On the right track

Head of IT Strategy and Enterprise Architecture, Network Rail Read time: 3 mins
Automation is increasingly taking root across Britain’s rail network, says Network Rail’s Raghava Appikatla. In this guest blog he explains how and why both staff and customers will benefit
On the right track You may not realise it but automation is already a fundamental part of any train journey. Think about it. From ticket machines to timing screens, signalling to scheduling, automation has become so common that it is easy to take it for granted.
 
It wasn’t always that way.
 
Like many other industries, the creeping spread of technology prompted some ripples of concern that jobs may be lost and safety compromised amidst the transition to a digital future. But actually, automation is the cornerstone of a new railway, one that is more safe, more efficient and more attuned to the rising expectations of customers up and down the country.
 

Maintenance matters

Let’s start with how Network Rail, the owner and infrastructure manager of most of the railway network in Britain uses automation to take better care of its assets – like the track, signalling and points (which enable trains to be guided from one track to another).
 
Technology now takes the lead in capturing the condition of many of our assets such as Points, Point Heaters, Track Circuits etc, which enables Network Rail engineers to know exactly how these assets are operating every single day. In the past, teams of personnel would have had to have been sent out to the tracks to inspect each of these assets individually, but now they can just look at the data to understand if it is functioning correctly from the comfort of their control room.
 
Such an approach is not only far safer but it also is better from a compliance perspective. That’s because manual processes, as good as they are, can allow a few mistakes to creep in here and there – unlike automation. Technology is also helping us understand the condition of points. Points are movable sections of track, allowing trains to move from one line to another. On some of our busiest lines, over 100 trains will pass over just one set of points every day.
 
Like all assets, points can fail. They might get clogged with debris or ice, the drive mechanism might fail or, in hot weather, they might expand too much. 
 
Most points are monitored remotely. By installing sensors that measure temperature, power etc and using the data collected Network Rail can predict failures before they happen. This approach has reduced the number of point failures and has resulted in fewer delays and disruptions for the passengers. Network Rail is on a journey to add more assets to our remote condition monitoring capability – increasing automation of inspection as well as reducing disruptions to the passengers by performing preventative maintenance as and when required. 
 
Such initiatives – a few examples among many – are a testament to Network Rail’s determination to use technology as a means of delivering a step-change in safety, as well as boosting efficiency and reliability across its network. 
 

Passengers first

Passengers, while of course benefiting from these programmes, do not automatically see them on their day-to-day travel. They do, however, benefit from automation in many other aspects of their journey.
 
Take timetable and the live train movements, for example. Just by automating data feeds across multiple platforms and providing seamless information across all channels – the control centre, the passenger facing websites and mobile Apps, passengers can predict, plan ahead and manage their journeys far better.
 
In an era reshaped by COVID-19 the value of automation should not be underestimated. With passenger numbers falling, a more comfortable experience will help persuade more people to come back to the railway. Thanks to automation helping improve efficiency, the money saved can be reinvested in other projects that can further improve the passenger experience.
 

Green light

There is little doubt that automation will only increase in the future. We should not flinch from this prospect but welcome it. Technology is not stealing jobs, it’s helping staff do them better than ever and carving open avenues of opportunity which have never previously existed.
 
Fast forward 25 years and we’d wager that passengers will be experiencing smart transportation hubs, integrated across train, bus and private transport, and forming an intrinsic part of life in smart cities. An exciting prospect – and one that is rapidly materialising on the horizon.
 
Let’s get to work. 
 
About the author
Raghava Appikatla is Head of IT Strategy and Enterprise Architecture at Network Rail
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Raghava Appikatla Head of IT Strategy and Enterprise Architecture, Network Rail 3 December 2020