Digitalization in the rail sector : Infrabel at the top

To get a read on the current mood around digital transformation, for example, we could visit the Digital Days of the Belgian railway Infrastructure Manager Infrabel.

A certainty :  digital is fundamentally changing the way enterprises design and deliver services and how they operate internally. The case for fostering a digital culture is inescable, in particullary on technical enterprises, like railway infrastructure managers: it empowers that enterprises to deliver faster results, but also attracts young talent, and pushes innovation. There is a very strong demand in the rail sector to change the paradigm. However, digital transformation doesn’t have an end state. Rather, it’s a never-ending journey to establishing change itself as a core competency across the organization, with the sole purpose of improving the quality of service, to avoid waste and better understand his business.

Infrabel had exhibited begin June in its workshops in the north of Brussels a series of examples of network management through the digital tool. The railway environment is changing: to exploit its network, Infrabel try not only to limit unnecessary on-site visit, which costs a lot of work hours, but the digital allows to capture information that the human being would not be able to perform in real time and quickly. For example the temperature of the rails on the entire network, in one minute. For example the state of vegetation at a glance. Infrabel demonstrates, in a temporary building, 18 separate exhibits of digital innovations, forexample Building Information Modelling (BIM) for project development, mapping drone images to support infrastructure monitoring, and Lidar detection for lineside vegetation management. But we could also discover many other applications.

An example was the Automatic Train Warning system for use by track maintenance staff: developed by Zöllner, Germany, the company developed the Autoprowa product which is used in a localised area and informs track workers of an approaching train so they can leave their worksite safely. The system has a device that records the zone of the intervention on site. The coordinates are then sent to the regional dispatcher in the signal boxe which thus has a complete information of the presence of a maintenance team along the tracks.

« The maintenance procedures that we carry out, replacing track and repairing infrastructure, will remain largely the same, » told Carel Jockheere, smart railway programme director at Infrabel, at International Railway Journal. « What we can do differently is to use this time more effectively and make more informed decisions of what needs to be replaced at a specific time », he explains. The precise traffic data are thus relevant. Taking into account the weight of each train and the number of trains per day, Infrabel can accurately estimate the rate of wear of a switch, an essential element for safety.

Drones are another application of digital operations of the rail network. It is a very critical tool: on the one hand it allows to visualize accurately, within 30m, all the elements of the track or the state of the parts under a bridge, often no accessible with a team. But on the other hand, drones are subject to very large legal restrictions on their use, some residents do not want to have their garden scanned … The railway network scanned by drones can capture very precise data on the location of all elements of the infrastructure: rails, switches, catenary, signal pole, cable tracks, miscellaneous cabinets. This allows a very complete and accurate inventory, in geographic coordinates, which allows to measure lengths, locations and to create new installations.

Augmented reality is another promising tool. Warehouse operations include mainly sorting of products and retrieving the right product. This can be a very tricky job. A huge warehouse can be a tricky place to locate a particular item. The traditional use of paper and pen is slow and prone to errors. Augmented Reality comes handy by providing a 3D image of the warehouse and can show the product that the person has been looking for. Eventually, it can reduce time consumption and takes away the possibility of error. Electrical parts, cables, electronic devices, Infrabel’s central Schaarbeek workshop manages nearly 16,000 references.

The accumulation of a mass of data is also a real challenge. In the digital and computing world, information is generated and collected at a rate that rapidly exceeds the boundary range. It is necessary to sort out what is relevant, and sometimes to innovate by asking the question of whether unused data could be used instead in the management of the rail network. Infrabel had to buy additional servers to store this mass of data that grows exponentially. Sorting the data has allowed the company to provide an open data portal with traffic and geolocation data. This portal is open to the public, not just developers.

The examples that we could discover during these Digital Days all come from an internal development, was pleased to say the staff. It is encouraging, in a Belgium a little bit withdrawal of digitalization, that numerization is progressing in a rail sector that is often slower for transformation. There is still room for improvement, especially in traffic management. It will probably be for next time.

2019 – Vidéo Brutélé – (in french)

2019 – Digital Days webpage from Infrabel (english)