Maritime & Transport / Other / Rail

‘Interoperability’ – its significance and importance – 4Tel MD gives us some insight

Derel WustOn the 18th and 19th August Informa will be holding its annual Telecommunications and Train Control Forum at the InterContinental Sydney. Telecommunications & Train Control 2015 will bring together passenger and freight rail operators, transport agencies, track owners, regulators and technology suppliers to assess telecommunications solutions and explore the capabilities of a shared future. In the lead up to the Forum we asked one of our speakers, Derel Wust, Managing Director, 4Tel Pty Ltd to provide us with some more insight into the work that 4Tel do and discuss the topic of the Forum in more detail.

Derel, tell us a little bit more about your background, 4Tel and what you are working on at the moment?

I am a Telecommunications Engineer and I promote the use of modern digital techniques to solve railway technology safety and operational problems. One issue the rail industry generally doesn’t understand is ‘digital’ communications, and the safety and efficiency benefits than can be derived from digital solutions. The railway approach most often simply digitises well understood analogue solutions. For example, the rail industry will often refer to the need for ‘vital communications’ to protect safety for the carriage of signalling data. However, in the digital world, communications are not vital as all communications use connectionless packets of data. Communications can be interrupted at any time. Therefore, safety is achieved by safe processes, not any given communications path used. The only common methodology between the two concepts is that systems need to ‘fail-safe’.

Using digital techniques, safety is actually managed by software, not infrastructure, so the software application needs to be ‘fail safe’. My company creates software solutions for Train Control systems. We develop and maintain the software systems for use in the John Holland Country Regional Network in NSW as well as providing 24 hour technical support. As a result our systems are proven in use and are regularly enhanced to meet the needs of John Holland Rail.

One of our most recent achievements is the delivery of Electronic Authorities functionality within the TMACS computer-based Train Orders System used across the John Holland Country Regional Network. An Electronic Authority is transmitted to the train as an encrypted digital message and is displayed on the train-fitted radio screen. Prior to this enhancement, a Movement Authority was issued by the Network Controller initiating a voice telephone call to the train driver and reading out the Electronic Authority contents for the driver to write down onto a form. However, voice-based authorities are time-consuming to issue and prone to human error. By digitising this process, we have increased safety and efficiency of both above and below rail operations without the need to fit any new equipment to a locomotive.

This project went live on June 25, 2015 and the uptake has been very high. Just last week (19/25 July) we had an average of 91% of Electronic Authorities for the week and we anticipate reaching closer to 100% in the near future. The response from John Holland Network Controllers and the train drivers to the implementation of Electronic Authorities has been very positive.

At the Telecommunications and Train Control Forum you will discuss interoperability of train control systems and new developments that have taken place in this space. Can you give us a little more insight into what attendees can look forward to in the presentation and why this is important?

A common topic discussed at conferences is how do we innovate, or how do we make rail technology systems better? Interoperability is one of the single easiest ways to reduce CAPEX costs and allow for the continual development of smarter software solutions while also lowering project risk. The rail industry is continually seeking innovation, but has a sorry history of large cost and schedule overruns in its technology projects. Of the many causes, I believe an important one is the industry’s inability to break complex projects up into smaller contestable projects where best-of-breed suppliers can thrive. At the moment, the industry usually uses the opposite model whereby by buying a common solution, harmonisation is actually used to conceptually reduce risk. However, the problem with harmonisation is that it stifles innovation, allows monopoly rents to be leveraged and limits competition to the suppliers of the harmonised systems – sometimes only one. Also, how are new features and competitive tension to be used to promote innovation when the total solution environment is harmonised?

I will be discussing this in more depth along with how big projects can be broken up if there is an interoperability model that allows competitive tension between its suppliers at all parts of a system’s life-cycle. At the moment, competition is effective only up to signing a big contract, but after that, competitive tension is lost because other suppliers can’t then generally compete or step-in for a part of the project or provide support. Interoperability is a huge challenge for the rail industry if it is to encourage innovation and improving competitiveness against other transport modes.

What do you see as the future of train control?

The future of train control is application software that integrates with the operation of a train, using interoperable techniques so that trains may travel from one control area to another seamlessly. This will only be possible if either all systems are harmonised to one solution, or all harmonised systems are interoperable. Since the first option is unlikely considering that the industry uses multiple open access rail networks, the best solution is to create interoperable software solutions – much like that of the current mobile phone market. We can all choose our mobile device of choice, but it doesn’t stop them from being able to talk to each other, and this is what we should be aiming for the future of the rail industry.

Interoperability allows complex systems to be broken up into smaller systems so that as components age or more competitive ideas come along, then less optimal components can be removed without the wider system being impacted. The future of train control is interoperable systems that maximise competitive tension between the rail technology suppliers.

Tell us a little more about your involvement in the NSW Country Regional Rail Network.

To our contract principal John Holland Rail, 4Tel provides the technology and technical support services for delivery of the train control and communications function for the NSW Country Regional Network. After JHR won the CRN Contract as awarded by the NSW Government in December 2010, 4Tel’s role was to initially design and fit-out the train control technology for the JHR NSW CRN network management centre under a 12 month Design & Construct contract, and now has a 10 year Operate & Maintain contract.

As a part of our responsibilities to JHR, we are working to improve the safety and cost-effectiveness of the train control function by using interoperability techniques between the deployed systems in above-rail operations, while minimising harmonisation to essential items only – such as radio modes.

What are you looking forward to about the Telecommunications and Train Control Forum?

My main interest is to promote understanding in the differences between interoperability and harmonisation across the rail industry. In my opinion, some matters do need to be harmonised, for example radio spectrum and radio modulations, but most matters do not. If the future of the rail industry is to be safer and more efficient then we cannot accept 10 year contracts locked into the same technology systems that can’t interoperate between other industry devices. Technology changes far too often for this to be the continued acceptable way in a modern rail industry. I enjoy being a part of these discussions as someone who sees the limitations in the current industry and look forward to hearing what my fellow speakers see as opportunities in this space.  

To hear more from Derel and our other outstanding speakers make sure to join us at the Telecommunications and Train Control Forum next month, 18-19 August at the InterContinental Hotel in Sydney.

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