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Rail­way Networks: How they are mapped out and why

By La rédaction - 26 November 2018
Reading time: 9min

A rail­way network, just like its road coun­ter­part, is a guided system made up of access and exit points. To prevent train cars from getting lost, swit­chers guide the rail­cars along the right tracks to get them from a given access point to the exit point where their jour­ney ends. Rail networks are under someo­ne’s control, and they’re highly connec­ted. These connec­tions can be repre­sen­ted using different mapping methods: geogra­phic, sche­ma­tic, linear or 3D, each of which is suited to speci­fic purposes. Read on to find out more.


Geogra­phic or carto­gra­phic rail­way network mapping

Geogra­phic, or carto­gra­phic mapping, of rail­way networks is the most common method of repre­sen­ta­tion, and the most easily unders­tood by the gene­ral public. In addi­tion to offe­ring a global analy­sis, it helps pinpoint rela­ti­vely detai­led infor­ma­tion for a given geogra­phic scope.


représentation ferroviaire des réseaux
© G CHP – Wiki­me­dia Crea­tive Commons


Use case

Gene­rally, the geogra­phic posi­tion of trains isn’t provi­ded; carto­gra­phic rail mapping doesn’t feature move­ment. This means that this method of repre­sen­ta­tion is more suited to colla­te­ral purposes (construc­tion, rescue, main­te­nance) than to the opera­tio­nal needs of network and infra­struc­ture admi­nis­tra­tors.

Where carto­gra­phic mapping is found

Pretty much everyw­he­re—­from road maps to Google Maps. Rail­way networks are often displayed on these maps because they represent obstacles for pedes­trians and road users.


Sche­ma­tic mapping

This type of repre­sen­ta­tion places empha­sis on rail­way network topo­logy. In other words, it provides infor­ma­tion on connec­tions, itine­ra­ries, and deci­sion points (stations, instal­la­tions, etc.).


What is typo­logy?

The term derives from the Greek words for place (topos) and study (logos). Topo­logy is the study of places and is used for spatial analyses that deal with the proxi­mity of mathe­ma­ti­cal enti­ties.

Seeing as networks are made up of nodes, segments, vertices, and arcs, topo­logy is espe­cially rele­vant to network routing and network features. The RailTo­poMo­del stan­dard, widely promo­ted by the Inter­na­tio­nal Union of Rail­ways (IUR), defines the topo­lo­gi­cal repre­sen­ta­tion model of rail­way infra­struc­ture.


This mapping method is wides­pread in the rail­way indus­try. It serves as a handy solu­tion for tracking the itine­rary of a train depar­ting from Station A and heading to Station B. If main­te­nance is under­way, sche­ma­tic mapping provides alter­na­tives to circumvent the obstacle as best as possible.


représentation ferroviaire des réseaux
© G CHP – Wiki­me­dia Crea­tive Commons


Use case

Sche­ma­tic rail­way network mapping is highly suited to opera­tion mana­ge­ment acti­vi­ties. Howe­ver, the method has limi­ted appli­ca­tion in the area of main­te­nance, firstly because not all instal­la­tions appear on the diagram, and secondly because sche­ma­tic maps aren’t drawn to scale, which makes it impos­sible to iden­tify the exact posi­tion of rele­vant faci­li­ties based solely on the graph.

Where would you find sche­ma­tic mapping?

These maps are widely found in trains them­selves (inclu­ding in public trans­port). They provide a macro view of a given network and help users see which connec­tions they need to take to get to their desti­na­tion.

Signa­ling control rooms and opera­tio­nal traf­fic mana­ge­ment centers also have sche­ma­tic network maps displayed on opti­cal control panels.


Linear mapping

This method of repre­sen­ting rail­way networks is useful for network admi­nis­tra­tors, whether rail, road, or any other trans­por­ta­tion networks. Linear mapping allows users to see a rail­way line or road­way in its enti­rety. All infra­struc­tu­ral instal­la­tions on these routes can be iden­ti­fied using the distance from the origin, i.e. the zero mile­post.

In sum, linear mapping helps locate all instal­la­tions that exist on a given rail­way network. The method also makes it possible to metho­di­cally esta­blish a main­te­nance plan for the network: Tech­ni­cians, who often make their way through the network to reach these instal­la­tions, find linear descrip­tions highly useful, as all distances are measu­red and marked up.


représentation ferroviaire des réseaux
© G CHP – Wiki­me­dia Crea­tive Commons


Use case

Where linear diagrams are found

Linear depic­tions of rail networks are acces­sible to the public at large; public tran­sit line routes are some­times displayed above rail­car doors in the form of a line. If the diagram shows line connec­tions, howe­ver, the network depic­tion is sche­ma­tic, not linear.


Looking to the future with 3D Mapping

Rail network and infra­struc­ture admi­nis­tra­tors are increa­sin­gly mapping their rail­way network using various types of 3D tech­no­logy, inclu­ding LiDAR.


LiDAR tech­no­logy

LiDAR stands for Light Detec­tion and Ranging, a surveying method that measures distance based on an analy­sis of the proper­ties of a reflec­ted light beam retur­ning to its source.

Evalua­ting the frequency offset between trans­mit­ted and reflec­ted waves serves to calcu­late the speed at which a given object is moving, and also to repro­duce under­ground and visible envi­ron­ments using 3D mode­ling.


Use case


Rail­way networks can be repre­sen­ted in various forms to suit a diverse array of purposes. To respond to needs arising in the property sector or rela­ting to rail­way access or state­ments of work, carto­gra­phic descrip­tions are the recom­men­ded solu­tion. On the other hand, sche­ma­tic or linear mapping is prefer­red for acti­vi­ties pertai­ning to opera­tio­nal mana­ge­ment and infra­struc­ture main­te­nance. Last but not least, when esti­ma­ting the current state of a speci­fic network, 3D mapping is the prime choice for project deve­lo­pers. But all methods have this in common: They allow for rail­way stan­dards which in turn enable soft­ware deve­lo­pers to advance inno­va­tion. To learn more about these stan­dards, find out what Fabrice Simo­nin, Head of GiSmart­wa­re’s Rail depart­ment, had to say during an inter­view.


By La rédaction - 26 November 2018

2,853 responses to “Rail­way Networks: How they are mapped out and why”

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