According to the United Nations, the urban population has grown from 751 million in 1950 to 4.2 billion in 2018. Projections show that this level of urbanisation is set to increase, with the expectation that the global urban population will rise to 68% by 2050.

The ever-present challenge of accommodating this surge of urban living permeates the ongoing improvement and maintenance strategies of almost every existing industry, including rail.

The UK rail industry has long been feeling the strain of mass urbanisation. Railways are at capacity, affecting working and living in urban areas. Demand for swift improvement and expansion of both are at an all-time high. Yet, the public image of our railways is often still in dispute with the realities of how the industry goes about supporting and managing the ever-increasing influx of urban commuters year on year.

Increased rail fares and passenger delays dominate the headlines, while the reasons and realities behind why the largest infrastructure transformation in the history of the rail industry is taking place, is often forgotten.


Envisioning the railway of the future

Mass urbanisation has been propelled, arguably, by the unprecedented proliferation of technology. The smartphone in particular has, not only made a wealth of information available to us 24 hours a day, it has risen our expectations of – not just living and working – but commuting to new heights. In the modern world, everything is now on demand; smart, sustainable and convenient. What started with the Uber model has transcended into an entirely new way of life, and rail has not yet been able to infiltrate this manner of living, working and travelling.

The challenge the industry faces in modernising the railways and meeting the expectations of almost everyone, is that there isn’t only sustainable urbanisation and on demand services to consider. There are infrastructure works taking place across the country to improve train travel in and out of major cities, but there is still a general disconnect in how to take both rail industry workers and passengers on this journey to the digital railway as seamlessly as possible too.

Ultimately, before passengers can reap the benefits of an intelligent rail infrastructure that supports modern living expectations and demands, everyone – including those working within the industry – also need to understand the work taking place behind the scenes. All of this is connected, in some way, and data lies at the heart of unlocking this.


Rail’s intelligent infrastructure programme

Network Rail’s intelligent infrastructure improvement programme aims to improve asset management, by refining how available data is collected, integrated and systemised. The goal behind this is to reduce expenditure, while enhancing services across the entire rail industry.

The improvement of asset performance and knowledge is vital to ensure the digital railway is a success; that passenger demands are met and that the public image of the railways is in line with railway life and work. The intelligent infrastructure programme directly benefits the sustainable urbanisation of the United Kingdom, but, is currently limited to fixed assets and equipment. The rail industry’s greatest asset as we know it is its people, and in order for the smooth operation and maintenance of a truly intelligent, smart, sustainable and digital railway to be successful, human assets also need to be prioritised.

OnTrac, working alongside Network Rail, have been collecting health and safety information for almost a decade. During this time, they have amassed over five petabytes of health and safety information, which is stored in our databases for joint industry analysis. Information such as:

  • Incidents
  • Accidents
  • Near misses
  • Irregularities
  • And more have been collected over the past 10 years.

As a result, OnTrac are now in a unique position to support the industry in making a quantum shift in how it approaches health and safety.


Zero tolerance: how to utilise data to predict accidents

OnTrac have long been committed to the health, safety and wellbeing of the rail industry’s workers. The company’s flagship product, RailHub, is used to safely plan and deliver works across train operating companies, freight operating companies and the supply chain each year. OnTrac’s products are rated SIL-4, support the rail industry in creating over one million safe work packs each year, and have a zero percent accident and fatality rate recorded among subscribed customers.

One of OnTrac’s more recent products, eTrac-GIS is currently being rolled out to early adopters to help them visualise their assets with greater ease than ever before. A partnership with another Tracsis Group company, MPEC, has seen the company enhance eTrac-GIS even further, to successfully predict asset failures.

Integrating with Centrix – the only web-based enterprise software prediction platform dedicated to the analysis of fixed railway assets – eTrac-GIS is able to visualise the integrity of assets such as:

  • Switch machines
  • Signal light monitors
  • Ground fault management
  • Power systems
  • Track circuits
  • Ground fault management

The system will then detect anomalies and send alerts to users upon the detection of degradation.

This is all made possible by attaching ‘data loggers’ to assets. These data loggers will track and monitor switch movements; the analysis of this data allows users to begin to realistically predict failures. Instead of manually visiting sites and reacting to failures – i.e. railway workers replace assets once they have failed – users can, not only begin to predict when an asset will fail, but also prevent failure entirely, by replacing degrading assets before they become an issue.

The same principles can also be applied to health and safety to help the rail industry meet its ‘zero tolerance’ approach to accidents and incidents.


How to utilise data to prevent accidents

One of Network Rail’s core values is to get their staff home safe every day. However, as recent headlines unfortunately tell us, this is not always possible. Tragic accidents remind us that, regardless of how well rail industry standards and regulations are implemented and adhered to across the country, there is still work to be done, in order to allow Network Rail’s mantra to be ingrained in uncompromising truth.

Accident investigations are thorough in isolation, but even the most well thought out risk and control measures could still use support. OnTrac are using the principles of intelligent infrastructure and applying them to health and safety, with a view to transform the approach and response to health and safety across the rail industry.

By using data to help identify patterns and determine the root cause of an accident, incident or near miss, OnTrac are aiming to banish accidents in rail by giving workers the tools to predict, and thus prevent, accidents, near misses, incidents and – most importantly – fatalities on our railways.

The current zero tolerance approach to aggregating health and safety data across industries like rail and construction tend to focus on cause-and-effect relationships, underlying specific problems. It’s a relatively manual process to determine the root cause of an issue, focusing on a few key aspects, such as:

  • Where did the accident/incident/near miss occur?
  • When did the accident/incident/near miss occur?
  • How did the accident/incident/near miss occur?

This is usually followed by a risk assessment and bookended by managers briefing workers on potential future risks. With the data that OnTrac have collected via their RailHub platform over the last decade, they can start introducing an entirely new approach to support rail accident investigations.

Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, moving forward, the rail industry can enhance their cause-and-effect safety interrogations and start looking at things like:

  • Has an accident of this nature ever happened in this area before?
  • Is this type of accident common in this skillset?
  • Are accidents of this nature more common during a specific time of day/night?
  • Does this type of accident happen using specific safe systems of work?
  • Will this type of accident occur more often under particular weather conditions?

To put this into perspective, in an incident scenario in which a railway worker trips over a sleeper, rolls down an embankment and breaks their arm, could be investigated in a more robust and intelligent way by using data to determine certain patterns. It can also be used to predict and further reduce the likelihood of an accident happening again, by predicting incidents and accidents in certain circumstances, under certain conditions in future. This means that, not only can the obvious cause-and-effect safety questions be asked, and the information from incident and accident reports be gathered, other factors that also contribute to incidents and accidents on our railways can also be factored in.

Martyn Cuthbert, Managing Director of OnTrac commented:

The rail industry has always been very thorough in investigating accidents and incidents, just as it has always been very rich in data. Their approach to safety is a standard approach used across all industries – root cause and cause-and-effect – but what we’re saying is, this can be further supported by data.

He continues.

I feel there is a lot more we can do now, with the help of machine learning, to find patterns and common threads in accidents and incidents happening across the whole industry. More importantly, I believe that in utilising data to feed accident and incident information into the planning process, will allow us to aim towards preventing accidents happening in the future, rather than reacting to them.

OnTrac have spent over a decade digitising the UK rail industry’s paper-based processes and collecting data. However, it is only with the recent advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning that have enabled us to utilise this data in a unique way, which could lead to the potential eradication of accidents and deaths on our railways – a truly preventative approach to health and safety.

It may sound like a work of science fiction now, but OnTrac have already started work on this, with the expectation of releasing a beta version to selected partners towards the end of this year.


What does this mean for intelligent infrastructure and sustainable urbanisation?

Intelligent infrastructure and sustainable urbanisation are inextricably linked; you can’t have one without the other. As a result, our railways are at capacity, which is further linked to both passenger demands and rail industry workers.

The ability to prevent fixed asset failures and rail industry worker incidents and accidents from happening has genuinely transformative and knock-on-effect potential – not just for the rail industry and its ongoing and future projects – but how we as a country begin to manage, utilise and exploit the vast amounts of data that we’re exposed to every single day.

The immediate benefits, of course, are the quality of life improvements that rail industry workers could expect, realistically, overnight, helping the industry make its zero tolerance approach a reality. What’s more, the efficient and streamlined delivery of work can be done so within shorter timeframes, which in turn, benefits the passenger experience.

No more delayed trains due to asset failures, or extenuating circumstances related to rail worker incidents or accidents. Prices of rail fare for passengers will fall, as the industry begins experiencing a reduction in costs across a wide variety of areas in rail – with a massive rise in passenger satisfaction as a result.

The digital railway has long been a buzz term that the industry is working towards, But the reality is that data is the only way to get us all there in one piece; TOCs, FOCs, the supply chain, rail industry workers and passengers all need to work together in making the industry’s objective to put passengers first, a reality.