VIETNAM is on the way up. The country’s economy has been growing rapidly for several years with GDP growth rates of 5-7% between 2013 and 2015. However, rail’s share of the overall transport market in Vietnam remains low, lagging behind industry demand and hindering further economic development. To increase the importance and overall capacity of rail, Vietnam Railways (VNR) kicked off the largest software project in the history of the state railway in 2012.

Vietnam Railways intends to increase its efficiency by simplifying and streamlining its operational business. Modernising planning and control processes is one key step towards efficient railway operations. VNR awarded the contract for implementing an integrated software and hardware solution to German IT provider IVU Traffic Technologies, specifically for its IVU.rail software and hardware suite.

The solution provides a self-contained computerised system, which supports all of VNR’s central planning and operating procedures. This includes timetable conception and creation, long and short-term planning, real-time dispatch, rolling stock management, freight supervision, and staff administration. The system functions are currently implemented on a national scale, with one national operation control centre in Hanoi and three regional centres in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Ho Chi Minh City.

shutterstock VietnamThis ambitious project required substantial investment in VNR’s IT and network infrastructure. The system deployment includes more than 12 central server machines, 145 workstations at different locations across the country, and 390 onboard units mounted on VNR locomotives as well as large displays at major stations serving as the front end for a passenger information solution. Both mobile and fixed networks are used for data and voice communication between the different system entities.

As shown in Figure 1, the system relies on a central data centre hosted by VNR in Hanoi that is part of the National Operation Control Centre (NOCC). A dedicated failover solution ensures the high availability of all core services. To deal with regional specifics, train operation supervision is further distributed across two Regional Operation Control Centres (ROCC) in Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City, which are connected to the NOCC via the national internet backbone.

The NOCC data centre hosts the IVU.rail productive and test systems which serve the core planning and operation control teams. One of the key applications used by the section controllers is a graphical timetable that allows them to monitor and control train paths in real-time by displaying planned and running trains as a time-path graph of a sequence of links.

In addition, several VNR subsidiaries, stations, depots, and maintenance facilities connect to the data centre via the internet using a remote desktop protocol. IVU.rail provides access to a wide range of features such as infrastructure and rolling stock management, vehicle dispatch, passenger information management, as well as personnel planning and dispatch.

With regards to real-time information and train monitoring, on-board units have been mounted on all main line locomotives. They consist of a resilient ARM-based on-board computer running Windows CE and a wide VGA anti-glare TFT display. Running the IVU.cockpit operating software, these units constitute the central communications device between the control centre and train operating staff.

For the onboard units to function, VNR needed to upgrade its fleet with additional antennae for standard communication systems such as GPS and GSM. The operating software processes all location data and informs drivers about the current speed, as well as establishing and managing communication between the trains and the control centre.

Equipped with handsets and Universal Integrated Circuit Cards (UICCs), the units support GSM-based voice calls and secure communication between the driver and the section control staff. At the same time, all units continuously send their GPS coordinates to the central system to allow section controllers and stationmasters to monitor and manage train paths.

Data communication

Data communication between the central system and the train is based on General Packet Radio Service (GPRS). This updates the information stored on the units, such as the operating system and the timetable, in a timely manner without the need for servicing trains at a depot. A dedicated access point name (APN) gateway service between the mobile network and the backend as well as a virtual private network (VPN), which acts as an internet overlay, guarantees secure communications between the trains and the central system.

Deploying a centralised architecture with a single core system that handles all the data, and with several remote locations seamlessly accessing its services will be beneficial to VNR as it ensures smooth and secure operations and enables the railway to manage organisational changes flexibly and efficiently.

VNR’s operations division relied on manual processes for many years. Today, it maintains a graphical timetable that is fully drawn up and updated manually (including delays and short-term timetable changes) by the section control shift staff. The entire network is monitored by 12 control sections that communicate with stationmasters and drivers to supervise and manage train operations.

Introduction of the new system will reduce the number of section controls from 12 to nine desks, with automatic system functions replacing most of the manual processes. While this will increase efficiency, and improve the overall system operation, it will also introduce numerous changes to the daily work of VNR staff, who will need to be trained to understand and adapt to the new system. With more than 3000 staff members, this is a major challenge and IVU will support VNR with specifically-designed training courses during the transition.

The new system will enable VNR to overcome many of the restrictions that the current rail infrastructure imposes on train operation and thus improve efficiency considerably. Single-track lines, steep gradients, and unsupervised level crossings characterise VNR’s network and reacting to incidents or abnormal traffic scenarios takes some time due to slow manual processes. The computerised OCC system will not only allow VNR to react to traffic disruptions more quickly but also make better use of the existing infrastructure by optimising resource planning, and offering advanced dispatching and conflict resolution, as well as real-time monitoring and operation control.

Further modernisation could help to increase rail’s modal share in Vietnam, for example, by offering enhanced passenger information. Mounted displays at all stations and mobile real-time passenger information including smartphone applications and web-based offers would increase acceptance of rail as an additional and reliable mode of transport. Such a solution could easily be integrated with the new OCC, which already provides actual arrival and departure times as well as the current positions of trains. There are also opportunities to add electronic ticketing systems as well as tools for staff information and duty management using portable devices such as tablets and smartphones.

Given its scope and ambition, the OCC project is of high value for VNR operations increasing both operational efficiency as well as long-term profitability. However, it only marks the first step in realising VNR’s innovation potential.