04 Sep, 2023 By Sotiris Kanaris
How can new technologies and a systems approach improve rail infrastructure delivery and asset management?
The way rail infrastructure assets are designed, delivered and maintained has transformed over the past few decades, thanks to the introduction of new technologies.
The wide adoption of digital tools by rail asset owners and their supply chains has shown that the sector acknowledges the benefits such tools can offer. However, the constant evolution of technologies and the introduction of new ones makes it challenging for the industry to keep up and reap the maximum benefits.
Processing the available data to deliver insights and inform decision making was identified as a challenge
Even though data collection in the sector has increased, there are questions about whether data is being used enough to influence decision making. With the development of digital twins and the metaverse, rail industry experts are exploring whether these technologies could be used to improve infrastructure delivery and asset maintenance or whether a systems approach is the best way of achieving that.
NCE teamed up with Bentley Systems to hold a series of discussion groups at the NCE Rail & Transit conference in July to hear industry experts’ views on these topics. The event’s attendees – clients, consultants, contractors and supply chain members – joined these groups, ensuring the conversation brought views from across the sector.
The systems approach views infrastructure as a dynamic, interconnected network, rather than disparate components. Adopting it could improve infrastructure delivery, according to those who took part in the group discussion on this topic.
During the discussion it was argued that breaking down traditional departmental boundaries and fostering collaboration will enable the delivery of infrastructure projects that are more resilient, adaptable and better aligned to the needs of the people they serve. The participants said they believed that this approach is more focused on the end users.
Another advantage of the systems approach is that holistic analysis of infrastructure projects offers decision makers a comprehensive understanding of potential consequences of their decisions.
The entrenched nature of infrastructure delivery methods can create resistance to change. It was agreed that implementing a systems approach requires a highly knowledgeable leadership team that is also able to make decisions with a long term view.
For successful implementation, participants emphasised the importance of knowledge sharing between stakeholders.
For the right decisions about a rail infrastructure asset to be made throughout its lifecycle, those in charge must be as well informed as possible. One of the conclusions of the discussion group on data-driven decisions was that the rail sector is “data rich but information poor”.
The sector has been increasingly deploying sensors and other technologies to collect data for asset management. The discussion groups agreed that this has led to the accumulation of such high volumes of data as to hinder useful insight gathering.
“We have so much data that we do not know how to get value from it because of the amount of resource, time and effort required,” said one participant.
Another delegate said that poor quality data was also hindering their use of this information for decision making.
Some viewed the deployment of artificial intelligence as a way for the industry to get better insights from the data collected. But they emphasised that the quality of data must improve before this solution
Companies in the sector have already invested in digital twin technology as it is seen as a tool that could enhance the way infrastructure projects are designed and delivered.
“We define it [a digital twin] as a digital representation of assets,” said Bentley Systems regional director for transportation in Northern Europe Nick Niknam.
One of the ways that digital twins can improve designs, according to the discussion group participants, is by enhancing communication between designers and contractors during the design phase. It was argued that this will ensure buildability and a reduction in embodied carbon.
One of discussion participants pointed to the use of a digital twin for Network Rail’s Transpennine Route Upgrade. They referred to the integration of carbon calculators into the digital twin throughout the design process, even during optioneering.
There was also a discussion about how digital twins can make construction, and more specifically sequencing, more efficient.
Niknam said that to build something sustainable, a digital twin could make it possible to see the different stages of construction and plan carbon reduction measures in advance.
Matthew Ball, author of The metaverse and how it will revolutionize everything, defines the metaverse as “a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds and environments which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence and with continuity of data”.
Bentley Systems senior director for Digital Innovation Lab Greg Demchak said most of the technology for the “infrastructure metaverse” – including cloud architecture, game engines and virtual reality (VR) headsets – is already available but needs to deployed in a way that delivers value.
VR has already been used in the construction sector. A few applications were mentioned during the discussion including the use of this technology to develop High Speed 2’s Old Oak Common Station wayfinding strategy and for training purposes on Tideway.
The group agreed that metaverse technology could be useful for safety training, with simulated site accidents used to prevent them from happening in reality.
Another potential useful application of metaverse technology is for digital rehearsal of infrastructure possessions, so that the different teams are aware of what they are supposed to be doing.
The potential for the metaverse to influence the design process was also discussed. One way is by enabling design team meetings to take place within a 3D model. Another way is showing in real time that changes made to a design adhere to the rail sector’s standards.
Adopting these technologies and shifting to a systems approach could have a positive influence on project delivery and asset management, but it will require a radical change in the way the industry operates.
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