Improving railway safety through transformative technologies By Dr Uwe Jasnoch, transportation industry leader, Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure and Geospatial division
A key aspect of protecting people and freight is visibility of the environments that make up the national railway network. This is achieved by monitoring and detecting anomalies in network conditions that may point to hazards. Railway operators must conduct ongoing inspections and monitoring of any obstructions or faults in the track, internal functioning of trains, crossroad maintenance and more. The result is a deep pool of data which traditionally had to be manually sifted through and analysed. The manual process was not perfect, and information could get lost or blocked between organisational siloes, causing delays.
Rail operators must look to emerging technology to improve safety procedures and mitigate risk across the UK’s railway networks
Safety starts at monitoring
ail networks encounter a great variety of risks to their operations on a routine basis – from security incidents and asset failures to increasingly disruptive weather events, such as storms, landslides, lightning strikes and even fallen leaves. Indeed, Storm Eunice brought railway services across the UK to a standstill earlier this year. While these risks are here to stay – and in the case of environmental hazards, may even worsen as the climate changes – use of railways is increasing. Passenger and freight travel are expected to double by 2050, amplifying the importance of optimising railway safety and security. Between 2020 and 2021, a report by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) found that there were 20 recorded fatalities on the UK’s rail networks and 342 near misses at level crossings with pedestrians – the greatest number since the report was initiated in 2002-2003. However, rail remains significantly safer than other forms of transport. But as the volume of travel increases, so too will the number of accidents unless safety measures are put in place. Rail operators must look to emerging technology to improve safety procedures and mitigate risk across the UK’s railway networks. These solutions range from infrastructural mapping and digital twin smart monitoring to improving emergency response with artificial intelligence (AI).
Now, there are integrated transport network information systems that collate all asset and spatial data into a single source of truth instead of multiple separate databases. This guarantees that important data is always up-to-date and readily accessible for any staff across the organisation who might need to see it. When risks are detected in the network, railway operators can proactively solve these issues without delay. Railway monitoring can also be improved by using digital twin technology, which creates a 3D model of the network and its adjacent infrastructure through live operational data recorded across the network. This creates an identical replica of the whole network and its features, including tracks, bridges and even
specific details, such as benches, rubbish bins and trees. The model can then be linked to the integrated data that enables insight to the specific areas of immediate issue in the network as well as predict any potential future risk events, using AI-powered automation. The combination of the digital twin with AI-powered automation means that the system can flag fluid variables that could have an impact on rail network safety, such as high congestion, providing operators with the chance to alleviate potential issues before they result in risk and disruption. Indeed, the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) is developing a National Digital Twin (NDT) programme for the UK’s network. This would be an ecosystem of digital twins joined within a standardised protocol through which information could be shared securely to benefit the economy, and the environment.
Putting AI and LiDAR to the task of infrastructural mapping AI and LiDAR technologies are transforming the precision and efficiency of railway infrastructural mapping. A collaboration between Network Rail and Innovate UK is a great example of how these technologies can be used together.