Control room technology relies on integration with passenger
Marcus Jones, Service Delivery Director at KeolisAmey Docklands, argues that the future of control room technology relies on the integration of control room and passenger.
Behind every successful railway operation is a robust and tightly managed control centre. Often referred to as the nerve centre of the rail network, control centres are hubs of the latest rail technology, and are responsible for maintaining the smooth running of train services, updating passengers and resolving any incidents.
Technology lies at the heart of every control centre, and as the UK’s first major automated railway, Docklands Light Railway (DLR) is at the forefront of driving tech and digital innovation in this space.
The DLR control centre is unique in the industry in that all operations are housed within just one room. It is responsible for ensuring trains run on time, providing customer services and information, CCTV, depot management and resolving faults, all overseen by our controllers and a dedicated duty manager. Heavy rail services, in contrast, often use signal centres around the country in addition to a central control room.
Our approach drives efficiency and allows us to oversee network performance and key functions and processes all in one place. It does not come without its challenges, though.
Ultimately, the operations of the control room are geared towards providing the best experience for rail travellers. As services become busier, and day-to-day operations more complex, it is crucial that rail operators invest in technology to strengthen the connection between control room and passenger to maintain efficiency and deliver the highest levels of service.
Mind the service gap
Service disruption is one of the biggest challenges faced by rail operators, majorly impacting customer experience and satisfaction across the rail industry at large. In the event of a train fault, resuming ‘business as usual’ can be a lengthy process that relies on staff to update passengers, fix the fault and restore normal service as quickly as possible.
Advances in technology can help to minimise the impact of disruption by helping to find the most efficient solution. The current direction of travel is a positive one – increasingly we are seeing technology introduced to control rooms that can detect potential failures on and off trains before they occur. This allows operators to take a train out of service before it fails, resulting in just one cancellation rather than a string of delays.
DLR is leading the charge in developing the next generation of this technology by creating an asset management system that tracks failures from the first recorded fault to the unit being fixed. This information allows operators to identify trends and understand where, why and how often trains fail. Crucially, this will convert into improved passenger information, boosting the availability of up-to-the-minute data on any service changes and when normal running will be resumed.
Take care in wet weather
At this time of year, one of the primary causes of disruption to services is the weather – and it’s a more complicated issue than many people realise. On the DLR, trains operate using a vehicle on-board controller (VOBC) – a computer system integrated with loops in the tracks that monitors a train’s location using wheel revolutions.
During wet or icy conditions, however, trains can slip in the same way wheels spin on a car, meaning that the VOBC loses the train’s position on the tracks, activating the default safety mechanisms and causing the train to stop.
Technology is emerging to help solve this challenge. DLR is currently trialling software that alerts control room operators to adverse weather conditions, enabling them to adjust a train’s braking remotely. Vehicles can progress more gently along the tracks, reducing the need to stop completely and therefore preventing unnecessary delays.
Running at capacity
Across the UK’s rail network, services are increasingly operating at full capacity, resulting in overcrowded services, delays and unhappy passengers. As is the case with train faults, disruption from overcrowding is currently managed by control centre staff through constant monitoring of CCTV, the dispatch of extra trains and boots-on-the-ground station supervision.
To reduce the burden on staff, there is a need to capitalise on the wealth of available traveller data to begin understanding patterns and trends so services can be adjusted to properly suit peak demand. Bringing this capability into the control room means operators can make faster decisions and deliver changes to services more quickly, tailored to the flow of passengers on any given day.
Synergy of control room and passenger
All of these innovations are geared towards collecting as much data as possible on the current state of the network, allowing operators to make quick improvements and changes to reduce disruption. However, the next stage must be to integrate the capabilities of control rooms with passenger journeys.
The technology housed in control rooms up and down the UK processes an extraordinary amount of data each day, but lacking is a platform that allows us to use and make sense of it. Our prediction is that the next stage in the evolution of control room technology will be the introduction of artificial intelligence. AI can be used to quickly process this data and produce insights and solutions based on concrete evidence and trends. This capability would allow control room operators to relay updates to passengers instantly, empowering them with the information they need to make the best travel decisions in real time.
As our railways become busier, it is no longer enough to announce a train cancellation when passengers are already waiting on the platform. The future of control room technology relies on creating efficient and accessible channels of communication with passengers, allowing them to plan and adjust their journeys on the move. Agile control rooms, with the tools to respond to any incidents and customer demand live, are crucial to keeping the rail industry on track.
Marcus Jones is the Service Delivery Director for KeolisAmey Docklands (KAD), the franchise operator of the Docklands Light Railway (DLR), and has over 12 years’ experience in the rail industry. He joined KAD in October 2016, and has since contributed to the delivery of record levels of high performance on the DLR, working with the DLR, concessionaries and other stakeholders to ensure a consistent approach to effectively managing risk and promoting continuous improvement, contributing to the safe and efficient operation of the railway.