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Smart solutions harness great potential for rail

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At a time of heightened scrutiny over the performance of railways, operators face considerable challenges: from consumer demands for better services, to wide debate over pay, prices and costs.

In the UK, 2018 rail services have already seen weather disruptions, strikes and fare hikes. But there remains an appetite for investment in rail, with the benefits of investment being highlighted with the reopening of London Bridge, an upgraded Thameslink train service from May, and the start of Crossrail services by the end of the year.

And, in January, financial services firm Legal & General announced it would invest an additional £350 million to upgrade rolling stock. The company previously invested £550 million in the country’s rail infrastructure and completed four rolling stock deals.

Meanwhile, China’s ‘one Belt, one Road’ initiative is seeing the country’s railway operator planning heavy investment in high-speed rail from Asia to Europe. There are also plans for investment in countries as diverse as Nigeria, Russia, India and Turkey.

Across the globe, operators that are trying to meet growing demand by expanding rail networks and improving existing infrastructure must be able to justify the investments they make. And it must be done in a manner that is safe, reliable and scalable for the future.

A digital future

This is now very much in a digitalisation age. An age that looks set to transform the rail industry.

The main challenge is how to embrace this. Technological advancement needs to be combined with reliability and minimal maintenance requirements.

Paul Herron, business development manager for PC-based automation at Siemens, agrees. “I think there are a lot of benefits to embracing change and this period of digitalisation could be massive for rail,” he told Rail Engineer.

“There are challenges for the industry, and it’s important to move forward with technology to meet these challenges, including bringing prices down.”

With this in mind, the potential of commercially available, off-the-shelf (COTS) products is becoming difficult to ignore.

Systems with great potential

Two areas that are becoming increasingly popular are Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software and industrial PCs (IPC).

SCADA software systems are wide-area operator interfaces that can monitor just about anything: from rail signalling and tunnel ventilation systems to station management, electrical supplies and other utilities.

The benefits of SCADA are already being felt on major infrastructure projects, including one of the largest of its kind currently being undertaken in Europe.

The Elizabeth line, due to open in central London in 2018, features 42km of tunnels, 10 new stations and at least 30 station upgrades. It will rely on the safe operation of 48 large fans and 160 dampers for both operational and emergency ventilation. These will be controlled and monitored by Siemens WinCC SCADA software, as well as using Simatic IPCs.

IPCs provide the hardware platform for SCADA and other monitoring systems. Specified for industrial use, Simatic IPCs are Windows PCs that have been designed from scratch to meet functional and environmental requirements, in all but the most extreme applications.

“If you combine the SCADA product with a high-quality Simatic IPC, then you can start to see the real potential for operators to meet the demands of the future in a cost-effective and efficient way,” Paul Herron commented.

The benefits of SCADA

SCADA is easy to set up, and the software is also very scalable. With simulation and test capability in the design environment, SCADA systems can be tested for correct operation without lengthy commissioning during the project.

“This can potentially shorten project timescales,” Herron added. “It’s a great luxury to have, because you’re making your mistakes in the virtual world rather than the real world, so you can get it right first time.”

WinCC SCADA software can communicate with other third-party systems, devices and controllers via OPC, a software interface standard that allows Windows programs to communicate with industrial hardware devices, using suitable OPC servers. It also records process signals and local events, saving them in archives to be available, sorted or filtered as required.

This flexibility enables later modifications to adapt to changing needs, an advantage over traditional products that can be difficult and costly to modify.

The benefits of IPCs

SIMATIC IPCs are designed to operate over long periods of time, so are durable and very reliable, particularly for a railway system that must be operated 24/7, or with equipment in harsh environments. They have been very successfully used in some of the industry’s most demanding environments, such as the London Underground.

As well as easy installation in control cabinets and enclosures, they’re compact and easy to maintain in the event of any failure – their scalability and long lifecycle making them very efficient, especially over time. Downtime is also greatly reduced by the comprehensive diagnostics of all aspects of the IPC, such as temperature, memory, watchdog and others.

The Siemens IPC range offers easy-to-install hardware designs, such as 19” rack, box and panel mount enclosures. IPCs can be configured with various options on CPU performance, display size, RAM memory, hard disk and operating system. As a result, they can offer precision performance to specific customer requirements.

Some Siemens IPCs also have electro-magnetic conformity (EMC) rail certification, which can be advantageous in a sector that is often risk-averse.

“Historically, engineering in the rail sector has relied on tight testing, and we’ll use the same thing because we know it works and it’s safe,“ Paul Herron clarified. “Having a certified product mitigates this risk.”

A perfect combination

Combining WinCC and Simatic IPCs can achieve high quality and high availability visualisation systems for 24/7 infrastructure projects, with a number of benefits beyond cost efficiency.

Openness: the Simatic SCADA and IPC range supports various Microsoft operating systems, as well as Linux, Android and iOS platforms, providing maximum choice when selecting the best architecture;

Scaleability and flexibility: quickly deployed to any size system and architecture from single-node operator to multi-site, multi-user systems;

Innovation: as a global leader in automation, Siemens is constantly innovating the SCADA and IPC portfolio to introduce innovations such as multi-touch displays and advanced operator functions;

Efficiency: with seamless SCADA redundancy, high-availability RAID arrays to improve performance and safeguard data, and dual power supplies, Simatic WinCC and IPCs can secure critical data in the long term for the highest levels of availability.

Time to embrace change

So, the success of Siemens’ off-the-shelf products could be an indication that times are changing in the rail industry, as Paul Herron explained. “Historically, the rail industry would have purchased bespoke equipment specifically designed, very expensive and with long engineering cycles. Now, it is looking to be much more cost effective and valuable by utilising off-the-shelf products where possible.

“Off-the-shelf products can still meet the rugged requirements, but are also bringing new benefits in terms of price and efficiency.” Simatic SCADA and IPCs are offering operators lower investment and maintenance costs, and as a result are having a profound impact on project development times, system accuracy, and speed of deployment.

Are they helping to usher in a new age of rail? Only time will tell.

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