Digitalisation, Railway Crossings, Industry Safety

Big step for digitalisation

Step Global is making a foray into the rail sector due to its technology being a perfect fit for the industry.

Step Global provides digital solutions to Australian transport organisations including emergency services in Australia and has identified an opportunity to transition into the rail sector.

David Lloyd is the Managing Director at Step Global. Rail Express spoke with him to better understand how the organisation’s technology can work with the rail industry. 

“For us, the rail sector made a lot of sense,” Lloyd said.

“It is simply a matter of using our experience in the areas we have worked in and bringing it to the rail industry.”

Level crossings remain front of mind for the rail industry, whether it be the level crossing removal projects or the Regional Level Crossing Upgrade Fund (RLCUF). Up to $40 million is available each year from 2023 to 2027 to make railway crossings safer in regional areas. This is where Lloyd believes Step Global’s technology can shine.

“When you are driving in regional areas, often when you approach a level crossing, the only indication the crossing is in use is some flashing lights and a bell ringing, which you cannot hear if you have the radio on,” Lloyd said.

“It comes down to getting the attention of the drivers in the vehicles and doing so in a low-cost way.

“We have a system that can be installed inside the vehicle, which will automatically connect to the device located near the level crossing and make an audible warning noise inside the cab.

This type of technology is something regularly installed by the Step Global team, with Lloyd believing that it could help lower the instances of fatalities on the rail network.

Level crossing connectivity

It is no secret that for Australia’s rail network, the sheer size of the country poses numerous challenges when it comes to connectivity.

“The idea of sending data digitally was always perceived as expensive,” Lloyd said.

“This was due to them trying to transmit too much data over that link. This was why much of the rail sector turned to copper wire to transmit data back to a central control centre.”

Lloyd said the solution lies in enhancing trackside computing. Using a smart cellular router to compress the data would reduce the transfer required. 

A small antenna would be capable of achieving this transfer while being better protected against vandalism and the elements compared to long runs of copper wire.

The Digi IX30 router offered by Step Global meets the requirements of such a solution. The IX30 is an intelligent 4G LTE router designed for optimal performance and reliability across a range of infrastructure and industrial applications.

This solution is integrated with software and security, providing a secure, reliable connection to industrial controllers, process automation equipment and smart grid assets on third-party sites or remote locations.

Public transport connectivity

Rail applications, such as railway network timing, railway signalling systems, track-to-track radio systems, station clocks, passenger information systems, ticketing systems, and CCTV, all require synchronised precise and accurate time. Step Global provides a range of time servers, smart GNSS antennas, and GNSS disciplined clocks.

Many advanced rail networks now use time as the safety separator between passenger trains travelling on the same track. This enables more trains per track and provides precise speed control when there are delays. Obtaining precise location, speed, and time stamps, provides a chronological audit trail that may be vital for safety information records and incident identification. 

Track-to-train communications also benefit from precise time, message transmission and reception, which must be precisely synchronised or there can be loss of, or scrambled, messages. 

Station clocks and passenger information systems need to be synchronised across the network, giving travellers correct times for departure and arrival. Station management systems also require accurate time, CCTV, computer networks, automated announcements, automated ticketing systems, and security systems.

“The old techniques of running train systems just simply do not work anymore. We need technology to better support rail infrastructure like ticketing, messaging and navigation,” Lloyd said.

The challenge that faces rolling out this technology is the use of multiple levels of
Wi-Fi, 2.4, 5.8 and now six. 

“The technology provided by Digi is designed to meet the needs of all users,” Lloyd said. 

Ideal for challenging rail transportation environments, the Digi TX64 5G router offers 5G/4G/3G cellular connectivity with true enterprise-class routing, security, firewall and integrated VPN. It offers a flexible interface design with an integrated Wi-Fi 6 access points, USB, serial, inertial-guided GNSS, Bluetooth and 4-port Gigabit Ethernet switch, available in a variety of configuration options.

“It can work with handheld devices operating at 2.4 and work up to higher level systems required on train systems.” 

Lloyd believes 5G is a game-changer for the rail industry. Until now, the speeds needed to securely move massive amounts of data quickly were reserved for wired networks. Today, with the rapid expansion of 5G (with LTE fallback), the rail-certified TX64 delivers 5G performance, either as a primary or failover connection.

A GNSS system for tunnels 

A subterranean GNSS (global navigation satellite system) that regenerates satellite signals in real time, and is used to locate and track vehicles in road tunnels in Australia, is another solution provided by Step Global.

One advantage of such a system is that any standard consumer GPS receiver, a smartphone using Google Maps, or a dedicated tracking device, will be able to function as normal even though the receiver is underground.

Developed by Step Global, NoSky SatNav provides a regenerated signal that a receiver in a vehicle recognises as an actual satellite signal as if it had an open sky view.

The re-generated signals take into account the locations within the tunnel, achieved by using a series of radiating antennas in the tunnel ceiling. The signal from each of these antennas is relative to the precise position of each antenna.

The vehicle GNSS receiver will then calculate its position within the tunnel to the position of the radiating antenna. This system is a promising technique to keep the rail network connected, particularly as tunnel projects continue to be rolled out.

Keeping trains moving

After the Optus outage shut down much of Melbourne’s trains last year, there was a fear that over digitalisation might leave the network susceptible to outages. Lloyd said Step Global ensures outages are not possible on its systems.

“When the outage happened, trains using the Optus network became unable to communicate, causing stoppages and massive delays.”

“Had a failover system, using dual carriers, been in place, they could have quickly transitioned to a backup network with a different carrier, preventing stoppages all together.” 

Implemented correctly, digitalisation is a tool that can minimise risk and eliminate single points of failure. The Optus outage simply demonstrated the dangers of not having redundancy systems such as failover in place.