Set data free for a powerful digital railway

The potential of data-driven systems across every aspect of infrastructure management remains woefully underestimated, says Nick Mansell

“Information wants to be free!” That was the rallying cry of the digital pioneers who disrupted just about everything over last four decades. And yet, when you look around the transport industry, information seems to be in chains everywhere.

A big part of the problem is that transport systems are complicated and built from complex parts that come from many different sources. Manufacturers have their own data conventions and standards and work in languages that are often incompatible with each other. That means that a lot of valuable data is stuck in a box when it could be giving us valuable information about how our systems are running, what could be improved and what is likely to go wrong and when. If we can open those boxes, get the component parts of our systems talking to each other, the power we can harness is immense.

Achieving this has been a major part of our work for our rail organisations, integrating and processing data into a single cloud-based location. The results have been impressive. Live data feeds can be automatically compared to a baseline of normal operating conditions so that defective equipment announces itself before it fails, for example. Maintenance processes are transformed, directing operations more efficiently to where and when it is most needed.

These sorts of engineering solutions are very satisfying and a good illustration of the power of data, but solving the specific problem highlights a deeper one, the fact that the potential of data-driven systems across every aspect of infrastructure management and design remains woefully underestimated. 

The internet of things whereby real-world appliances are operated and monitored through the cloud is already an everyday reality for lots of people in their daily lives, whether it is setting the central heating, or checking who is ringing at the door, but the much greater potential of applying similar technologies in the workplace has hardly been considered.

Any manager of a major project will tell you that the greatest frustration is very often a lack of information, or at least, the lag in the information flow which means decisions are taken always in arrears and red lights don’t start flashing until the disaster is already upon you. The raw material to make it better is already here, we just have to get smarter at using it. 

Information needs to be free; let’s break its chains.

Nick Mansell is a senior project manager at CPC Project Services.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.