Boosting workforce safety through design automation

David Shipman, innovations engineering manager in IP Signalling at Network Rail, makes the case for safeguarding the industry’s workforce through the innovative use of new technology.

Reducing the safety risks our workforces are exposed to is vital, and one way of doing this is taking people away from the live railway. This is great in theory, but how do we do this in practice? It requires us to use new ways to:

  • Gather information about existing assets;
  • Review and assess that information;
  • Visualise new and modified assets;
  • Monitor the progress of construction.

So what are our options? Existing aerial imagery plays a part, particularly in early planning stages, but lacks the accuracy required for detailed design and doesn’t capture the necessary drivers’ perspective for signal sighting and route learning. A risk with using existing data is that footage may not even be up to date depending on when the area was last surveyed, and recent changes may not be captured – missing essential detail for renewals or enhancement projects. 

Network Rail’s Signalling Innovations Group (SIG) works hard to offer answers to the industry. Our range of tools and services are designed to keep individuals away from the operational railway without compromising on detail.

Trainborne data capture uses laser, infrared and 4K video equipment attached to the Network Rail inspection fleet. Commissioned early in the project lifecycle, they provide an up-to-date record of the asset with an accuracy of a few millimetres. This is precise enough to meet the demands of multiple disciplines, without exposing workers to the risks of undertaking traditional manual surveys on the live railway. Lowering the risk to the workforce is complemented by time and cost reductions.

Using data from the onboard systems with SIG’s suite of advanced tools, asset and network features can be captured with geolocation and exported as a three-dimensional model using SIG’s System Data Exchange Format (SDEF), for use in other tools alongside the laser point cloud and video data. Overlaying video and laser data enables highly accurate measurements in three dimensions. And with data captured across the whole project area, there is no need to revisit sites to check or recapture information if the design needs change.

New design can then be added as virtual reality models, enabling planned changes to be easily visualised. For signalling renewals, this has revolutionised the signal sighting process; the traditional method of an expert committee attending each signal location is replaced with an office-based exercise where the design proposal can be viewed in context.

The SDEF model can then be analysed further in other SIG tools to confirm structure clearances and overall signalling headways. Finally, the data is exported and automatically populates the sighting form, taking minutes to create what would previously have taken hours to produce manually. Using this process reduces or even eliminates hundreds of site visits, keeping the workforce away from the live railway.

For other project purposes, which may not need quite such detailed measurements, we utilise SIG’s tail lamp camera which captures high-quality images from the front of regular passenger and freight trains. Fitted and removed during timetabled stops, multiple data collection runs can happen in one day, often at very short notice. Once processed, these images can be used to identify and tag assets whilst taking measurements with accuracy of a few centimetres. This rapidly deployable solution enables frequent updates to be captured throughout the project construction phase, again reducing the need for site visits.

The SIG surveying and design tools form a growing suite of applications that offer massive safety benefits while significantly reducing costs and timescales – providing not only signalling, but all disciplines with a powerful opportunity to make a powerful step change in their delivery processes.

If you would like to know about SIG and its tools, get in touch via:


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