Warwick Talbot, acting executive director, future network delivery at Sydney Trains explains how Sydney Trains is rolling out its Digital Systems Program and the key principles driving the project.
As a 40-year plan for NSW’s future, no one could accuse the Future Transport 2056 plan of not being ambitious. As part of a suite of plans, the strategy sets out the vision for how the people of greater Sydney and NSW will get around in the mid 21st century. At the core is the Sydney network, which will be the veins pumping people through the metropolis of three connected cities.
Riding the trains, metros, and light rail services of Sydney in 2056 will be forecasted 12 million residents of NSW, and the roughly 8 million Sydneysiders will be making greater use of the heavy rail network than they do now, with fewer trips made by private car. By 2056, the transport network will need to handle 28 million trips a day. In outlining his vision for the state, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance wrote that a key element of the plan is its use of technology.
“It is the first transport plan in Australia to harness technology to improve customer and network outcomes, and it starts with a long-term vision for our communities,” wrote Constance.
Already, the technological building blocks of this new network are being put in place, and while 2056 may seem far away, Sydney Trains has begun implementing the first stages of the Digital Systems Program to enable the city’s over 150 year old train network to meet the demands of the city as it continues to grow. The focus of the Digital Systems project is to enable this existing network to meet future demand, described Warwick Talbot, acting executive director, Future Network Delivery at Sydney Trains.
“The key driver is the demand that we forecast on our network and we need to increase capacity.”
Talbot noted that two key components of the network currently limit capacity; the signalling system and train dwell times.
Announced in 2018, the Digital Systems Program links these two components of the network together, along with a host of other improvements that come from moving from an analogue to digital train control system. The system will upgrade the Sydney Trains suburban network to European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2, and the regional network to ETCS Level 1. These measures will enable more trains to run more frequently throughout the Sydney network.
“When you digitise and go to a digital signalling system you then allow yourself to be able to regulate trains, so you can speed them up or slow them down as the demand changes throughout the course of the day,” said Talbot.
The Digital Systems Program has three main elements. The first involves the replacement of trackside signalling equipment with in-cab train control technology. The second is implementing Automatic Train Operation (ATO), which enables faster and more consistent journey times. The third is a digital Traffic Management System for the entire network that can more effectively manage the network.
The ETCS technology is the digital signalling element of the project. Moving from the traditional coloured light signalling system will enable trains to move through the network at more frequent intervals. However, more frequent train services mean that each train must spend less time on the platform.
“If you get a higher throughput of trains, you then need to manage your dwell times at the stations,” said Talbot. “Particularly at the busy ones, you have to look at how to get people on and off the train quickly to shorten the time that the train is actually stationary on the platform.”
With three minutes in-between trains, dwell times will have to be reduced to less than a minute at busy points in the network. Here, the digital systems encounter the human element of rail services, said Talbot.
“There’s a number of different ways that we’ve been exploring the management of dwell time, by having additional people on the platform guiding the customers in the right places to allow people to get on and off faster, announcements, wayfinding, barriers to allow people to depart the platform easily, blocking off platforms when they get overcrowded to allow people to get off the platform. We’re experimenting with all forms to try and optimise our ability to manage dwell at busy stations.”
Another factor driving the adoption of digital systems at Sydney Trains is the impetus to make the system safer. Digitalising elements of train control, signalling, and traffic management will allow for the system to respond faster to incidents, and remove some risks of human error.
“The second key driver for the project is the ability to make the system safer,” said Talbot. “We can have a regulatory system whereby if for any reason a driver is incapacitated or cannot control the train then the train is automatically controlled. That provides a high level of safety for the driver and the passenger as it avoids a collision.”
While implementing a safe, efficient system is the priority, the adoption of digital systems is part of the wider technology-driven modernisation of the Sydney transport network and implementing a digital train control system is one step in that direction.
“Getting us to a digital railway allows us to then start to automate a lot of our previously manual functions,” said Talbot.
While Sydney Trains will not be going the way of Sydney Metro by having a fully driverless, centrally controlled system, the Digital Systems project can become an enabler for a wider variety of digital technologies.
THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE DIGITAL SYSTEMS PROGRAM
In adopting the Digital Systems strategy, Sydney Trains has taken a staged approach. With procurement now underway, the project began by consulting widely and learning from other projects around the world that have adopted digital train control systems.
Although the organisation has significant expertise in traditional signalling and train control, Sydney Trains knew that adopting a digital approach to train control would require significant outside knowledge.
“We acknowledged some time ago that we are not experts in this new digital railway and so we went and sought a great lot of expertise from railways that are already deploying or are in the process of deploying ETCS and we learnt a lot about the fact that we needed to take baby steps,” said Talbot.
This learning was applied in Sydney by undertaking a limited roll out. The first segments to have the technology rolled out will be two sections of the Illawarra line, one from Redfern to Bondi Junction, and another from Sutherland to Cronulla. The ETCS technology for each segment will be provided by a separate provider, for a particular reason, said Talbot.
“We looked at the roll out across the whole network and we wanted to try and reduce the time of that so therefore you needed more than one supplier, so if you’re looking at simplicity to gain the knowledge for implementation with two different suppliers then you need to find two discrete areas which they could try.”
There is also a commercial benefit for Sydney Trains by having two suppliers for the ETCS technology, however there will be only one supplier of the traffic management system.
“It gives you the commercial ability to ensure that you get the quality and timely delivery of project because you’ve got competition in there. We chose those two areas because we could make it discrete and we could get two suppliers in there to do the implementation of the ETCS system,” said Talbot.
By having two separate sections of the same line as test sites, the system can also simulate a staggered roll-out of the technology across the wider network.
“As we roll out you’ll always be going from a fitted area to a non-fitted area and vice-versa, so we needed that non fitted area partially because we needed to test our movement of how drivers behave between fitted and non- fitted areas without going into the middle of the city to do that,” said Talbot.
The tiered approach was also driven by the realities of ETCS implementation around the world. As the system is being adopted by multiple train systems at once, this places restrictions on what is possible at one time.
“While there might be eight companies around the world that supply and deliver these systems, they are being installed all over the world. In Europe it’s going gangbusters in installing, New Zealand, Africa, and the UK, around the world it’s being implemented and therefore you have to mindful there’s a limitation on skilled competent resources.”
PRINCIPLES OF THE PROJECT
With this local and global contexts, Sydney Trains established a number of principles to drive the Digital Systems Program. One is ‘configure, not customise’.
“Everybody has learnt that overseas and once a system becomes specific, you’re then beholden and it’s a lot more costly to change in the future as technology and knowledge changes.”
The next principle was to ensure that the benefits of the system are apparent to customers as soon as possible. Instead of waiting to do one full and comprehensive roll out, segments of the project will come online earlier, enabling benefits to be felt earlier. This principle also drove the implementation of the traffic management system.
“We feel that our existing control system is not fully adaptable as a traffic management system in managing all facets of a railway, such as crewing, PA, communications, signalling, you name it, so having a traffic management system means you can handle incidents and do decision support functions to try and get back into operations from an incident as quickly as possible,” said Talbot.
Finally, from the perspective of Sydney Trains internally, the implementation of digital systems was as much a change to the business as a change to the technology, as Talbot highlighted.
“Because your business is run on the basis of a manual task business with humans carrying out the functions, now you’re moving to a more automated function, and therefore your business needs to throw out its whole rules and start with a new set of rules to be able to manage incidents, operations and maintenance.
“Everybody that we talked to overseas said ‘Pay as much attention to your change to your business as you would do to the implementation of the technologies’. So, we came to this model where to get things to be in harmony you need to make sure you have equal focus on people, technology, and processes.”
WAYS OF WORKING
Such an understanding of the way that the Digital Systems Program would upend the nature of the Sydney Trains organisation led to Talbot coming to a realisation.
“We’re not changing the technology to suit the business; we’re changing the business to suit the technology.”
This meant that Sydney Trains went through an extensive identification and impact assessment of the Digital Systems Program on current programs, from asset maintenance to the skills and competencies of staff. During the adoption phase, which could take up to 10 years, analogue and digital systems will have to operate side by side. This means that the systems and processes that come with digital technology will have to be in sync with current processes.
The work to conduct this change within Sydney Trains has been implemented collaboratively, with Sydney Trains and its implementation partners, including systems integrator Network Rail Consulting and partner organisations Acmena, The Go-Ahead Group, and Ineco. Talbot describes the resulting project team as an “integrated team environment”.
“It’s easier to get around to talk to people and also the working groups are easier to form when we need to have discussions on various topics and on top of that our governance structure that we’ve chosen is collaborative.”
Currently, the team are working towards finalising the procurement phase with the technology suppliers for the first two segments of the roll out.
“We went through a whole range of early contractor involvement and a collaborative tendering process with the shortlisted suppliers and now we’re towards the end of that,” said Talbot. “Final negotiations and contracts will be awarded shortly and then we’ll move into what we’re calling the integrated program design period (IPDP).”
Having the project team and suppliers working together aims to minimise detailed design reworking that needs to be done.
Once the suppliers are chosen, implementation of the system with the first deployments of in-cab signalling and a network-wide traffic management system is scheduled to complete in 2023.