New digital solutions are changing the way we design, construct and maintain railways. The result is better safety for both rail workers and travellers, writes James Colclough.
Train travel is one of the most relaxing and exhilarating forms of modern transport — on a quiet carriage, immersed in a book, or lost in thought watching as the world hurtles by. New engineering methods and techniques have made rail travel much safer over the decades, but accidents unfortunately still happen to both passengers and rail employees.
The digital age is providing rail engineers with a range of new technologies. Digital solutions and connectivity between data sets provide designers, contractors and operators with an opportunity to make safety improvements.
To enjoy the benefits of new technology, it is important to get the basics right. A foundation of robust information management systems and processes is key, along with assembling a team with the right behaviours, backed up by support from management and the organisation.
Building on foundations
The rail industry already uses digital technologies to visualise designs in 3D. The digital design review, using what’s known as a federated model (which combines all of the separate models into one), is a core concept of the Building Information Modelling (BIM) process. This provides the project team with a holistic view of the design, including safety and hazard issues. While this is an established process, using it for capturing safety risks and hazards is only slowly gaining momentum.
New technologies also offer new protections for the workforce. Accessing a site for surveys, the design phase and construction have always posed a risk for workers, but new smart and connected devices are removing personnel from risky environments, and making data collection more efficient.
For example, at Old Oak Common — a planned railway station in north-west London which, when opened in 2026, will be one of the largest rail hubs in the English capital — engineers are using drones to remove the need for people to be in hazardous environments. It took drone operators two days to take 3,000 photographs, the data from which engineers transformed into a 3D model. What would normally take eight weeks of manual work became six hours of flights.
Other methods for remotely sensing the condition of assets are also emerging, such as advanced track surveys, asset sensors, capturing digital data from satellites, and creating smarter assets which provide the information themselves. This includes 3D printing to create structures that use a “self-healing” luminous resin that rebinds cracked materials and allows passing maintenance trains with cameras to see the area being fixed. All these methods reduce safety risks by removing staff from sites.
Informing safety reviews
During the design phase, stakeholders can identify the risks that their teams may face in constructing, operating and maintaining assets. BIM models can capture these project risks and hazards, enabling the project team to devise a mitigation strategy. Immersive technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) headsets or walk-in simulators are also enhancing the assessment of design models. They allow engineers to put themselves in the place of travellers on platforms or in trains, to experience whether they feel safe and to analyse the risks.
The BIM model is also useful for construction and logistics planning (4D) to review safety considerations. For example, linking the construction programme to the model enables the planner to sequence the movement of vehicles, to identify when a site is busy and to establish when vehicle movements may pose a risk. Communicating with designers and contractors effectively paves the way for such a BIM model.
Assessing operational risks
A data-rich BIM model provides significant benefits for operation and maintenance, and helps assess specific risks. For example, signal-sighting technology enables designers to review sections of track where the train driver may have poor visibility of track signals.
Overlaying video content with BIM model information also provides a powerful visual and analytical tool to enhance safety. A detailed BIM visualisation model can enhance driver training by providing a fully immersive simulation.
Good records provide asset owners with the right information, in the right format, exactly when they need it. Developing a complete and consistent asset database — starting in the design phase, before being handed over to operators — is key. This can also provide emergency services with information that can help to save lives in the event of an incident.
Construction activities are often hazardous, and digital technologies can identity risks in advance. Smart sensors worn by site staff can detect numerous hazards, such as air pollution and toxins, and alert them or others when they are in, or approaching, danger.
The digital transformation process is also changing how we collect data, with mobile phones and tablets replacing pen and paper. AECOM teams are now using geofencing to manage projects’ geospatial data. Geofencing uses GPS technology to create a virtual geographic boundary, enabling engineers to add hazards (mapped in the system or taken from the BIM model) as warning “layers”. If a person enters or is close to one of these locations, the software triggers an alert to their mobile device. This also acts as a visual tool during safety briefings, communicating to site teams the risks they face.
A safer future
Digital solutions can improve safety from the start of the asset lifecycle to the end (including demolition). Digital automation and greater connectivity of data is the next step, building on the foundations of Level 2 BIM. With safety a priority, organisations and the sector will increasingly use artificial intelligence (AI) and other innovative technologies for this purpose.
However, the development of more detailed and connected data is a safety risk in itself. In the UK, for example, companies must follow government guidance on how to manage asset information security. There is a responsibility on us all to establish digital defences to protect ourselves.
The final piece in this jigsaw is the behavioural change needed to embed this digital approach. As organisations put safety first, the technology, processes and people are combining to make the most of this significant opportunity which the industry now finds at its fingertips.
A federated model is an assembly of distinct models produced by task teams (often design disciplines). This allows the design team to have a holistic 3D view and understand any integration issues. It also facilitates other BIM activities and is a key aspect of a projects’ quality process.
Building Information Modelling
Building Information Modelling (BIM) is a very broad term that describes the process of creating and managing a digital model of a building or infrastructure asset. There are a number of ‘levels of maturity’ of BIM:
In addition to the levels, the model also comprises the following core dimensions: