10 Apr Travelling Through Cyberspace by Rail!
As NJMC seeks to go further into the rail industry world I have just returned from attending the SmartRail Europe conference in Amsterdam, and what an eye opening event that was. This is a bit of a long post for a blog but I hope you stick with it.
Few people realise it but a passenger travelling on a train today is on as much on a journey through cyberspace as they are on a journey through real space.
Regardless of the medium through which they may have purchased their ticket the moment they step into the environs of a station they have entered the dimension of cyberspace. Take, for example my short hop from Utrecht to Amsterdam. The moment I walked into the vicinity of Utrecht Centraal Station I entered the digital world that has become rail travel today. Cellular communications masts around the station detected my smart phone and started monitoring how I moved through the station along with every other smart phone user. It was seven am so like so many others I went towards one of the retailers to get my morning coffee. This movement was parsed to software which registered that I and many others were heading towards the station vendors, it saw an increased in coffee purchases through the vendor’s tills and in response electronic advertising around the station started to show more advertisement for food and drink to maximise sales to those vendors.
Pulling my smart phone from my pocket I checked the time of trains to Amsterdam Centraal on Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS – Dutch Railways ) app and in doing so exchanged my travel data with NS. It is entirely possible that part of the terms and conditions of using the NS app involves NS being able to use some of my phone’s memory and signal bandwidth to help them move data around, so that while I learnt about departure times NS piggy backed some urgent train telemetry onto it (and some several hundred other people’s phones), such as a security camera feed from an incident on a local train needing to be uploaded urgently.
As I passed my OV-Chipkaart travel pass over the sensor at the passenger gates more information was exchanged with my bank, yet more to NS. A young woman next to me flashed the ticket on the screen of her smart phone at the gate and more data about her international journey to Basel on the DB ICE train was exchanged. The DB ticket app on her phone acquired a link to the DB control centre and computers in Frankfurt told her that her train was right on time and just eight minutes out from Utrecht, no time for her to get coffee on the station concourse!
My NS InterCity train was coming up from Maastricht in the far south of the Netherlands, but a quick check on my phone told me it was on time. The train location was constantly being up dated to the central signalling system control centre in Utrecht. That information then propagated out to anyone asking for it on phone, tablet or PC as well as station information systems. While the approaching train NS InterCity VIRM 9041 could have used it’s 4G connection to inform the maintenance base in Haarlem that one of the coaches air conditioning units was not operating within parameters, its AI system took a decision to prioritise that bandwidth to something else, a wheel bearing that was showing signs of starting to run a little over temperature (a sign of bad things to come). Instead it waited until it was close enough to the station to latch onto the NS WiFi and send that data with the routine safety camera dump. In Haarlem even before NS InterCity VIRM unit 9041 had rolled to a stop in Utrecht the base maintenance system had examined the data about the wheel bearing. It had compared it to information gathered by NS data analytics team about other such events and concluded that the bearing was six days from failure given the work rota for that unit over the next week. Then it checked depot space and found one available slot in Maastricht that night. 9041 could safely continue to Alkmaar and return on it’s last schedule run of the day to Maastricht, the AI had already booked the unit in there to have the bearing attended to that night.
As my train left Utrecht, the busiest station in the Netherlands, it passed over switch 45-701b, a “double-slip” meaning one of the more complex types. As the signalman in the control centre aligned the switch for my train to pass over the junction towards Amsterdam a sensor in the switch motor detected a spike in the voltage waveform for the motor. The change was not enough to trigger a red event but was out of specification. Data analysis of the all the 7,500 switches on the Dutch network has shown that such a event, while low grade now, points to a future failure in 20 to 25 days. At such a key point in the network a failure during peak hours could cause chaos and cost a great deal of money. This news is flashed to the infrastructure team at Strutkon, the nearest base in nearby Amersfoort. As the last car of my train passes the switch they are already checking the switch location, its histoy and the next available time that a team can get out there. Six days from now, in the depths of the night a team will swap out the forty kilo switch motor, test the new one and have it smoothly running before that mornings rush hour.
In the greater Amsterdam area train density increases sharply as does power consumption. Each train is sending in energy consumption data as AI calculates how much power is required in total from minute to minute on the network. Dutch railways are now 100% powered by renewable energy but renewable energy requires good management. The AI changes power feed requirements to substations along the tracks and adjusts it to meet demand. Approaching my train in the opposite direction is an iron ore train from Amsterdam docks to Dusseldorf. It’s a long heavy freight train headed by two brutes of locomotives who each produce 6,000 kilowatt hour power and need feeding with all the juice they can call upon. As my train is threading through the suburbs now and reduced to a sedate 100kph some of the power in our wires can be given to the two hungry heavy haulers on the opposite track. They could go slower of course but there is an Amsterdam – Frankfurt express following behind so the driver of the freight will have the throttles pushed open and the power management AI will be watching the telemetry from all the trains in the area to put the right amount in the right place at the right moment.
All the time this is going on I am in my seat, on my NJMC iPad checking the SmartRail conference schedule for the day, connected to the internet. Like so many other passengers I am using the train’s wifi service, more data flying back and forth. To me the great attraction of rail travel is that it is not dead time, I can carry on working. As we swing past Watergraafsmeer yard it is packed with InterCity trains, Thalys high speed, ICE high speed and all of those machines are digitally chatting back and forth about what ails them so that they can be attended to, and every time they do passengers are kept safer for it. Sensors in coach water tanks tell service staff who needs tanks topping off, other sensors tell them about the less savoury products of humans in tanks that need emptying, sensors in electrical systems squawk their complaints to yet more staff. Drivers of shunting locos get stock movement instructions on computer screens in their cabs, they went entirely paperless ten years ago.
The scene I have painted here is in part happening right now, other parts are of technologies that are in process of coming on stream but will be reality within twelve months. All this amazing, clever technology has been delivered by scientists, engineers, project managers. It is evolving at a staggering pace, a pace that makes mere Apple iPhone evolution appear utterly pedestrian. Rail technology has got intelligent, IT technology is helping railways leap frog ahead of other transport modes. To many the “Internet of Things” is something new, but on the railways it has been happening for years – in short, and to borrow a phrase from my grandchildren, it has gotten “super-cool”.
Next time you are sitting on your seat on a train take a few moments to picture yourself speeding not just through the countryside but through the digital either that has been created around you to improve your journey experience and keep you safe throughout. Spend a minute to marvel at skills of those people in high visibility jackets that you see trackside because they do amazing things day and night, then they think of better ways to do those things – they never ever stop !
We at NJMC may not get to wear the bright yellow or orange jackets but we are becoming part of this picture.
NJMC would like to thank the representatives from the companies below for the time they took
- Pascal Debroux MD of Itersys http://itersys.com/ Makers of Activity based management systems.
- Pedro Conceicao of Nomad Digital http://nomad-digital.com/ Fleet & Passenger Connectivity Solution.
- Anders Loov VP Sales of Prover http://www.prover.com/ Interlocking Systems.
- Jykri Alamanu of Teleste https://www.teleste.com/ Wireless Systems Providers.
- Nederlandse Spoorwegen (Dutch Railways), www.ns.nl
- Strutkon Rail Infrastructure, http://www.struktonrail.com
- NedRail, NS Rolling Stock Maintenance, http://www.nedtrain.nl/
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