Information on the line

Adam Smith reports

Chances are that the trains of tomorrow will be just as troublesome as those of today. But, if Racal-BRT has its way, the traveller should be better prepared to deal with them. Racal’s Transport Operations Rapid Update System (Torus), launched this month, forms the basis for a new generation of integrated transport information systems, aimed to benefit train operators and passengers.

Jerry Rhodes, business development manager, says Torus `will provide levels of information that far exceed the travelling public’s expectations’. He envisages a system offering up-to-the-minute information to people at home or work through the Internet, as well as on the station concourse.

Torus, he says, `addresses the need for train operators to improve customer services and operational efficiency’. It will make available a wide range of transport information using the British Rail telecommunications network recently leased to Racal by Railtrack, comprising 11,000km of trunk cable and extensive radio coverage via the National Radio Network.

With Torus, Racal-BRT sees itself as a system integrator, adopting a modular approach to cope with differing demands from train operating companies and the variety of equipment they use.

While some train operators may have a reasonable standard of equipment, and only require a low level of technical support, others are less well equipped, despite privatisation promises and regulatory pressure to improve customer services. Racal-BRT is offering anything up to a fully-integrated, network-wide information system managed from a single control centre.

This would include services such as the Transport Radio Asset Control Equipment (Trace) module, which uses Global Positioning System satellite technology to locate and track rolling stock.

The Torus system coordinates Trace, which has been on trial with ScotRail over the last 15 months, with existing data systems, such as the train reporting system Trust and the Train Services Database, to provide accurate scheduling data.

It uses an in-cab computer to collate information aboard the train. This information includes the positional data from Trace and data from other sources such as sensors monitoring the speed of the train, or the condition of components.

This is transmitted at regular intervals from an in-cab radio transmitter to the National Radio Network. Racal-BRT has upgraded this network since BR ownership, and now claims 95% track coverage.

Data is passed through Racal-BRT’s telecoms system to a network management centre, from where it can be used to update timetables and plan maintenance.

The advantage to passengers will vary between operating companies. General improvements will be made, through software upgrading or replacement of electromechanical display boards.

But the most obvious improvements will be made where the operator invests in a fully integrated system. In these cases, Racal-BRT expects to install new display systems at larger stations, including self-help information terminals, and telephone help-points at smaller ones. Information points on trains are a possibility.

For the train operating companies, the system’s main benefits lie in being able to monitor the condition of their trains, and to take action when a problem becomes apparent.

A common hazard, the hot axle box, can be serious but is more often found to be a false alarm, leading to unnecessary delays. With Torus, a controller can identify the problem early and arrange for a mechanic to meet the train at its next stop.

Torus is not specifically aimed at the rail sector, though: Racal-BRT says there are many possibilities for road hauliers and coach operators, among others. Opportunities include coordination of bus and train timetables to provide travellers with connection links, an option sure to find favour among coach and bus companies which have invested in the rail industry.

Also being incorporated is an option for freight tagging. Such a system could equip freight cars with programmable identifiers using short-range radio equipment to detail their cargo.

Each truck would identify itself to the train cab, either directly or through a chain system, to make up a manifest. This would then be accessible remotely through the Torus system, allowing freight hauliers to keep track of their cargo.

With Railtrack committed to investing £10bn in railway infrastructure over the next decade, and the train operating companies looking to fufil their privatisation promises, Racal-BRT is certainly looking to benefit. David Poole, managing director, admits that `the injection of private capital and commercial drive in the railways is a great opportunity for Racal’.

Racal is putting much faith in the rail industry. As well as a new national 1,500km optical fibre network, installed as part of a £40m investment plan to upgrade the BRT system, it is aiming the resources of its in-house R&D department at the transport sector.

Racal-BRT, says Poole, is `set to play a significant role in technological solutions to attract passengers and freight back to the rail sector’.