In its role as infrastructure provider, Network Rail is charged with maintaining and revitalising the UK’s railways. In order to meet its business objectives and to support the activities of operators and partners, Network Rail continues to rely on high quality asset information to safely and efficiently, plan, design, change, manage and operate its asset base. The new information programme ORBIS (Offering Rail Better Information Services) is set to change the way in which such asset information is collected, stored and utilised, with substantial benefits.
Approximately two years ago Network Rail established its Asset Information business function, which was aimed at bringing together the various disparate systems and data teams around the business into one cohesive central source of reference information. Whilst this concept sits within Asset Management, which is a key beneficiary, it was also recognised that information provision is vital to other aspects of rail such as planning, major projects, and operations. As such, the Asset Information function is designed to reconfigure and deliver information products and services right across the rail business, as well as externally to third party stakeholders.
Crucially though, Asset Information doesn’t only deliver the services that Network Rail needs today, but has also helped identify a lot of capabilities that are needed for the future. It is within this remit of work that the ORBIS programme is aimed. “Rather than investing in creating services in a piecemeal way, we worked out what needed to be in place to transform the information capability that Network Rail has now, but most importantly to alter the processes of the recipients of that information,” explains Patrick Bossert, director of asset information. “We spent three months in just over 200 workshops with staff, mainly from different Network Rail operating functions but also some external stakeholders as well, the results of which informed the £300 million ORBIS programme as approved by the Network Rail Board in October 2011.”Proposed benefits
Scheduled to run over an eight year period, it is clear that ORBIS is not a quick-fix concept. Given the sheer scale of the Network Rail asset base, which is spread over 22,000 linear miles, the programme is being approached in a very staged manner designed to balance criticality with early benefits.
As such, the first two-and-a-half year period is aimed at creating an accurate picture of what each asset is, where it’s located, and what condition it’s in. “Having better information about our assets and their condition means that we can evolve our asset management policies to a level where we change the style of intervention in maintaining our assets to something that is more appropriate to the asset conditions, its criticality and its usage. This potentially means that we can reduce the number of renewals on certain types of assets without increasing any risk or reducing operating performance,” explains Patrick.
“This offers major financial benefits, which will clearly help us realise some of the recommendations identified by McNulty in his industry report. Likewise, there are safety benefits particularly in terms of our staff and contractors in identifying where assets are, how to access worksites, what the hazards are, and how to work safely in that environment. We already hold good asset registers but our maintenance regimes have been very much inspection based until now, so in order to evolve to a more risk and condition-based model we need to ensure all information is accurate and that we have the processes in place to maintain it. Initially we are concentrating on track, switches and crossings, level crossings, and a number of other safety critical assets because we know that’s where information can have a very rapid and tangible benefit,” he continues.
Previously much of Network Rail’s maintenance work was inspection driven, with not all information being reported back to any central system. As such, the organisation has actively been looking at ways in which this frontline workforce can be engaged in sharing information to help both themselves in their own roles and the central team in making asset management decisions. “It was very clear that from the outset there was demand for smart phone devices,” comments Patrick.
“In the past Network Rail has deployed hand-held hardware but it hasn’t been personally owned and we felt that was one of the barriers to people really adopting the technology. With so much of today’s smart technology offering a confluence of different capabilities in one useable device though, we felt the time was right to re-address this concept. As such, we have so far rolled out a pilot of 1100 iPhones to members of the track workforce who haven’t had any hand-held hardware before, and the level of engagement as a result of this has sparked over 500 suggestions for mobile applications. Our challenge now is to roll out these applications to help turn these devices into data gathering tools, which will help staff carry out their roles even more effectively.”System view
Following on from this groundwork, the next stage of ORBIS will look to join up all of these individual assets into a complete system model and achieve a far greater understanding of how these interact together. “We’ve already been doing a lot of work on some of the preliminary system mapping and understanding the criticality of different assets so that we can help the maintenance teams to maximise the reliability of these vital elements, which will have a direct benefit on performance. As we try and squeeze more capacity and capability out of our existing network, we do need to understand how that works as a system to a far greater level of detail, and this is one of the future capabilities ORBIS will deliver into asset information,” enthuses Patrick.
With demand for rail services already stretching much of the UK’s infrastructure to its limit, and major expansions such as HS2 still some years off, the potential for ORBIS to assist in growing capacity is an important consideration. One option for achieving this is to move away from fixed signalling blocks on the rail network towards in-cab signalling, which will enable Network Rail to put a higher density of traffic on certain sections of the rail network. This in turn will increase the maintenance workload as the degradation of the network will be accelerated, so the other early aspects of ORBIS such as asset condition will be crucial to delivering this.
“By removing fixed signalling we are then reliant on very sophisticated traffic management systems, which in turn need real-time performance information from the infrastructure about what the railway as a system is capable of doing. Much like a sat nav makes routing decisions based on road congestion, so the traffic management system will have to respond in real time to changes in infrastructure performance such as temporary speed restrictions,” highlights Patrick. Industry service
It is apparent that the impact of ORBIS will be far reaching, both directly within Asset Information, but also within other aspects of Network Rail’s activities. Whilst the requirement of Network Rail to collect and record all inspection and condition information on certain critical assets is useful from an asset management point of view, it is absolutely necessary from a safety and integrity perspective. “We’ve really turned Asset Information from a back office function into a proper industry service,” confirms Patrick.
“My vision is to therefore develop the Asset Information capability further as an industry wide service so that on completion of future major rail projects we will be seen as the clear choice to manage this information going forward. We recognise though that potential clients will have a choice of partners and therefore we need to make our asset information service competitive, and ensure that what we’re building now is something the rail industry wants and is delivered at a cost it can afford. Likewise I believe that if we can get that right for UK rail then there’s no reason why we can’t look to export some of those services and capabilities in the future as a best practice system,” he concludes.
ORBIS (Network Rail)
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