Redefining Next-Generation Rail Operation Control Centres

With millions of people commuting via metros on a daily basis, any service disruption or deviation from scheduled arrivals and departures can cause massive inconvenience. Smart metro control centres provide rail operators with a real-time situational overview of the entire rail and public transport network. By analysing and orchestrating information from various data sources into a single dashboard, they are indispensable to rail operators in ensuring smooth daily operations, swift response to disruptions as well as providing predictive analytics and early warnings on potential service disruptions, ultimately contributing to more reliable and safer rides.

At 8am on a weekday, a train fault on one of the busiest lines in an Asian metropolis causes a massive backlog of passengers. With a clear overview of the situation, train controllers at the Rail Operation Control Centre (OCC) respond quickly by rescheduling trains and arranging for the stalled train to be towed away. Coordinated recovery processes are activated across different government agencies and transport operators to assist affected passengers to complete their journey.

As millions of commuters in cities rely on metros each day, train operations are carefully orchestrated within the OCC – the rail network’s central nervous system. The ability to ensure smooth, safe and reliable daily operations and respond swiftly to emergencies is critical for any rail operator.

Responding to surging ridership

With growing urbanisation, the United Nations estimates that two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in megacities by 20501. Congestion will further worsen if transport systems fail to keep up.

The future of public transport is integrated and multimodal. But urban rail transit remains the cornerstone, as it is still the most efficient mode of transport in moving large masses of people within and across cities.

In 2017, urban railways in 182 cities around the world carried an average of 168 million passengers each day, a 20% growth from 2012. With over 200 new lines worldwide scheduled for completion in the next 2 years, millions more will be relying on metros for their daily commuting needs, according to the International Association of Public Transport2.

It is therefore crucial that train operations continue to run smoothly, safely and reliably, even under increasing pressures of growing ridership and shorter distance between travelling trains.

To do that, digital modernisation of Rail OCCs to handle the Command, Control and Communications (C3) functions among operations and maintenance is key.

One-stop rail solution

Several challenges confront new-generation Rail OCCs, from more complex rail networks and unforeseen crises such as train and road disruptions to planned passenger influxes during major events like the Olympics.

There are other issues that could arise, such as the need to dynamically adjust train speeds and schedules in response to changing passenger flows across the day; or the ability to disseminate real-time traffic information to the public to help motorists make more informed travel decisions.

What is required is a unified system that ties everything together – from train operations, regulation and movement monitoring to predictive analysis on potential service disruptions due to equipment downtime and emergency incidents. Such a system provides better situational awareness across incident monitoring and management.

Train controllers at the OCC need to have access to this real-time information to make crucial and timely decisions during an incident or emergency, as well as for optimised daily operations. A smart OCC system helps them to quickly make sense of the multitude of data, execute swift responses and, if necessary, coordinate with other incident response agencies to mitigate the situation. In addition, digitalisation of procedures and processes based on approved guidelines by transport agencies can be incorporated into the OCC to minimise human errors during service recovery.

Today, trains are travelling at a faster speed and within closer distance of one another amid heightened concerns on safety, increasing volume of travellers and higher expectations of service from commuters. Speed and availability of information are more critical than ever when making decisions to manage disruptions and ensure smooth daily operations. A smart Rail OCC that leverages the latest communications-based and automatic control systems, driven by advanced technology is vital for transport agencies and rail operators.

The push for sustainable and greener operations also provides greater impetus to adopt smart OCC systems, which can reduce energy usage by optimising train speed with regenerative braking and scheduling.

Prevention is better than cure

Finding the optimal way to enhance operational efficiency and improve its reliability with minimal disruptions due to incidents and maintenance issues is the goal of every train operator. Perhaps the best approach is to be pre-emptive rather than reactive.

The first step is to digitalise rail electronics systems such as communications systems, signalling and power systems, and platform screen doors. Next is to put in place a central AI-driven C3 system that integrates these systems to provide full visibility and situational awareness of the entire metro line. With this in place, rail operators can better monitor the performance of metro lines to enhance daily operations, detect anomalies and take action before incidents escalate further. The real time overview of the entire rail network helps rail operators decide and respond quickly to incidents and restore train services with minimal disruptions.

Through a digitalised smart metro system, data from various rail systems can be better utilised and analysed to improve maintenance of rail assets. By leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to make sense of data, train operators are able to access the performance of rail assets in real-time and receive valuable insights to better plan their maintenance regime. Timely maintenance can help to extend the life cycle of rail assets, making it more cost-effective than replacement.

Besides enhancing the maintenance of rail assets, data is analysed to predict potential failures that can cause service disruptions. Through early detection, diagnostic information can be relayed to the maintenance staff in real time. Rail operators can then identify and rectify faults even before they occur, minimising downtime and ensuring operational reliability. This reduces the cost of operations, as managing and mitigating a breakdown is often more expensive than preventing one.

Why smart OCCs matter

For a metro to be successful, it must be dependable, reliable and sustainable – both economically and environmentally.

Smart Rail OCCs – enabled by AI and data analytics – are key to moving people across cities efficiently with optimised, dynamic and undisrupted passenger flows. They are also a ticket to a more resilient public transport system. Should a country’s rail infrastructure break down, having a smart OCC in place will minimise disruptions and repercussions not just to people’s daily lives but also to the economy.

As a global leader in smart rail electronics solutions, ST Engineering has successfully developed and implemented over 100 projects in more than 48 cities worldwide. Its Smart OCCs and other platforms for rail operations have benefited many cities such as Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Beijing, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Wuxi, Fuzhou, Taoyuan, Taipei, and Kaohsiung.

Learn more about ST Engineering’s AGIL Smart Metro Control Centre and suite of AGIL Smart Metro Solutions.

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