Signalling & Communications

Building the light rail system of the future

Thales light rail

What might a light rail system in 2030 look like?

It’s the year 2025. A medium-sized city is grappling with issues of congestion and decreasing liveability, due to car-centric urban planning and limited use of public transport. While a bus network serves the city, it is underused, with low frequency failing to entice the public out of their cars. The city does have a stop on the regional rail network, but without turn-up-and-go feeder connections, most residents drive to nearby regional destinations, or fly to larger cities further afield.

But, things are starting to change. A new city administration is listening to the concerns of residents who complain about being held-up in traffic, even for short journeys, and would like to spend more time outside, taking advantage of the temperate climate, instead of being stuck in their cars. In addition, as the city is surrounded by protected bushland, there is limited space for the growing city to expand with single occupancy dwellings, and planners are suggesting that downtown areas could be densified.

To solve these issues, the city’s leaders commission a business case for alternative transport solutions. The consultants come back with a report that notes that even with more bus services via a rapid- transit corridor, experience has shown that residents are unlikely to switch from their established patterns.

The final suggestion is for a new light rail network. The solution is the right compromise between the other possible choices and it has has the potential to revitalise the city’s historic centre, provide a reliable and frequent service between key centres, and enable denser living along the corridor.

With public support, the city government embarks on the project, and turns to a trusted partner with expertise in delivering light rail projects in cities nearby and around the globe. According to Andrea Bastianelli, LRT & Tramway product line manager for Thales,

this hypothetical city has already done a few things right when it comes to successfully implementing a light rail system.

“The first thing the authorities will need to do is to understand the real needs of a city, through investigation, analysis, and consulting with the community. This includes projecting the number of passengers carried, the frequency of the services, and the impacts on the private transportation system. These will change depending on where this new tramway is located; in the urban area, downtown, or a greenfield site,” he said.

In this case, the city has decided upon a hybrid route, one that uses a former rail corridor between existing suburbs, travels along a new right-of-way through an urban revitalisation area, and then on the street shared with vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians in the city centre. These interfaces are mapped, and the densification potential around stations is also studied, to give an idea of potential patronage for when the line opens, and in five and then ten years of operations. The city administration sets a goal for total ridership and the percentage mode share by public transport within five years of opening.

Glenn Maker, sales director ground transportation solutions at Thales, highlights how critical these steps are in ensuring the system’s future success. “It’s important that there be some careful analysis done of what the customer is looking for in terms of the performance characteristics of the system. In other words, having some clear objectives as to what the city or the transport authority is trying to achieve. All those things are fundamentally important for the future success of the light rail system.”

With the planning now done, the time comes for the design of the system itself.

For the civil construction works, the city is looking to maximise the opportunities for local contractors to get involved, however with limited technical experience of rail in the local region, the city turns to its trusted partner for the design of the light rail systems. The city decides that investing now in a sophisticated technological package will future-proof the transport network for decades to come.

“While the technological elements are small compared to the civil works, if you put the right attention to the technological package you will have a good benefit in terms of operational performance,” said Bastianelli. “It’s a small package compared to the other ones, but it can have a big impact at the end, so it is quite important.”

The chosen systems integrator must also bring together the fixed infrastructure with the rollingstock and customer-facing platforms.

“The technological package essentially leads the integration of all the other elements,” said Maker.“Even though it’s a small part of the total cost of the light rail network, it’s extremely important in terms of how it all knits together, and it has a really important impact on the future operation of the system.”

The city’s existing transport interfaces are still moving towards full digitalisation, however a lack of standardisation is still present between each mode. Now, the city’s bus operations are run separately from the smart traffic monitoring platform, and operational data for the regional train network is held by another authority. For its new light rail system, the city adopts a different approach, particularly as a cyber-attack crippled the city’s parking meters and took customer information in the past year.

“Within the technological package there are many subsystems, if there is a security issue with one this can impact upon operations,” said Bastianelli. “The security of the system requires continuous management for the entire lifecycle of the network, starting from the design.”

Maker highlights that starting with an understanding of what the cyber threats are at an early stage means that security is imbued into the final design.

“We design all of our systems from the ground up to be cyber secure, but ultimately monitoring of systems and displaying constant vigilance against what can occur is extremely important, so knowing what the threats are and how your system might be vulnerable is critical.”

The next step for this city is preparing for the operation of the network. Already, the city’s downtown is heavily congested in peak hours, and even if the light rail hits its passenger targets, interactions with traffic will be an issue as drivers are unfamiliar with the technology.

“One of the things that sets a light rail solution apart from anything else, particularly metro or heavy rail, is the interaction between the light rail network and the road traffic network,” said Maker. “Finding the right balance between those things is a challenge.”

Working with its systems and technology partner, the city decides upon an overlay solution that will collect data from the future tramway, as well as the existing data capture systems from the bus network and traffic monitoring platforms.

As Bastianelli describes, the city chose a solution like Thales’s data-centric Operational Control Centre (OCC).

“We standardise the interaction between the systems. We are able to build an added layer on top of the existing solutions, where you can offer additional information to the final user. This can be used to coordinate the public transportation model in terms of real time supervision or optimise journey times,” said Bastianelli. “This is possible using the standard information in real time from the feed and can be used in building day of operations plans according to the actual needs of the customers. In this way you can guide the passengers to different transportation modes, passing from the bus, to the underground, to the mainline.”

Multimodality will be key for future transport networks.

It is now 2030. This city’s light rail line has just opened, and early indications are that the system will exceed its projected patronage figures. In addition to the rail infrastructure, the deployment of light rail was also a catalyst for the city to fully deploy a 5G network. While already present in certain locations, the city took the opportunity of a major infrastructure project such as light rail to provide a new level of connectivity across the city.

The 5G technology is also a core part of light rail operations. Designed from the start as a “smart” system, the new, 6G-enabled light rail network, enables instantaneous and continuous communication between the vehicle, operational control, and passengers, as well as the wider city.

“All the technology in the city is using the same communications standard and each device is a new sensor,” said Bastianelli. “I’m thinking of the crossing light talking to traffic light control for example, and the communication between those systems and the light rail vehicle. The vehicle itself will become a new sensor and provide information on speed, position, and broader data on the city congestion. Inside the tram, there are thousands of sensors that can increase this information. Above that, is a common framework that is able to integrate all of that data to create additional value than what was possible in a siloed approach.”

In 2035, the city has an integrated transportation network that provides commuters with a seamless experience from before the moment they open their front door to when they arrive at their destination. Real time updates are fed to users’ smart devices to give them an up to date arrival time for their autonomous feeder vehicle, which takes them to the closest light rail stop. From there, passengers are indicated to enter the tram where there is the most space to spread out and find a seat. A micro-mobility service is on-hand for travellers with accessibility needs to convey them between their tram stop and final destination.

“All the information is linked to the control centre and integrated in the city’s ecosystem because we will use all the same technology,” said Bastianelli. “Previously, this was not the case in the past. In the past there was many technologies available for the same system and, in the future, there will be greater harmonisation of the technology. 5G is the classic example of that, incorporating voice and data all over the one technology standard.”

In this city, while the tram is able to operate autonomously, a staff member is kept on board to operate the vehicle in the case of emergencies. Using real-time video feeds that are sent via the 6G network to the OCC, an obstacle detection system ensures that potential hazards are seen, the operator is warned, and an accident is avoided. Overall system reliability is enhanced through on- board sensors which warn of any potential faults on the vehicle and tracks.

“In the past, you would send people out to do regular checks of the track or particular assets just in case there was some failure that might occur,” said Maker. “Now you don’t need to do that, you have a whole lot of sensors that continually feed information back into the control centre, and you only need to send people out when an asset is about to fail or if its performance degrades over time and it’s showing that it might be heading towards a failure.”

The city is sports mad and luckily the light rail network is ready in time for the city’s hosting of the final of the local football league. With the grand final heading to extra time and then penalty shoot-outs, the stadium communicates real-time capacity levels to the transportation system, ensuring that enough light rail vehicles are operating in time for when fans exit the arena.

“This Internet of Things (IoT) landscape gives us so much more information that we can feed into how the light rail system is planned, how the operations are planned, and how the operations might need to change on any given day to respond to changes in ridership,” said Maker.

After a year of operations, customers have taken the light rail system to heart. The network is now a part of the city’s identity, with vehicles even turning up on souvenir tea-towels alongside the city’s iconic museum. Ridership is now increasing on the often-maligned regional service, and there are rumblings in favour of a high-speed rail link to the region’s capital.

In the only major incident that occurred during operations, real- time CCTV feeds and facial detection software were able to alert supervisors to prevent any serious harm occurring, and the automated response system told incoming passengers to divert to another stop via alerts sent directly to their phones.

With all this in mind, and thinking about the possible future light rail systems, Bastianelli highlights that this might not be so far away.

“Thales offers a fully integrated, turnkey solution for the final customer. The idea is that you use a common frame based on as much as possible standard and open data to share information and we cover all the subsystems in order to take benefits in the data exchanged between each subsystem. This can be used for predictive maintenance, it can be used for identification of cyber security threats, or it can be used for typical passenger information and announcement systems,” he said.

“Already today, we offer this kind of full integration and there will be much more in the future.”