The future of rail surveying

Experts from The Survey Association (TSA) report on the main debates to take away from the organisation’s annual conference, all of which revolved around the future of surveying in the context of a changing industry.

Geospatial technology is increasing in complexity and capability year on year. TSA’s conference highlighted a wide range of solutions, all of which have the capability to reduce ‘boots on ballast’ and give Network Rail a greater return on its investment in survey.

These technologies are complex, using inertial navigation systems, satellite positioning, photogrammetry, mobile data connections and the latest high-speed laser scanning systems. Whilst modern computing technology simplifies the access to these complex data streams, it is geospatial professionals who translate this data into meaningful deliverables that P-Way engineers can use for design and construction.

Network Rail has clear and detailed specifications for the capture and use of geospatial data, designed to maximise the ‘survey once, use many times’ approach. Custom SnakeGrid projections, permanent trackside control, transparent statements of accuracy and limitation of data for each design stage all contribute to maintaining standards. Geospatial surveyors take these complex geospatial systems and make sure the output is compliant and fit for purpose.

The experience and skill of a surveyor has not been lost; it is just being applied to larger and more complex data sets. Traditionally efficient in the field, today’s surveyor needs to be equally adept at lateral thought and problem-solving in the office.

For example, Severn Partnership has found an 80% reduction in footfall onsite working with Fugro and its train-mounted RILA system, combining the latest IMU-supported track measurement devices from Amberg to deliver all survey works for the High Output programme across the UK. A tripod has not been on site for the last 18 months!

Better value for money

During the conference keynote, Chris Preston, senior engineer within safety technical and engineering at Network Rail, assessed some of the key issues for the infrastructure owner and how they can be solved. He discussed the future of rail investment following the various reports into the Network Rail structure, culminating in the Hansford Review considering how investment projects may be funded. The concept of devolution to the eight routes was reviewed. He then reflected on the problems of regular software updates for geospatial engineering’s fast-changing applications, data storage and data security for large corporates.

The problem of less track access for engineering as the TOCs/FOCs want to run more trains showed how innovative techniques – and especially non-contact methods utilising UAS/drones and train-based scanning systems – are the future of surveying the UK’s railways. This also serves to get ‘boots off ballast’ and improve safety, as well as cutting down the risks associated with possessions being cut short.

Network Rail has a framework agreement for suppliers of UAS services and is beginning to train fully CAA-accredited drone pilots from within its staff.

It also uses a number of train-based laser scanning, LiDAR and video techniques from the NR engineering train fleet and others.

Data collected for projects based on a comprehensive ‘project surveying strategy’ will allow better knowledge about the data collected. It is the combination of data from several sources, as ‘data mash-ups,’ that will allow the mantra of ‘survey once and use many times,’ ensuring better value from money spent on surveys.

BIM models

The data generated will form the basis of appropriate BIM models. It is around this area that Barry Gleeson, formally survey manager on Thameslink and now programme manager for BIM on IP Southern, presented the drivers and challenges in infrastructure.

Using the example of Survey4BIM’s work, he presented a window into how underpinning surveying is to geo-enable BIM, and laid down the gauntlet that surveyors need to get into this space now – embedded not just in the capture, but in the storage, management, analytics and solution intelligence of BIM’s goals. To be or not to be at the top table is our choice. Gleeson finished on the thought from Tony Robbins: “If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we always got.”

As automation of data collection and innovative data analytics provide added value, such technology will have a big impact on the railway surveying. Add to this the use of ‘big data’ and the introduction of augmented reality to the mix, then the future is looking bright for those who are able to adapt to change.

Examples of innovation

The survey industry is perpetually seeking new ideas and innovations that embrace technological advancements and consider alternative methods of gathering survey information. One such product is Fugro’s RILA train-mounted survey system that measures absolute track position and collects laser point cloud information of the entire rail corridor for generation of topographical survey information and gauging data. The system can be deployed on any buffered locomotive and is also capable of being mounted to the rear of a passenger train, ensuring additional train paths are not required and the surveys are undertaken at line speed. RILA also offers a clearly defined health and safety benefit as no surveyors are required to be on or near the tracks during survey acquisition.

Similarly, Track Access Services has been operating on the UK rail network for over 15 years, specialising in the collection of forward-facing video from the drivers’ eye view in the cab of in-service passenger and freight trains. This allows for rapid collection of large areas of video data without the need for any personnel to be working trackside.

Applying this approach to railway survey has seen the company utilising mobile mapping technology to laser scan and video large areas of the railway, from in-service locomotives running on the operational railway without disruption to normal timetabled services.

Key to the success of this has been its ability to develop bespoke software capable of quickly processing the large amounts of data collected and presenting it as information that is relevant and useful to the customer, considering the unique requirements of the railway.

This includes the processes of locating, identifying and modelling assets from Pointcloud, transformation of all data collected to Network Rail’s SnakeGrid coordinate systems, and the integration with multiple data sets from various other sources.   

With an increasingly busy railway, this type of fast, efficient and, above all, safe mobile data collection is becoming more prevalent – and it is vital to be able to interpret, analyse and process the collected data in an equally rapid manor to present the customer with the information they need.

Top image: Plowman Craven




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