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Anatomy of a Rail Network: How and why to unify?

By La rédaction - 29 November 2018
Reading time: 8min

A rail network can be repre­sen­ted in seve­ral ways depen­ding on use case. Whether mapped, sche­ma­tic, linear, bene­fi­ciary-orien­ted, or 3D, descrip­­tion methods abound and compli­cate the task of effi­ciently inte­gra­ting an infor­ma­tion system. The solu­tion: a stan­dar­di­zed rail network descrip­tion. In this article, we explain how and why unifi­ca­tion is the way to go.



Asset mana­ge­ment

As­set mana­­ge­­ment provides a centra­li­zed rail network descrip­tion by detai­ling objects and their rela­tions. The method offers solid time mana­ge­ment and a reliable data­base for Compu­te­ri­zed Main­te­nance Mana­ge­ment System (CMSS) deve­lop­ment.

The approach does unfor­tu­na­tely suffer from a lacking or inadequate linear refe­rence system for topo­logy and geogra­phy. Such mana­ge­ment solu­tions also include inter­faces that are unin­tui­tive for busi­ness lines, except when making speci­fic changes to the system.



Geogra­phi­cal Infor­ma­tion Systems (GIS) store geogra­phi­cal data and put it to good use, while also offe­ring linear refe­ren­cing and network topo­logy. They are parti­cu­larly power­ful graphic data entry systems, but fairly limi­ted when input­ting attri­butes, mana­ging non-geogra­phi­cal objects, and inte­gra­ting a time component.


Custom-tailo­red solu­tions

Anything is possible with a custom-tailo­red solu­tion, since custom digi­tal mana­ge­ment systems are made-to-order. The disad­van­tage is that they cost must more than an off-the-shelf system, given the time requi­red for deve­lop­ment.


And the rail indus­try in all this?

Aside from custom-made solu­­tions, all the products presen­ted in this article are gene­ric. Consequently, they are poten­tially confi­gu­rable for use in the rail sector but have not yet been desi­gned speci­fi­cally with rail opera­tors in mind.

Dedi­ca­ted soft­ware exists in the sector to nati­vely manage rail network descrip­tion from all angles: There are features to design tracks, manage signal­ling, power supply, and more! Also, since these features are not inte­gra­ted as part of a well desi­gned speci­fic archi­tec­ture, the possi­bi­lity is great that the infor­ma­tion system will end up orga­ni­zed in silos.



Example of a siloed infor­ma­tion system

Infor­ma­tion systems (IS) are used by multiple busi­ness lines and yet they must all draw from common master data. It is crucial for an orga­­ni­za­­tion to use master data of this type consis­tently across all systems.

When master data are scat­te­red across the digi­tal inter­face, infor­ma­tion systems change shape inde­pen­dently of one another and without any inter­ac­tion. A “siloed” rail IS might include a track silo, a cate­nary silo, and a signa­ling silo—all ende­mi­cally lacking consis­tency.


Inef­fi­cient entry

In an infor­ma­tion system without Master Data Mana­­ge­­ment (MDM), tracks are ente­red into the track silo. Later on, they are migra­ted at best and—at worst—en­te­red again manually into cate­nary and signal­ling silos. By enco­ding the same infor­ma­tion multiple times, a siloed IS requires addi­tio­nal opera­tio­nal effort.


Poor preser­va­tion of data quality

Multiple entries greatly increase the risk for entry error. This is due to a grea­ter number of entries on the one hand, and to a risk of obso­lete data import on the other. If a bugfix is neces­sary for the track silo, how can the fix be applied to the two others?


Complexi­fied data exchange

When data consu­mers need cate­na­ries and signals, they will receive data from two inde­pendent silos, both deli­ve­ring tracks. It is then up to consu­mers to handle dupli­cates, incon­sis­ten­cies, and other troubles. What rules apply in this situa­tion?

In addi­tion to complexi­fying data quality main­te­nance upstream, silos compli­cate data opera­tion on the consu­mer end. Take the above example: If track data are dupli­ca­ted in the cate­nary and signal­ling silos, a consu­mer who uses all the data may end up with three sepa­rate track data sets: “track-tracks,” “cate­nary-tracks,” and “signal­ling-tracks!” One track could be descri­bed three different ways follo­wing update instances, without any way of telling which of the three versions is the right one.


Deve­lop­ment redun­dancy

When working in silos, it is common­place to deve­lop track entry soft­ware for the track, signal­ling, and power supply silos. Given this segmen­ta­tion, three pieces of soft­ware are neces­sary to describe a single object!

In order to ensure the synchro­ni­city of data shared between silos, data exchange mecha­nisms must be used. These might include midd­le­ware such as an ETL solu­tion (Extract-Trans­­form-Load).



Silos in a centra­li­zed repo­si­tory

Unlike earlier archi­tec­tures, master data are kept in a single loca­tion and distri­bu­ted to appli­ca­tions accor­ding to a prede­ter­mi­ned frequency. The system also contains a single active version with inac­tive versions stored where neces­sary.


Solid foun­da­tions

The dura­bi­lity and feasi­bi­lity of a centra­li­zed repo­si­tory are ensu­red by the follo­wing:


Infra­struc­ture solu­tions

An infra­struc­ture master record lets busi­ness solu­tions be inte­gra­ted without any risk for appli­ca­tion silos. The risk does remain, howe­ver, that func­tio­nal or speci­fic feature silos will emerge for speci­fic data within an appli­ca­tion, sepa­ra­ting them from data in another appli­ca­tion.

Geogra­phic descrip­tions, for instance, could be imagi­ned on one end for a GIS client and, on the other, attri­bute descrip­tions for signal­ling in a busi­ness line design tool. To improve effi­ciency, a shift must be made towards solu­tions that enable an unders­tan­ding of holis­tic data and the wealth of infor­ma­tion they offer, from an inter­­­face best suited to a given busi­ness line.


Rail network descrip­tion includes a multi­tude of dimen­sions. As­set mana­­ge­­ment offers time mana­ge­ment and a suffi­cient data­base to deve­lop CMSS soft­ware, but does not account for a network’s spatial mana­ge­ment. GIS effi­ciently handles linear refe­ren­cing and topo­logy, but suffers from poor object mana­ge­ment. Custom-tailo­red solu­tions are a great alter­na­tive, but their deve­lop­ment carries a high price tag. When unifying the descrip­tion of rail networks, the future calls for a single solu­tion offe­ring a compre­hen­sive view of space and time issues.

By La rédaction - 29 November 2018

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