Innovation is an ever important topic in the industry, especially given the breakneck pace of technological advancements every year.
To speak about recent developments in MaaS, alternative journey planning, and more, we spoke with Tim Whitcher, Head of Future Ready Rail & Solution Lead (Digital Railway) at WSP -- a Canadian company providing management and consultancy services on important areas like the transportation sector.
First off, a bit of background: How did you started your current career path, and what does your position as Head of Future Ready Rail & Solution Lead of Digital Railway entail?
I started out as a signalling engineer for what was then Westinghouse Rail Systems (now Siemens Mobility), apprenticed under some exceptional engineers which gave me a solid grounding in the industry. My constant need to challenge existing thinking and to innovate led me first into start-ups and consultancy in 2012 and I joined WSP in 2018, where I have two roles:
As Solution Lead for Digital Railway, my focus is on implementing technology to achieve the right outcome. This includes command and control systems, and also planning and optimisation systems, such as stock and crew, traffic management, C-DAS, smart stations (and the wider smart cities concept within the rail context), and the underlying data management structure. I am lucky in that my team has some of the world’s leading ETCS experts, so I do not have to get as involved with ERTMS technology as I might and get instead to focus on resolving the network resilience issues that have persistently beleaguered the progress of the Digital Railway. That has become a personal challenge that I hope to one day achieve!
The Future Ready part of the job is a company-wide program to see the future more clearly, and to work with clients to design for this future as well as for today’s needs. As WSP’s Head of Future Ready Rail, my focus is to define how we can make the railway prepared for future challenges in areas such as technology, climate, resources and society. With a team of engineers with expertise in everything from planning and operations to mechanical and electrical design, we are trying to get ahead of the biggest challenges, including rising temperatures, biodiversity maintenance, and optimising energy usage. We are also looking at harnessing digital ecosystems for better transport, the cyber security needed that comes with a digital future, and how to manage our transition to automated vehicles.
One of the biggest changes to the rail industry over the course of my career has been its approach to personal safety and is now a central part of our thinking.
What hasn’t changed in the industry is its ambition; I have been fortunate to witness and be part of various big successes, including the introduction of DTG-R and modern CBTC, Modular Signalling, Traffic Management, and the Reading station re-signalling. The S&T world has always looked to push the boundaries of how we control trains, and our track teams are making incredible progress with high output machine track renewals compared to where we were ten years ago. And the station designs for HS2 Curzon Street, when they are finalised, will push the boundary of customer experience!
Are there any past projects you're proud of? Are there any upcoming ones you're excited about?
Every project has its own unique character and faces different challenges, and for various reasons I am proud of all of them -- but it’s the people and teams I have worked with that make me proudest. For me, working together to overcome technical or commercial challenges and in tough circumstances has been the defining experience of my career.
How can localised information sharing assist on MaaS and alternative journey planning?
The key to planning journeys is to know where the pinch points are so they can be avoided. There are some smart ways we can do this. For example, by tracking the density of cell phones we can gauge crowd density and, therefore, the likely demand on public transport. Likewise, if we track people’s journeys through the routes they select or their destination or current location, we can pre-position other transport facilities like taxis, ride shares and e-bikes. All this information can be geo-fenced and linked to discrete locations and then fed into the planning engine that sits behind it.
And if you, as a traveller, have your start and end points plugged into a MaaS journey planner app before you start, as you progress along the route the app can continuously update journey times through alternate routes and advise you on the best one. This happens in real-time so the service is dynamic, output based and cognisant of traffic patterns on a local as well as macro scale enabling us to optimise transport planning for reduced carbon footprint and increased network resilience.
What's the utility of mesh networks regarding improvements on communications resilience?
The rail network itself is a mesh – it is hundreds of discrete nodes (stations) linked with connections to create a resilient mesh that facilitates diverse transport networks. Currently this is all managed through conventional systems but we are digitising it to increase its power, shape, its resilience and improve its performance.
Localised communications parallel this, and utilising the latest technologies we can improve communications potential, resilience and performance. A mesh network can support critical communications without the need for continuous cell coverage across the network. Essentially, all the devices in a mesh are provided with an app/SDK on a mobile or tablet, these devices them communicate with each other. The mesh can retain links to the outside world through only a single device with a cell connection – all the other devices in the mesh will hang off this one device. If the link to the outside world is cut, the mesh retains its structure, it does not require a mobile signal. This makes it incredibly robust, even in times of crisis or network failure. The mesh eliminates the single-point-of-failure and is self-forming, self-monitoring, and self-healing.
Now imagine, we have a work gang on the trackside. If we have a mesh network set up for the group they get instantaneous messaging across the team without the need for relaying it. Now, one aspect of mesh networks set up this way is that you can geo-fence them, establishing a geographic perimeter around the network to constrain the group to a location. That location can then be used to establish as the basis for a proximity alert. If we take feeds from say, TD.NET or GPS on a train, we can then alert the Safe Work Leader to the presence of trains on the network, their approach direction and distance / time to arrival. If we give team, say, a 90s warning to clear track we can ensure track teams are clear of the line long before trains arrive.
This same principle can be used for intra-station communications for gate-line staff in crowd control, dispatch staff for train movements in times of perturbation, maintenance staff responding to equipment failures or emergency response to domestic incidents.
How do you think recent and upcoming IoT communications can improve asset management?
Immeasurably! Having the ability to understand, in real-time, what our assets are doing, how they are behaving and what they are likely to do next is going to revolutionise the way we undertake asset management. If you look at the way digitised systems are taking over, most of the ‘moving parts’ are now hidden inside the black box. Maintenance teams can’t manage these ‘invisible’ assets to adequately maintain network performance without IoT and other innovations like virtual/augmented reality.
What industry challenges do you identify as the most pressing ones, and how are you and WSP helping the sector overcome them?
Wearing my “solution lead” hat, the biggest challenge is in sustainably improving service performance while rebuilding passenger satisfaction and trust. These two challenges overlap as, while passengers will be much happier with trains that run on time, they also demand more accurate, up-to-the minute information than ever before, so the fidelity and integrity of the data needs to be higher than before.
From a Future Ready perspective, the challenges to the network vary so much that it is difficult to know where to start. For example, in a world where our infrastructure and rolling stock changes perhaps once in an average lifetime, how do we evolve with the demographic needs of new generations every 30 years? How do we make the railway more affordable, not just the cost of a fare, but the construction and operational costs? You could argue they are all pressing, but I am positive that with a concerted industry effort we can address all of them effectively.
What's the biggest professional challenge you've ever faced?
Taking over a project after falling off budget, had all its designs rejected and was 12 months behind schedule. Re-baselining the programme and getting more funds to turn it around was certainly a challenge.
Finally, a question we ask all our interviewees: what's your favourite rail journey in the world, and why?
The Great Western through to Bristol. It is the true original mainline, built by Brunel and teams of navvies, and you can appreciate the immensity of the project when you see the achievements of Box Tunnel. It never fails to inspire me.
To meet the world's top experts and companies on the topics of MaaS, journey planning, and more, join us at SmartMetro Madrid, from November 25-27th. For more information on mobile mesh technology, visit Wyld Networks.