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ORBIS – an unsung but unqualified success

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Sunday 31 March 2019 signified not only the end of Network Rail’s Control Period 5, but with it the end of the ORBIS programme. ORBIS, Offering Rail Better Information Services, was a £335 million seven-year programme that aimed to put data at the heart of the railway and create a detailed digital model of the UK’s rail network. Network Rail relies heavily on high-quality asset information to plan, design, change, manage and operate its asset base safely and efficiently. Historically, this information was held in a number of different systems, with many user interfaces, varying computer programmes and even hard-copy records, some still on parchment and dating from Victorian times.

An Asset Information Strategy, published in September 2011, admitted that Network Rail had, more than once, attempted to improve the quality of its asset data. However, whilst some of these initiatives had been effective in the short-term, they lacked appropriate governance mechanisms, processes and information handling competencies to make improvements sustainable.

Patrick Bossert.

Patrick Bossert was the first head of the ORBIS Programme: “For ten years after the formation of Network Rail, the performance indicators, in almost every regard, had improved quite dramatically. But, for the two years prior to my joining (in 2011), everything had stalled. In fact, some of the indicators were going the wrong way.

“That said to the board, very clearly, that they couldn’t squeeze the business for more efficiency – something else had to be done. So, our agenda was to use information as an enabler for process change and business effectiveness.”

Business change

Launched in October 2011, ORBIS aimed to consolidate all of these records, some of which were scattered around the network, into simple, user-friendly digital tools and databases that would help Network Rail manage its assets more efficiently, cost-effectively and safely and was predicted to save up to £1 billion over the next decade.

Predominantly a data improvement and business change programme, ORBIS was designed to bring about a significant cultural shift in attitude toward, and trust in, asset data and information through the services provided by the Asset Information team. By getting this right, ORBIS would shift Network Rail from time-based maintenance regimes to condition and risk-based regimes.

Three key elements became the key focus: First, to deliver whole systems intelligence to understand the railway as a system and plan and operate more effectively as an asset owner. Second, to deliver an integrated suite of data to intelligence tools to provide insight to enable better decisions on maintenance and renewal costs. Thirdly, and most importantly, to educate, train and equip engineers to exploit and realise the benefits of new tools and new ways of working.

In particular, ORBIS aimed to stop Network Rail from:

  • Recording asset condition information on locally held pieces of paper;
  • Unnecessarily renewing infrastructure assets sooner than required;
  • Planning work on the basis of poorly controlled or outdated schematics;
  • Wasting time trying to locate an incident when time was of the essence;
  • Requiring many months to provide route clearance for charter services;
  • Taking many weeks to produce the necessary paperwork to dig a hole;
  • Building a model of the network each and every time it needed one for timetable, system reliability or investment modelling purposes;
  • Re-surveying project sites that had already been recently surveyed;
  • Unnecessarily printing and distributing thousands of tons of paper each year in the form of Sectional Appendices, PONs, WONs, COSS packs and rule-books.

ORBIS aimed to deliver the resources needed to meet these aspirations through the introduction of mobile apps and tools specifically designed to capture high-quality asset data and which offered new ways of viewing the railway.

ORBIS set out to capture high-quality asset information.

The programme fell into three broad areas:

  • Tools to capture, access and maintain high quality data;
  • The ability to join and view asset data in collaborative work environments;
  • Decision support tools for managing the infrastructure assets.

The first step was to give all of the frontline teams iPads and iPhones, about 13,000 in total. They were encouraged to familiarise themselves with these tools and come back in six months to explain what they would like to do with them.

The teams returned with ideas that were taken on by the delivery units, resulting in the creation of apps tailored to their users.


Using the information provided by the frontline teams, and a ‘Model Office’ approach – meaning that it was developed through direct involvement and interaction with end-users from the initial design to the finished product – ORBIS then rolled out a number of transformational projects across Network Rail’s eight routes.

Those outcomes included:

Linear Asset Decision Support tool (LADS): Using iDevices or desktops, engineers can visualise, manipulate and analyse information about track data from one source. This enables proactive maintenance management through a better understanding of the assets. LADS consolidated more than 32,000km of track asset data into a single format.
Apps for iDevices: A raft of intelligent apps have been delivered to end-users, including the My Work, Fault Code Lookup and Close Call apps.
Rail Infrastructure Network Model (RINM): Using data from a range of sources, including images from existing master assets and aerial surveys, RINM delivers a clear picture of the entire railway network and how it relates to the wider environment.
National Aerial Survey: The first complete aerial survey of the entire 16,000 kilometres of the UK’s rail network was carried out in 2014, capturing images of terrain to a much greater level of detail than existed previously.

Apps explained

My Work was designed to digitise the Ellipse (Network Rail’s asset database) work order management process. By delivering accurate, up-to-date information to iDevices, when and where it is needed, it eliminates the need for paperwork and supports mobile working. The app allows maintenance teams to view and close work orders and raise work-arising identification forms (WAIFs) on site, improving their ability to plan and organise their work schedules. The app includes access to the work bank and allows teams to view the condition history of an asset to enable more informed decisions on maintenance work. It also enhances visibility of other work in the vicinity of a maintenance team. Engineers using the app can capture asset data and deliver completed, accurate work orders to section managers for review and approval. To date, more than 14.8 million work orders have been closed on the My Work app.
Fault Code Lookup (FCL) is a mobile application used by technicians and fault teams to capture the most up-to-date information on faults and failures. The information is then delivered to incident controllers and the fault management system (FMS) in real time. Fault teams can carry out fault analysis and send accurate cause and supporting information directly to incident control. FCL was first rolled out in June 2014 and is now used by approximately 5,000 users.
Close Call was introduced to increase safety across Network Rail. Maintenance teams use the Close Call app to efficiently capture data about hazardous situations, so they can report information in real time and ensure repairs are immediately addressed.


Five of the key projects delivered by the ORBIS programme were:

  • Rail Infrastructure Network Model (RINM) project – which delivered the Geo-RINM Viewer and the Integrated Network Model (INM);
  • Mobile Works Management (MWM) – delivering iDevices and apps;
  • Exchange of Asset Information (EAI);
  • Asset Data Store (ADS)
  • Central data store containing three billion records;
  • Decision Support Tools (DST) for track, signalling, electrical power, operational property and level crossings.

The effects of the change from diverse, ‘flat’ databases containing limited information to one, overarching, geospatial view of the railway and its assets cannot be underestimated. Being able to visualise the railway from a geospatial perspective has changed how Network Rail teams work.

The RINM project team delivered two key projects: The Geo-RINM Viewer and the Intigrated Network Model (INM).

A slope map and cross-section, as shown on Geo-RINM Viewer.

Using the Geo-RINM Viewer, users can view individual assets, the environment surrounding these assets and the proposed worksite, identifying any hazards before sending Network Rail staff and contractors to the site. Indeed, the adoption of this new technology, which was developed with assistance from Arup, removes the need for site visits to carry out surveys and allows teams to make accurate calculations of heights and areas for project material estimations from a single desktop tool, resulting in increased efficiencies and cost savings.

INM replaced Network Rail’s existing 1970s mainframe system to become the new master asset register for track – integrating plain line and switches and crossing data – providing teams with a geospatial asset view of the track asset and improving how data is updated and viewed after track has been renewed and maintained.

However, information has to be kept up-to-date. As work on the railway takes place, records need to be updated reliably and continuously. Now consolidated into a single database, that information has to be entered in a consistent way.

The Mobile Works Management team had distributed iPads and iPhones to the workforce, and then also delivered the various apps and led training in how to use them. Following on from this, the Exchange of Asset Information (EAI) project, which is due for final delivery later this year, will formalise and optimise asset information exchange between Network Rail and its supply chain, enabling a single platform for those planning and delivering work on the railway.

The Asset Data Store now combines 450 data sets and 34 separate source systems to deliver insight in to asset performance that would previously have taken weeks to analyse. Holding more than three billion records it is now offering a wealth of opportunity for Network Rail to carry out bulk reporting on assets and to plan more effectively for CP6.

Once again, Arup worked with Network Rail to provide business and technical architecture and design, investment case support, requirements management, process writing and formulation of the data quality. That governance approach facilitated the programme passing multiple investment stage gates, standardising data management and giving transparency and confidence that all asset information would be correct and up-to-date for any future infrastructure-change project.

Disparate sources of information reduce efficiency, impacting passenger service and operations as asset managers are not able to make optimised renewals and maintenance decisions. ORBIS’ Decision Support Tools (DSTs) integrate data sources into a user-friendly dashboard where data can be easily searched, filtered and sorted. The tools also include linear trend analysis functionality in order to predict when certain faults may arise. For instance, the Track DST is helping teams to analyse when and where cyclic top events are likely to impact track alignment, giving engineers the evidence to carry out targeted maintenance work to avoid and resolve temporary speed restrictions (TSRs).

Viewing the railway

In 2014, Network Rail carried out an aerial survey, photographing the railway in high-resolution to produce a detailed map of all infrastructure assets – 220TB of railway data was captured during the survey. The resulting ‘orthophotos’ have a resolution of 4cm, showing anything larger than 4cm in clear detail.

This information was then combined with the 150 layers of data from the various other databases to reveal a wealth of knowledge about the railway – data and imagery that can now be accessed through a single viewer – the Geo-RINM Viewer – via desktop computers.

It reveals some interesting detail. First, there is a conventional photographic layer, showing the railway from above in full colour. Then, the two-tone digital surface model images show the height and depth of landscape features above ground – including trees, bridges and platforms. This model is based on images captured during the aerial survey, with light sensors taking highly accurate measurements using a light-detecting and ranging (LiDAR) technique.

LiDAR view with trees and other features stripped away, showing the ground surface.

By manipulating the LiDAR data, surface features such as trees and vegetation can be stripped away. The resulting digital terrain model view shows the ground surface, bare of all features, and reveals the height of any slopes or the depth of any cuts in the terrain.

Other views identify the location of hazards, listed buildings and buried services. The Geo-RINM Viewer enhances engineers’ access to information, from access points and track geometry to geological and flood data.

The Viewer can be used to measure distances and areas digitally, making pre-planning simpler as work site planning and familiarisation starts in the office, reducing time on track and so increasing employee safety.

Aerial survey using LiDAR.

Tree survey

One of the more unlikely successes of the ORBIS programme was the tree survey. Alongside Britain’s 20,000 miles of railway, some 10 million trees grow within 60 metres of the tracks, although not all are on Network Rail property.

Just one mature tree can have between 10,000 and 50,000 leaves, so, each autumn, thousands of tonnes of leaves fall onto railway lines across the country. Compressed by passing trains, these leaves create a thin, black layer on the rail that, much like black ice on the roads, can affect train braking and acceleration as a result of reduced friction between train wheels and rail.

In addition, trees and branches fall onto both railway tracks and overhead wires – around 500 times in any one year.

Using data from the ORBIS aerial survey, special software identified each tree, its species and over 100 different attributes per tree, including height, thickness, health, slope angle, proximity to bridges and power lines, all of which were measured to predict the risk an individual tree represented to the railway.

Vegetation control teams could then be despatched to those ‘hotspots’ where there were potential problems. However, it’s not simply a question of cutting them down. Many of the older trees existed even before the railway. Some are protected by legislation. Veteran trees are important as deadwood habitats for rare fungi, invertebrates, lichen, birds and bats – they have a structural complexity providing many habitat niches that do not exist on younger trees.

Sensitive vegetation management can make them safe so they don’t affect the running of the railway, as sensitively as possible so that this doesn’t harm the tree.

But that’s only one of ORBIS’ successes. There are many others.

Stephen Hobden.

“People now recognise that data is an asset in its own right,” said Stephen Hobden, head of delivery and managing director – consulting at TUSP. “We have addressed a whole heap of issues in a seven-year programme and laid some foundations for others to build on and continue to exploit.

“We have a lot of visits from abroad, from Australia, from Europe as well, looking at the work that we’ve done around our decision support tools, at our Geo-RINM Viewer, how we’ve managed to create a new way of viewing multiple data layers and imagery from a single tool, and how we’ve looked at managing change as well – not just the technological side.

“I think sharing good practice across the world is the way to go – not every railway is different, I think they all share a lot of the same challenges, and I don’t think anyone in this industry has ever tackled something as big as we have in one go.”

Managing change

Jamie Crystal of EY explained that his company’s role was that of business change integrator. From the very beginning, it was clear that delivering a cultural change would be critical to the success of ORBIS – changing hearts and minds to create a ‘pull’ from the business had to be at the forefront of the programme.

“EY was brought in to focus on those business change aspects,” he said. “To try to get away from a typical technology-led implementation and look at what it actually means for the front-end people on the track and also the people who are working in the offices – the planners and so on – at how they could become more efficient at their jobs and focus on planning and safety.

“The focus in the early days for ORBIS was to get the workforce digitally enabled, so they were able to pick up work on their iPads and their iPhones, removing the paper-based work, making that whole process more effective – more efficient – and also giving them the right information to make their jobs safer. Now, it’s more about using that data to drive end-to-end processes around effective predictive asset maintenance activities.

“A big challenge is dealing with the range of working styles across a large, engineering-focused workforce, which includes the full spectrum from apprentice school leavers through to those approaching retirement. A lot of work was done face-to-face with individuals out in the routes to get them to use the technology more effectively.

“Many utilities have faced the same challenges around smart-metering workforces, and how they use smart-metering technology. The big network utilities have very similar problems and challenges and are continuing with similar transformation programmes to ORBIS.”

Time’s up!

After £335 million and seven years, ORBIS finally closed its doors at the end of CP5. There was a small amount of work still to be completed, and many team members will be back under the guise of ‘Intelligent Infrastructure’, the next big programme to improve the way Network Rail manages the railway.

Tim Coucher.

Much of the work on Intelligent Infrastructure during CP6 will be carried out by the former ORBIS team. Tim Coucher, ORBIS programme director, explained: “One of the things that we recognise is that there is a wealth of knowledge in an area of the business that’s not well known. We’ve been through that journey (ORBIS) and, for us to continue that journey, we need to retain these people in the business. We’ve given them a line of sight through the CP6 work because we needed to retain those skills and knowledge and keep them within Network Rail.”

No doubt we shall be hearing much more about Intelligent Infrastructure in the future. Meanwhile, congratulations to the ORBIS team for delivering a challenging and highly complex project, on time and on budget, that will benefit the railway of the future.

L-R: Stephen Hobden, ORBIS head of delivery; Sylvia Reeves, ORBIS director; Patrick Bossert, Network Rail’s former director of Asset Information; Steve Dyke, former ORBIS director; Tim Coucher, former ORBIS director.


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