OVER the past 20 years patronage on Britain’s railway network has doubled, placing significant pressure on train operating companies, and in particular infrastructure manager Network Rail (NR), to meet rising demand.

The British railway industry took a pummelling in the mainstream press over the Christmas and New Year period following a sharp increase in fares and perceptions of a continually poor and unreliable service. However, significant work is underway behind the scenes to improve the situation, and prepare for further increases in track use.

AerialNR’s ambitious Railway Upgrade Plan promises to ease crippling congestion by improving infrastructure and boosting capacity. The infrastructure manager is investing £12bn in infrastructure renewals and £12.8bn in enhancements during the current 2014-2019 five-year funding period, and further investments are included in proposals for the next five-year plan.

As well as new projects, NR is placing significant faith in new digital technologies through its Digital Railway programme to deliver the cost-savings and improvements in efficiency and capacity that it is seeking. The Digital Railway was launched in 2015, and has since been updated to focus on three core areas: capacity, performance, and safety.

While covering blue-ribbon projects such as rolling out ETCS, the programme is attempting to better understand NR’s existing assets in order to improve the decision-making process and promote efficiency. A major initiative in this area is the Offering Rail Better Information System (Orbis), NR’s £330m seven-year programme to create a detailed digital model of Britain’s railway network.

Launched in 2012, and subsequently absorbed into the Digital Railway, Orbis is aiming to save up to £1bn over the next 10 years. And ahead of its conclusion in 2019, it is already producing encouraging results.

Various apps and tools are now in use to capture high-quality asset data while offering new ways of viewing the railway. This includes arming track workers with iPads and iPhones to capture data on site, which is supporting NR’s predict and prevent asset maintenance strategy, and informing project management planning.

RINM project

A key component of Orbis is the Rail Infrastructure Network Model (RINM) project, the objective of which is to provide project planners and engineers with a clear picture of the entire railway network and how it relates to the wider environment from the comfort and safety of their office.

The foundation of RINM is the National Aerial Survey, conducted in summer 2014, and which aimed to map Britain’s entire 16,000km network. This ambitious undertaking required the use of both aerial surveys through overhead images and LiDAR imaging to provide a cross section of the track in order to assess potential hazards to the railway.

Five aerial survey specialists participated in the work using two specially-equipped helicopters which made more than 250 flights. The aircraft are equipped with cameras with sensors and are able to offer high-definition video, thermal imaging, corona discharge, and a spotter scope with 80x magnification.

The surveys took place at more than 250m above the railway, and more than 100 terabytes of aerial data was generated, which translates into over 110,000 individual image tiles and hundreds of millions of LiDAR points.

The RGB images cover a 50m area either side of NR’s ownership area and present a true representation of the railway and its surroundings. Critically, they are available at a resolution of up to 4cm, meaning that any object larger than 4cm in diameter is visible when using the system. This enables users to distinguish between individual components, including sleepers and balises, and is far superior to Britain’s Ordinance Survey aerial imaging, which is available at up to 25cm, or Google Maps, which is available at 20cm. Similarly, the LiDAR images were used to process digital terrain models. The images are available at 20cm resolution and remove vegetation and other features to offer a true picture of the terrain.

NR says the surveys will be updated every five years, and its 2014 contract with four companies to deploy drones to provide infrastructure inspection and land surveys will include updates to the maps.

With much of the map data now in hand, the focus switched to uploading this information route-by-route into the Geo-RINM viewer (GRV) application, an online tool accessible to NR staff.

As well as the aerial images, GRV includes 140 data layers of railway information relating to a specific site or asset, retrieving data from NR’s asset data registers, including Ellipse, its central asset database.

GRV was initially rolled out to 4500 NR users in September 2014 and included only limited functionality in order to familiarise staff with the software. The aerial survey imagery data was added along with other data layers between January and June 2015, while the system was continually updated as new users were added, with more than 10,000 gaining access up to June 2017. The system is now used more than 30,000 times a month and has been accessed more than 500,000 times.

GRV is used for tasks ranging from identification of structures on NR land including sub-surface cables, level crossing drainage surveys, issuing noise letters using the address and postcode layer, and viewing environmental and heritage data. It can also be used to visualise renewal areas, carry out environmental assessments, and create site design models.

GRV users have praised its time and money-saving capabilities. A station portfolio surveyor commented that he no longer has to travel to stations to gather key information. Similarly, an incident controller says GRV is cutting response times by enabling clarification of asset information and exact locations within a single streamlined viewer. This is providing clearer awareness of the incident, the assets relevant to it, and can quickly provide the key location information required by response teams and third parties.


IRJ was given a demonstration of the system during a visit to NR’s Euston House in London, the home of the Digital Railway, in November.

Mr Barry Gleeson, Building Information Modelling (BIM) programme manager for NR’s Infrastructure Projects Southern Region, revealed that GRV is saving up to four weeks’ work on each project and £900,000 so far for the IP Southern team. The presentations also included insight into the next stage of the project: the development of three-dimensional modelling software, which could be particularly beneficial for project planning.

A pilot study with the 3D model has already been carried out on the London Heathrow Airport exclusion zone. Users can simply click around the three-dimensional model of the track to get a better picture of how the railway alignment looks. This work has since been extended to the prospective alignment for the proposed Crossrail 2 cross-city link in London.

According to Mr Marco Sala, senior GI technical specialist at NR, who worked on developing the project for Crossrail 2, Orbis initially worked closely with Crossrail 2 to provide the necessary aerial survey data to support the design phase of the project. However, this was subsequently extended to trial emerging technologies, including virtual reality, to help Crossrail 2 improve planning and ultimately its relationship with the public. This includes presenting a better picture of what the project will look like which will benefit presentations during public consultations.

The pilot covered the section of the new railway that will run alongside the West Anglia Main Line (WAML). The 3D models utilised the aerial data, the LiDAR point cloud and feature extracted 3D vector mapping and the tree database, onto which the new design data was overlaid. The visualisation also includes signalling and communications equipment, signal heads and bridges, which are sourced from Ellipse, and its predecessor, the Civil Asset Register and Reporting System (Carrs).

The interactive models, including flythrough videos, were completed in March 2017. The 3D models are accessible through compatible internet browsers and the data layers can be interrogated by the user, who can also add comments and bookmarks. Previews of the system showed where the proposed track alignment is located and any potential conflicts with existing infrastructure or terrain, which may not have been apparent to designers at this stage of the process.

“The pilot was so successful that they instructed us to develop the project for the entire route alignment,” Sala says, adding that work is continuing to improve the application, including adding more scalable maps, better CAD integration, and to enable a live feed of additional GIS data.

Gleeson says that additional features are also being added to the conventional 2D GRV as they become available, including the development of a mobile app to enable remote use while in the field. Work is also continuing to increase use of the system throughout the organisation. A comprehensive computer-based training programme is in place whereby prospective users can access tutorial videos.

“The biggest challenge we face is to make it accessible,” Gleeson says. “If someone has a question or a problem we want them to go to the GRV. We want to make it instantaneous and for people to trust the data that is included in the tool.”

NR has presented GRV to Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) and French National Railways (SNCF), while it is also working with third party organisations like the British Transport Police, to look at how they might be able to use GRV to their benefit.

NR is understandably excited about the potential for the new system. Indeed, GRV’s impact is apparent in how it is helping to reduce the time it takes to approve a certain project. For example, instead of 10-12 weeks to retrieve the required information on a specific bridge from paper-based sources, this is now available almost instantaneously using GRV, with all of the information completely aligned.

“We are looking at the railway in ways that we have not done so before,” Gleeson says.