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Changing Tracks on Rail Safety: The Case for Better Data


Is Australia undergoing a rail safety crisis?

The Office of the National Rail Safety reported that, from 2017 to 2018, collisions between trains, vehicles, and people on Australian railways leapt significantly. Over the same time period, the number of “Signal Passed At Danger” (SPAD) incidents jumped more than 66%, from 365 to more than 600 — signaling higher risk profiles for national rail operators and their infrastructure.

What can rail operators do to reinforce the safety of the workers in their care and the customers they serve?

Any solution must acknowledge one simple principle: you can’t fix what you can’t see. Greater infrastructure visibility helps rail operators understand why safety incidents occur, detect causation trends, and use that insight to refine standards and procedures for safer operations. But to gain that visibility, operators need data: high-quality, real-time information about how their trains, drivers, and other equipment operate. Acquiring and harnessing such data requires newer, more powerful platforms, as well as increased performance and agility from the underlying communications network. In fact, renewed focus on safety could be the catalyst that propels transport railway communications infrastructure into the future.

Closing the gap in railway visibility

Current GSMR network voice-based communications provide limited visibility to rail operators. The adoption of efficient, data-oriented, 4G/LTE networks for rail promises to provide a far fuller picture of railway operations, enabling everything from real-time monitoring of equipment, to live streaming High Definition (HD) on-board cameras and other video-centric devices. And the breadth of this picture goes well beyond the trains themselves; live video streams, for example, can provide an invaluable safety monitoring function for construction sites or at potential collision sites, such as railway crossings. With the advent of Software-Defined Camera (SDC) capabilities and distributed edge computing, such systems could automatically detect and alert operators to potential safety events, from imminent collision to workers in distress.

For this sort of data to improve safety performance on Australian railways, operators will need two things: highly capable and robust connectivity networks, and centralized platforms to consolidate, analyze, and react to operational data — and quickly. A renewed focus on safety, therefore, gives operators an opportunity to introduce mature 4G/LTE technology while existing GSMR technology transitions to its end-of-life.

While 4G/LTE is considered new by the rail industry, mobile carriers have been using it to serve both consumer and industry customers for more than ten years. Indeed, the mobile industry has already evolved the next generation of mobile technology — 5G — in line with overall advances in Information Technology (IT). Rail operators can therefore turbocharge network improvements by adopting next generation mobile innovations early.

Huawei’s AirFlash solution, for example, incorporates 5G technology features to expedite train-to-ground communications, allowing for near real-time availability of gigabytes of HD video, which could otherwise only be collected manually at the end of the day. Such technologies enable railway operators to efficiently extract network data and provide insights for more proactive, faster, responsive decision-making in terms of safety and operations.

Harmonizing tracks of data

Operators should consider how they can integrate and analyze different streams of data on a single control platform. This is especially important in the effort to improve safety. Potential risks often only reveal themselves when a range of different metrics, each inconclusive on their own, are considered as part of a bigger situational overview. The more comprehensively rail operators can collect and consolidate their data, the more effectively they can apply solutions — such as automation and the deployment of AI technology — to analyze and act upon it, resulting in far greater responsiveness.

Rail operators may well benefit from standardizing their networks, monitoring equipment, and data platforms, for greater ease of data integration. Just as harmonization of railway gauges and tracks significantly improves the flow of passengers and cargo between different operators, “data harmonization” with standardized systems and platforms can streamline the flow of data for faster, more accurate operations and safety monitoring.

With Australia ramping up investment in rail as the backbone of Smart Cities and smart industry, operators must prepare themselves for larger infrastructure footprints and more complex operations, as well as the higher safety risk profiles that both inevitably bring. Their priorities should include: highly capable and robust network connectivity; increasing centralized and distributed computing power, allied with massive storage; and tapping into diverse sources of operational data with both network and compute resources. All this will allow operators to better understand why safety incidents happen, take steps to minimize their occurrence, and even predict and prevent risks to life. This is why it is imperative that operators consider how data can help and what kind of networks they will need to make that data work, at every stage of rail development and renewal. Doing so promptly will, quite literally, help save lives.