Marcus Jones, Service Delivery Director at KeolisAmey Docklands, argues that the future of control room technology relies on leveraging data to enable the integration of control room and passenger

Behind every successful railway operation is a robust and tightly managed control centre. Often referred to as the nerve centre of the rail network, control centres are hubs of the latest rail technology and are responsible for maintaining the smooth running of train services, updating passengers and resolving any incidents.

At the heart of every control centre is technology. And as the UK’s first major automated railway, Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is at the forefront of driving tech and digital innovation in this space.

The DLR control centre is unique in the industry in that all operations are housed within just one room. It is responsible for ensuring trains run on time, providing customer services and information, CCTV, depot management and resolving faults. It collects huge amounts of data every day, which is then analysed to identify key challenges and trends, allowing us to constantly refine and enhance operations to provide the best possible passenger experience.

These capabilities have never proved more critical than during the Covid-19 pandemic. Having such high volumes of data at our fingertips and being supported by an agile and responsive control room, allowed KeolisAmey Docklands (KAD) to redesign operations effectively and at pace, minimising down time as we adapted to new guidelines and travel patterns.

The past year has proved the importance of effective use of data in rail control rooms, cementing its status as the key to building networks that properly respond to the needs of the passengers they serve. Rail operators across the UK should capitalise on the opportunity to improve their ability to capture data and feed it into their control rooms while services are less busy, so solutions can be scaled up as demand slowly increases.

This ability to respond to emerging trends by enabling a strong connection between control room and passengers will be critical as services become busier again and day-to-day operations more complex. Immediate action will allow rail operators to respond to emerging challenges, with the need for rapid response critical now that Covid-19 has changed the face of travel for good.

Mind the service gap

Service disruption remains one of the biggest challenges faced by rail operators, severely affecting customer experience and satisfaction with the rail industry at large. In the event of a train fault, resuming ‘business as usual’ can be a lengthy process, relying on staff to update passengers, fix the fault and restore normal service as quickly as possible.

Effective management of service disruption is more important than ever in the current climate. It’s critical we’re able to keep people moving safely, but the old approach of taking a train out of service and cramming passengers onto the next scheduled service simply isn’t an option anymore. The solution is to use tech to minimise the impact on passenger journeys.

KAD is leading the charge in this space. We already have a forward-thinking asset management system that tracks system failures right through from fault to fix, allowing us to detect issues on trains and remove them from service before it fails. But the next stage is ensuring that any cancellation doesn’t prevent passengers from reaching their final destination on time.

We are now rolling out a refined command and control structure to more effectively handle disruption. At the heart of the new approach is finding ways to create additional connections at different interchanges along the network. The aim is that passengers no longer have to grapple with services terminating early and endure lengthy diversions or service replacements. Instead, they can jump off one train and straight onto another to get to their destination as quickly as possible.

This is an example of how using technology can allow operators to take control of journey planning, so passengers don’t have to. As well as ensuring the physical network is running at maximum efficiency, leveraging data in this way means it can be converted into improved passenger information, boosting the availability of up-to-the-minute data on any service changes.

Take care in wet weather

At this time of year, one of the primary causes of disruption to services is the weather – and it’s a more complicated issue than many people realise. On the DLR, trains operate using a vehicle on-board controller (VOBC), a computer system integrated with loops in the tracks, that monitors a train’s location using wheel revolutions. During wet or inclement conditions, however, trains can slip, in the same way wheels spin on a car. This means the VOBC loses the train’s position on the tracks, activating the default safety mechanisms and causing the train to stop.

Technology is emerging to help solve this challenge. KAD have embedded a software that alerts control room operators to adverse weather conditions, enabling them to adjust a train’s braking remotely. Vehicles can progress more gently along the tracks, reducing the need to stop completely and therefore preventing unnecessary delays, another critical step in avoiding disruption to passenger journeys.

Synergy of control room and passenger

All these innovations are geared towards collecting as much data as possible on the current state of the network, allowing operators to make improvements and changes quickly to reduce disruption. But the direction of travel clearly points to further integration between the capabilities of control rooms with passenger journeys.

The technology housed in control rooms up and down the UK processes an extraordinary amount of data each day, but our focus now is finding mechanisms for processing this data and producing new insights and solutions based on concrete evidence and trends. Drawing on best practice from across our global network, this capability would allow control room operators to relay updates to passengers instantly, empowering them with the information they need to make the best travel decisions in real-time.

As our railways become busier again, it will no longer be enough to announce a train cancellation when passengers are already waiting on the platform. The future of control room technology relies on creating efficient and accessible channels of communication with passengers, allowing them to plan and adjust their journeys on the move. Agile control rooms, with the tools to respond to any incidents and customer demand in real time, are crucial to keeping the sector on track as we seek to chart a return to some sense of our previous normality.

 

Marcus Jones is Service Delivery Director at KeolisAmey Docklands