The creation of a highly detailed digital model of the UK's rail network is expected to dramatically lift the efficiency of maintenance and repair works.

Network Rail’s 330 million pound ORBIS project is a mammoth six-year undertaking that involves the creation of a comprehensive and highly detailed 3D digital model of the UK’s entire railway network.

Currently in its second year, the project first entails the combination of existing data with new data on key assets collated by means of Lidar technology deployed via helicopter.

The resulting rail infrastructure network model (RINM) will enable engineers to make far more informed decisions about the maintenance and operation of the system, enhancing reliability and achieving savings of as much as 1 billion pounds over the next decade.

Railway engineers can already make use of RINM by means of a tablet app akin to Google Earth. The app grants them access to highly specific information on local parameters of the rail network, such as the angle at which a track slopes, or even the shape and density of adjacent foliage.

RINM essentially embodies the application of building information modelling (BIM) to the maintenance and operation phase of a giant infrastructure project – an area of usage which is increasingly being touted by experts in the field.

The project took its initial inspiration from a seemingly unlikely source – the national criminal intelligence models that police forces around the world use to extract more effective usage of disparate intelligence.

According to Steve Dyke, program director for the ORBIS project, the application of this method from the world of criminology will enable engineers to shift toward a more predictive form of maintenance which anticipates problems before they actually occur, enabling preventative repair work and upgrades to be performed in advance.

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This will result in huge savings by increasing the efficiency of repairs and drastically reducing the amount of needless maintenance work performed on the network, including the amount of track that is changed, and the number of bridges or other civil infrastructure works that are rebuilt.

A comprehensive survey of the rail network will be performed once every five years in order to maintain the accuracy of the digital model and account for the inevitable and manifold changes that occur to such a vast infrastructure asset.

Dyke also foresees the use of more advanced technology to surveillance of the railway network in future, including the use of unmanned drones in lieu of piloted helicopters.