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The management of railway incidents

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No matter how reliable or how safe the railway becomes, incidents will always occur, be they related to weather, safety, technical or human problems. Many of these will be trivial, some will be serious, a few may be catastrophic, but all have to be managed effectively and professionally in order to get the railway re-opened and the trains running again as quickly as possible.

All railways have contingency plans – some appoint on-site controllers, others produce an emergency procedures handbook, some have specialist teams for technical troubleshooting, many have a combination of these with reviews taking place on effectiveness after any major incident.

Dependence on local knowledge was prominent in the past, with the local operations manager knowing the names of the civil or signal supervisors who, in turn, could call upon the technicians with the right skill set and calibre. In today’s railway, where the number of control centres for a whole country can be counted on one hand, the whereabouts of this local knowledge is not so obvious and it can be a challenge to find the right people who are in the right location with the right management or technical skills, and then to decide how best they can be deployed.

With the multitude of databases that exist, detailing the rules and procedures for ever-more sophisticated systems, it is a minefield to search for the right information, especially when senior management, social media and radio/television reporters are constantly requiring updates on the details of the incident and enquiring when a normal situation will be restored.

It would be easy to say that technology can help. Indeed, it can, but in what form and will sophisticated high level overview systems be required? Railways across the globe are studying the problem, particularly in relationship to their own organisational structure.

Wien Westbahnhof station, Austria. (iStock)

The Austrian experience

Austrian Federal Railways – Österreichishe Bundesbanen (ÖBB) – pursued a technical strategy to concentrate its 57 control and communications centres into five locations (Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Linz and Villach) plus a national centre in Vienna.

These are now all operational but, in the process, there was concern that the reduction in the number of control centres would lead to a loss of local knowledge with incidents taking on a higher profile and resultant adverse press comment. Thus, a solution to this had to be found. ÖBB is a railway that is still vertically integrated, which is an advantage in making the problem easier to resolve. Just imagine how the problem is compounded for a fragmented railway such as exists in the UK?

ÖBB produced a brief outline on how the railway might better prepare itself for incident management and talked this through with Frequentis, an international company headquartered in Austria with considerable experience in devising solutions for this type of scenario. Frequentis’ origins are in air traffic control but its knowledge base has expanded to provide communication management for the emergency services, public safety organisations, maritime and coastguard, defence and, indeed, the rail industry. All these organisations encounter emergencies and incidents on a regular basis, so the development of suitable technology to facilitate control and recovery was part of the business culture.

ÖBB and Frequentis worked closely together to define the requirements for a workable solution, finally producing REM (Railway Emergency Management), which has now been in existence for 10 years. Understanding the information required and the communication flows were major elements in its development.

ÖBB and Frequentis worked together to produce REM, which has now been in existence for 10 years. (iStock)

Incident and crisis management system

The basics of the ÖBB system is a software knowledge-base sitting on an independent server. This can then link to all the existing operational databases to access the information they contain and have this information transformed and presented to the incident managers in a unified style and format.

The big challenge was interfacing to the existing systems, as these had been supplied by many different companies with software packages that had been developed as standalone products. One of Frequentis’ strengths, from past contracts in air traffic control and rail, is its ability to obtain, by whatever means possible, the technical and software details of legacy data systems so that a workable interface to these can be designed. Using this ability, the system has duly matured and is now referred to as Incident and Crisis Management (ICM).

The system output yields the following functionality:

  • Providing reliable data for the incident location;
  • Identifying responsible staff within all internal and external organisations who will be involved, including ‘blue light’ organisations or any auxiliary forces;
  • Providing effective communication for the alerting and updating of staff involved in the on-going incident management;
  • Ensuring non-discriminatory information provisioning;
  • Providing a standardised work flow to guide the incident manager through the process, according to the operating procedures;
  • Recording of all data exchanges and communication to the standard required so that these can be used in future enquiries or any legal proceedings;
  • Aggregating detailed incident data for visualisation on GIS (geographical information system);
  • Supporting the European Directive for safety management;
  • A capability to present the data on mobile devices to aid and support on site operations.

So how do these requirements work out in practice?

Firstly, a list of names and organisations is compiled for each local area so that, if a problem occurs, the nature of the incident is keyed in and the names of, for instance, the permanent way or signal maintenance engineers appear on screen together with all their contact details. Organisations will include internal railway departments but also supply and support contractors relating to specific equipment.

These names will change from time to time and the changes may be recorded on local systems. It is important, therefore, that these changes are captured and transferred to ICM so that the records are duly updated.

Secondly, every voice and data transaction is dated, time stamped and response times are measured. In that way, a full log for the incident can be built up, which can be used subsequently at an incident enquiry, for continuous process improvement and for training purposes.

As well as being adopted on ÖBB, the ICM product has been deployed in Luxembourg (CSL) and in parts of Australia. It should be noted that Frequentis has been heavily involved in the UK rollout of Network Rail’s GSM-R network in the provision of the ‘front end’, where its Fixed Terminal System (FTS) Dicora terminals are installed at the signaller’s work stations in the rail operating centres (ROCs), integrated electronic control centres (IECCs), older power boxes and, indeed, old style mechanical signal boxes. As such, the company’s knowledge of how the railways work is considerable.

Travellers with smart phones are often better informed than local railway staff. (iStock)

Impact of social media

It is recognised that procedures will already be in place for any major railway accident, which would of course quickly become headline news on national radio and TV.

The more mundane incidents that occur on an all-too-frequent basis, involving train failures or cancellations, track or signalling disruption, trespassing and human injury (even suicides) are nowadays quickly reported on social media with often significant and unjust criticism of railway infrastructure organisations or train companies being made.

Countering these allegations is all part and parcel of a railway’s publicity role, but the reaction is often ill informed, which only compounds the problem and worsens the railway’s already tarnished image.

Having access to a current and accurate operational log would be of immense value to the publicity people and would help avoid putting out the platitudes such as ‘trains are delayed because of operational difficulties’ or ‘the train is cancelled because of staff shortages’. It is regularly reported that travellers with smart phones are often better informed than the local railway or station staff as to what is going on and when services will be restored.

Indeed, picking up virtually instant social media reports can trigger media queries about an incident of which a railway control office, at that stage, is still unaware. So a real-time information system would help to manage the ensuing multiple calls from the public, many of which will describe the incident in different terminology.

ÖBB control centre. (Frequentis)

Realism for the future

It will take more than buying a piece of technical kit to improve the challenge of incident management. To be effective, it will require the participation of people at all levels and in every part of the train service delivery organisation.

At the top of the pyramid are the control centre operators, who have the task of assembling the facts of the incident from the various information sources at their disposal and then entering all this on to the centralised ICM to create an incident log.

Front line staff from operational and technical departments need to have easy access to ICM so that they can see what is happening, feed in information and receive instructions as to what to do next.

An ICM App is already developed for use by staff equipped with smart phones and the signallers’ Dicora GSM-R terminals are capable of displaying ICM data. In Vienna, the ÖBB ICM system is linked to the ARAMIS traffic management system supplied by Thales and similar linkages are thus a proven interface to other railways that are installing TMS. It is known that a number of UK TOCs are investigating the system and the Network Rail Digital Railway team is also aware of its potential value.

All of this will need training, which should not be understated. Control staff that currently manage incidents would surely welcome the help that an ICM system can provide. Local staff who might be on the front line dealing with irate members of the public must often wish for better information. Maybe the old adage ‘give us the tools and we can finish the job’ is appropriate.

Clive Kessell
Clive Kessellhttp://therailengineer.com
SPECIALIST AREAS Signalling and telecommunications, traffic management, digital railway Clive Kessell joined British Rail as an Engineering Student in 1961 and graduated via a thin sandwich course in Electrical Engineering from City University, London. He has been involved in railway telecommunications and signalling for his whole working life. He made telecommunications his primary expertise and became responsible for the roll out of Cab Secure Radio and the National Radio Network during the 1970s. He became Telecommunications Engineer for the Southern Region in 1979 and for all of BR in 1984. Appointed Director, Engineering of BR Telecommunications in 1990, Clive moved to Racal in 1995 with privatisation and became Director, Engineering Services for Racal Fieldforce in 1999. He left mainstream employment in 2001 but still offers consultancy services to the rail industry through Centuria Comrail Ltd. Clive has also been heavily involved with various railway industry bodies. He was President of the Institution of Railway Signal Engineers (IRSE) in 1999/2000 and Chairman of the Railway Engineers Forum (REF) from 2003 to 2007. He continues as a member of the IRSE International Technical Committee and is also a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. A chartered engineer, Clive has presented many technical papers over the past 30 years and his wide experience has allowed him to write on a wide range of topics for Rail Engineer since 2007.


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