The importance of railways as a transportation system cannot be understated.
Before the automobile, rail was the primary system for the transportation of goods and passengers. Rail has also been essential to the development of Australian cities since the inception of the first rail line from Parramatta to Sydney in the mid-1800s.
The inception of the early rail systems in Australia by individual entities, however, meant that there was no common system – not only for gauge, but for rail systems as a whole. As a result, a passenger travelling from Brisbane to Perth in the early 1900s would have had to change trains six times!
Fast forward to today’s information age and the fundamental issues around common systems seem to have been solved. However, an even larger problem may be looming just around the corner.
The growing desire for integrated transport networks, mobile ticketing, driverless trains and the like worldwide is generating massive amounts of information and massive investment. As a result, the success of new rail systems now hinge on access to real-time, credible data for the operation of rail networks.
Then there’s the question of whether owners and operators have the ability to extract value and derive insights from these massive amounts of data to benefit the operation and maintenance of rail systems over their lifespan.
Consider the High Speed 2 (HS2) in the UK which now mandated the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) even in the very first phase of the project. The resulting savings in efficiency are estimated at £210 million or more. That’s great, but I would argue that an even bigger opportunity lies in how we protect and extract value from the data for the management of HS2 for the next hundred years and beyond.
Another question decision makers often ask is, “How will my existing assets be integrated into new network operations, and into a new BIM environment?”
Embracing new digital tools for the life cycle management of new rail projects is critical to the future of the industry. However, due consideration also needs to be given to existing assets which hold far greater value.
When you consider how the largest owner/operator in Australia has $104 billion in assets in its portfolio, and how there is approximately 1,000 kilometres of electrified track and 2,500 kilometres of regional track in NSW alone, you start to understand the immense challenge involved in moving these assets to a completely digital integrated environment.
Historically – and even in most cases today – the location of assets in the rail corridor is determined by traditional surveying and measurement tools. These discrete measurements give designers and owners an accurate survey of the corridor.
New spatial location tools available today suggest that this process is ready for optimisation. 3D laser scanning, mobile mapping and drone data capture can expedite the process for capturing large areas in the corridor. Yet the process of digitising these assets as they are captured is still somewhat of a manual process.
We are already starting to see technologies being developed for the intelligent recognition of assets within the 3D data, such as signals, train stops and overhead structures, thus reducing the manual effort involved. This enables additional data to then be retrofitted and used for asset management.
However, these are only theoretical and enormous amounts of work still need to be done. When using rapid data capture techniques to conduct monitoring and inspections, surveillance (including intrusion detection and vegetation management) and control are critical. And for some operators, this can run into the range of hundreds of millions of dollars.
They are quick wins though, and they hold the keys to creating a truly integrated transportation network and making old rail new.