data. She encouraged delegates to complete RIA’s questionnaire seeking views on data and digital capabilities in respect of skills, organisational change, commercial arrangements, open access, standards, cybersecurity, and digital twins. Readers are also encouraged to complete this questionnaire by scanning the QR code.

Rail Data Marketplace
Claire Morrissey and Jez Smith are respectively the commercial and project leads for the Rail Delivery Group’s Rail Data Marketplace (RDM) project which started in September 2021. They explained how this aims to simplify access to rail data to make it more widely available to improve the customer experience, efficiency, and to stimulate innovation. With many data providers, there is no clear view on what data is available or its quality and formats. Hence accessing data is rarely straightforward.

The RDM will not host data. It will be a portal on which data publishers provide a full description of their datasets, including any conditions of use, so that potential users can see what is available. In this way, RDM aims to be an honest broker bringing data publishers and consumers together with data sharing agreements. RDM will also facilitate a ‘friction-free’ license agreement in a way that does not deter data use.

It seeks to achieve a balance of open and free datasets alongside chargeable commercial datasets to encourage and drive innovation. RDM will provide guidance to data publishers on the best practice in data and cyber-security as well as advising how data can be accessible. Publishers will be required to tag their data according to best practice and the RDM’s categorisation scheme, and be encouraged to follow Government guidance on web-based application programming interface (API) standards to ensure ease of data transfer.

The RDM service is not prescriptive about the standard or format of the data but will enforce governance if it is clear that there is not an appropriate level of data governance. RDM is now in its private beta phase being trialled with five publishers with eight data sets and 10 data consumers. It is anticipated that it will enter the public beta phase in April and go live in October.

The Enhanced Network Rail Information and data interchange (ENRICH) project will put all Network Rail data onto standard business platforms. Its sponsor is Amanda Hall who is Network Rail’s engineering expert (systems). She explained that ENRICH will support RDM by resolving the problems within Network Rail of the plethora of data formats, shortage of documentation, poor data quality and heavy-duty systems that limit agility.

Amanda advised that ENRICH will develop new Network Rail standardised systems for sharing data with standard simplified legal arrangements based on the open government licence. She was confident that this would shift the focus from data collection to data analysis. In its initial phase, ENRICH is to assess the benefits and validate technical and commercial outputs from the following three first use cases:

  • Track Centreline data supplied open data to users
  • Wheel Impact Load Detector and Fibre Optic Acoustic Sensing data sets merged and supplied to train operators
  • Infrastructure Monitoring by train operators (e.g., on board OLE monitoring) for use by Network Rail

Amanda advised that she welcomed new ideas and appealed for early adopters and contributors to become involved.

HS2’s digital twin
HS2’s vision is to develop a virtual railway during design and construction so that a digital twin of the built asset can be handed over to operations and maintenance at least two years before the start of physical running. James Daniel, HS2’s head of digital engineering explained how this vision requires committed, competent people using the right technology and data which is formatted to link data sets together. This is supported by the BIM upskilling portal ( that HS2 has developed, which has an introductory video on its site overview page.

With 350 construction sites collecting data for this virtual model, this is now being put to the test. James advises that the virtual model of the construction of Old Oak Common station is now giving a three month look ahead. However, achieving this requires cultural change for which lots of conversations were required.

He explained that, compared with the analogue way of working in sequential steps, using the digital space offers far more opportunities for collaboration with consequent cost, time, performance, safety, environmental, and reputational benefits. It offers wider business benefits. For example, visualisations enable human resources to recruit school leavers and operators can practice emergency situations in a virtual environment.

Northern Trains
Northern Trains operates 2,200 services a day with its fleet of 364 trains which are a mix of electric and diesel units, the latter includes over 150 diesel units built in the 1980s.

Christine Lefroy-Owen, Northern’s innovation manager, explained how the company is innovating to solve its business challenges of accessibility, safety, reducing environmental impact and the use of data. One such initiative is its connected trains. Between 2017 and 2021, Northern refurbished 240 of its older trains in a £100 million programme delivered by Arriva TrainCare. From a passenger perspective this offered a much-improved environment which included free Wi-Fi and improved passenger information.

It also includes a raft of digital systems to improve maintenance and train performance. This work was supported by Icomera which used its X-series connectivity platform to manage on-board cyber-security and connect the various applications. These include passenger counting, energy metering, remote condition monitoring, and a driver advisory system. In this way, Northern’s older trains now have the connected systems that come as standard with new trains.

Christine advised how these systems have proved useful, for example in improving availability, although finding the best use for much of this data was work in progress.

The Thales view
Andrew Hunter is head of technical solutions for Thales Ground Transportation team in the UK. He explained that the Thales digital culture required: empowerment rather than control; data instead of opinions; testing and learning rather than plans; collaboration instead of being protective; considering people to be users rather than customers; and accepting failure instead of not trying. In respect of this last point, he felt that an entrepreneur who has only failed once has not done anything.

He stressed that this type of culture was essential if digital technologies are to be used effectively. He then described how enabling technologies could unlock other innovations as the iPhone has done.

One such example is Radio Based Limited Supervision (RBLS) which was developed as proof of concept following a Network Rail challenge issued in 2019 that asked whether existing train protection systems were fit for purpose given ETCS implementation timescales. RBLS was the result for which Thales is developing its Train Protection and Warning System – Continuous Supervision (TPWS-CS).

TPWS-CS continuously updates a train’s position to warn the driver of approaching speed restrictions or engineering possessions, applying an emergency brake if necessary. It has a robust train positioning system which uses GPS, radar, an inertial measurement unit (IMU), and positioning sensors. Having a reliable train positioning system also provides solutions for other requirements such as enhanced safety at user worked crossings.

Hearing’ what is happening on the railway with fibre optic acoustic sensing (FOAS) is another enabling technology. Although this is not a high integrity system, it can be combined with other sensors to offer significant benefits such as the detection of trespass, rockslides, and the length and speed of passing trains.

Rail data management was Andrew’s third enabling technology. Although the industry is making progress with initiatives such as the RDM, he felt that legacy systems such as TRUST and DARWIN were costly and inefficient. As these had been heavily modified since they were first developed 30 years ago, they needed to be modernised.

Andrew concluded his presentation by emphasising that embracing technological change is as much about people and ways of working than the technology itself. Hence, norms and assumptions need to be challenged to get the best from what is available.

The Global Centre of Rail Excellence (GCRE), under construction in South Wales, will provide a ‘one stop shop’ for rail innovation. It will consist of two electrified loops. One is of 6.9km with a maximum speed of 180 km/h, the other is 4km with a maximum speed of 120 km/h. When the centre opens in 2025, the longer loop will offer high speed rolling stock testing whilst the shorter loop offers high quality infrastructure testing. It will also have a digital twin to facilitate the monitoring and control of operational testing.

Kelvin Davies, GCRE’s head of innovation advised that this facility was the missing piece of the jigsaw for rail and infrastructure testing. When open, it will lower the cost of rail innovation and provide a testing facility that is unique in Europe.

The previous issue of Rail Engineer (Issue 199 – Nov/Dec 2022) has a full description of GCRE and how it will support UK rail innovation.

Meeting the innovators
The next part of the event took place in the exhibition area where those who had stands gave a brief explanation of the benefits of their company’s innovations. Milda explained that rather than have participants sitting down in a lecture room, it was better to take them to the innovators who had the products on display.

The companies who gave presentations were:

Unipart Rail work with around 80 SMEs to promote their innovations. Three such SMEs had products on their stand. Monirail’s speciality is an in-service train data analytics platform that uses an IMU to provide continuous monitoring of track and train. In Scotland six of these units have been fitted to passenger trains. Tended uses wearable technology with behavioural psychology for safe working high-risk working environments and was displaying its high precision geofencing technology to improve track worker safety.

EAVE demonstrated its FocusLite smart ear defenders that provide both hearing protection and situational awareness and collects noise data.

Amygda’s focus is on the visualisation and analysis of different data sources to provide a data-driven insight to business challenges. The company is currently working with Porterbrook to build machine learning models that predict engine health so that resources can be directed to the tasks that offer the greatest benefit.

Modux offers cybersecurity solutions, initially for the defence sector, and consider on-board train systems to be particularly vulnerable. It has developed several UK Rail innovations including OmniMachina, a software interface to extract data from legacy On-Train Data Recorders in real-time, and forwarded onto onboard systems (e.g., DAS/SPSO) and cloud analytics platforms.

Complete Cyber also offers cybersecurity solutions for which the company demonstrated its OT Railway Vault product which uses a risk-based engine to prioritise vulnerability threats to railway infrastructure to ensure compliance with the Network and Information Systems Regulations.

Fugro’s RILA Track system can be fitted to almost any train in less than two minutes. It collects geo-referenced rail position data and videos of railway assets to create a 3D model of the railway corridor and measure absolute track position and geometry. 
Mobius provides Sim cards that offer ultra-reliable mobile data connections between items of equipment by duplicating every system connection to give an availability of at least 99.96%.

CrossTech specialises in infrastructure analytics systems and automated infrastructure inspection and fault detection using Intelligent Vision. Network Rail uses its automated digital lineside inspection platform, Hubble, to give front line teams more efficient and safer asset inspections across various asset domains including vegetation, overhead line, safe cess tunnels and signal sighting. Hubble is a next generation inspection system when compared to manual video based inspection systems.

The National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure (NCATI) is a further education college with teaching campuses in Birmingham and Doncaster which were formerly the National College for High-Speed Rail. Working in partnership with the University of Birmingham, NCATI provides technical, business, and project-management skills from Level 2 through to Level 7 as well as training apprentices from various companies including Network Rail and Siemens.

OneBigCircle developed its Automated Intelligent Video Review (AIVR) system which uses on board video that can be transmitted by 4G to make it instantly accessible. AIVR provides an intuitive dashboard for safe effective monitoring of the lineside environment. This includes, for example, measurement and annotation tools and has variation application including signal sighting and detection of changes over time. To date, users have spent 120,000 hours reviewing the AIVR dashboard, potentially saving 960,000 hours on site.

The 12,000 square-metre UKRRIN facility at Birmingham opened in 2020 and spans five floors. It specialises in digital railway engineering research such as railway control and simulation, data integration, cybersecurity, condition monitoring, and sensing. To support this work, it has laboratories for cybersecurity, electronics fabrication, robotics, railway systems as well as a simulation control room and simulation suite.

The final part of this Unlocking Innovation event was a tour of these laboratories. The robotics laboratory demonstrated how robotics could be used to facilitate inspections including those of wheelsets. The systems lab was considering alternative ways of powering switches and crossings as well as the use of a sonar array on HS1 for track monitoring.

In the simulation suite there was a demonstration of metro power demand requirements, and of platform docking at Birmingham New Street. There was also a simulation to determine whether movements of HS2 stock from the Washwood Heath depot to Curzon Street station would benefit from Automatic Train Operation.

The train driver simulators in the simulation suite can be used to assess driver workload, ergonomics, and Driver Machine Interface (DMI) designs. They also gave participants an opportunity to practice their train driving skills.

Understanding data
UK heavy rail has 31,209 single track kilometres on which, each year, 15,277 passenger rail vehicles operate eight million passenger train services, and there are 200,000 freight trains. This infrastructure and its trains generate a huge amount of data. Much has been said about how the rail industry can benefit from better use of this data, yet exactly how and for what purpose is not always clear.
The ‘Intelligent Railways’ Unlocking Innovation event showed the benefits of better data sharing and the barriers that need to be overcome. It was also a great showcase for initiatives which will make better use of rail data as well as the various digital technologies that are already available. RIA’s innovation events always offer fresh insights into new developments and this one was no exception.

The next Unlocking Innovation event concerns Rail Freight and will be held at the UKRINN innovation hub in Doncaster on 22 February. Rail Engineer will be there.

Image credit: RIA

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


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