HS2 in the virtual world

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2015

RTM interviews HS2’s head of management systems, Jon Kerbey.

Many clients dream of a ‘single vendor solution’ when thinking about design and asset management, with every contractor at every tier of the supply chain using the same software or at least an interoperable solution. Integration assured, through the design, construction and maintenance phases of the project’s life cycle. 

HS2 very much hoped this would be the case, but feedback from the supply chain is forcing it to look again.

In an interview with RTM, HS2’s head of management systems Jon Kerbey said: “If we do propose a single vendor solution, then a huge raft of the supply chain will have to upskill. They’re not going to have funds for that, and we don’t have time as an industry to upskill into one vendor solution.

“It’s almost inevitable that lower tiers of the supply chain will use whatever they’re most comfortable with and trained-up to use, and it will be up to either us as the client to integrate that data, or the tier 1s will have the responsibility to integrate or translate that. We will have a multi-vendor solution, and we’ll just have to deal with that.”

‘A massive challenge’

It’s common knowledge that HS2, like Crossrail, is using a Bentley suite of tools currently, focused on Bentley Enterprise Bridge (eB) as one of its core products, with others also making up its ‘BIM platform’.

BIM is becoming a well-known term in rail, as it is in construction, facilities management and other sectors. It stands for ‘building information modelling’, though its proponents stress that it is not just about buildings, nor about modelling, but more about smart use of shared interoperable data, turning information into knowledge. The government is mandating collaborative 3D BIM, with all project and asset information, documentation and data being electronic, on public sector capital projects by 2016.

HS2 says it has identified £250m worth of savings through the use of BIM, but getting the supply chain to where it needs to be is the big task for this year.

627 BIM main diagram

Kerbey said: “We do recognise that as we’re using a Bentley product, that we’re single-vendor at the moment. All of the feedback from the supply chain conferences is that we need to try to be more agnostic in terms of our software.

“We’re working hard to ensure we’ve got processes and systems to enable us to integrate and use data from multiple vendors. [Bentley eB] may be a solution that enables us to do that, or it might not be, so we’re going through some investigation this year into that.”

RTM asked if being more ‘agnostic’ risks fragmentation, and he acknowledged: “It’s going to be a massive challenge for us. It’s one reason why Crossrail didn’t go down the agnostic route: it’s a lot easier, from an integration and interoperability point of view, to have it all in the same format.

“As soon as you get disparate formats coming in, you have a challenge to join it all together. That’s what we’re working on at the moment. If it’s too big a risk, we’ll make a risk-based decision on how we proceed.

“We have got a big project this year to try to understand the implications of being as agnostic as we can be.”

Right from the start

HS2 construction is not yet at the ‘spades in the ground’ stage on phase 1 from London to Birmingham, and phase 2 to Manchester and Leeds is even further away.

But Kerbey explained: “We’ve learnt from other major projects that getting our data in order early is one of the main benefits of this new way of working – of BIM and of asset information management.

“If we were to try to build our asset information model just before we were about to hand it over [to the maintainer/operator], then there would be big cost and time risks.

“It’s about maturing our data progressively – this is the whole premise of BIM and the efficiencies it gives you – as we go through the project lifecycle, instead of having it handed over at each stage and losing information or the integrity and accuracy of it. By doing that, we’ll hopefully get the efficiencies, we’ll get people trusting our data because they’ve worked with that dataset all the way through its lifecycle, and they don’t suddenly have a new set of data that they’re wary of.”

HS2 in the virtual world

Network Rail, Crossrail, LU – they all aspire to operate a ‘digital railway’, and HS2 is no exception. We asked Kerbey to outline the scale of what HS2 wants to do in the virtual world.

He explained: “HS2 is a massive project, and we’re at different stages of development with phase 1 and phase 2. We’ve got massive amounts of data at different levels of maturity, and joining all that together is a complex task, to give us this ‘virtual environment’.

“From a technology point of view, building this virtual world is challenging because some of the software doesn’t exist to put linear assets together to have a ‘whole view’ of the virtual railway. Because of the amount of data and the size of some of the datasets, the computers people use can’t display that information, so we’ve had to spend a lot of time devising ways to optimise it and make the data useable.

“If we’re building a virtual railway, we need to be able to interrogate it and use it, otherwise there’s no point. That’s been a really important task for us: to get it onto people’s desks, basically, so they can use it as one of their day-to-day tools.”

Kerbey described HS2’s approach to configuration management and assurance, and said: “Our asset information management system is up-and-running, and we’re going through a big programme at the moment to make sure it’s adopted and that it contains the ‘single source of truth’ the project will use – for both phase 1 and phase 2.

“The beauty of having a digital railway is that you can use it for testing – so we’re not just talking about how we operate it or how we construct it, but how we test it. We can test how we get people through the station, test signal sighting, all these kinds of things. We’re not there at the moment, in terms of integrating pedestrian flows, for example – that is done separately – but it’s certainly our aspiration to bring all of those things together. And it will be possible: it’s just a matter of time.”

281 INTERIOR 002m camSMARTGLASS C2 edit

Next big thing

We’re now in 2015, the year in which Back to the Future 2 was set, prompting many jokes about technologies that have and have not come to pass. It is one more example of the rule that predicting changes in technology tends to be a fool’s game.

Clearly whole-life asset management is not just about the back-end databases, tags, models and visualisations – but also how they’re accessed and interacted with via mobile devices by those on the front line. How can HS2 possibly plan for the technology changes that will happen during its construction and operational life as regards mobile devices?

It’s “a really difficult question”, Kerbey admitted, pointing to the rise of tablets in just the last five years as something that no-one thought they needed but which quickly became a technology many feel they can’t do without.

He said: “What we can do is try not to focus on the technology, but to focus on the data. If we’ve got data that is ‘to standard’, that is structured well, and is interoperable, then we can move to technologies as and when they arrive. So by trying to take technology ‘out of the equation’, we can be more flexible.”

The team are not just waiting for the future to happen, however: they are working with software vendors, talking to the supply chain, attending conferences and seminars, all to get a glimpse of the future. He praised the “incredibly competent and clever” people throughout the HS2 supply chain, with Kerbey and his team able to draw on their foresight and research into technology trends.

Passing the baton

RTM recently interviewed Crossrail’s strategic projects director, John Pelton of CH2M Hill, who said of BIM: “The benefits of the experience we’ve had will mature on projects like HS2, which because of the timing of it, has a better chance of getting up to the Level 3 environment that we might aspire to.”

It is premature to talk about anything being ‘at’ BIM Level 3 – it is not yet even defined. But the indications are that it will be about shifting BIM into the cloud and web services, advanced sharing tools, and complete interoperability at every stage of the life-cycle, from the design to the cost to the logistics to the facilities management.

Kerbey said his team is “very much aligned and in touch with” the government’s BIM task group under Mark Bew. He said: “We’re making sure we’re not backing ourselves into a corner, and making sure we’re going to be moving the industry on, as Crossrail has done. Crossrail has done some amazing work on moving the industry to where it is at the moment, and we certainly intend to take that baton on, and move it onto the next level. If that’s Level 3, then that’s where we’ll go.”

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