Melbourne was the centre of rail engineering last week as more than 400 registered delegates from around the world descended upon the Institution of Railway Safety Engineers’ (IRSE) flagship global international technical conference, ASPECT 2023.
Held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre with the theme of global integration, the event drew a range of IRSE attendees with diverse experience and skills, including venerable experts and brand new graduates, specialists and generalists, representatives from rail operators, technology suppliers, government agencies, regulators and academic institutions, who spoke, listened, made new connections, renewed old friendships and shared knowledge.
The packed auditoriums and high quality of papers and presentations reflected the global focus on railway signalling and rail systems and their importance in ensuring that trains can be run.
The technical program kicked off with opening remarks from the IRSE President Steve Boshier, who spoke about the shift from a UK-based institution to a truly global organisation supporting the professional development of if members worldwide.
The keynote presentations came from Kevin Devlin, the Director-General of Victoria’s Major Transport Infrastructure Authority, who spoke on opportunities and challenges for signalling delivery in Victoria; Robert Baird, IRSE Australasia Vice-President, who provided a fly-through of the local signalling context; and Rod Muttram from the IRSE International Technical Committee, who gave a Presidential Lecture on the effective, safe and ethical use of artificial intelligence.
Among the delegates was V/Line engineering manager Alexandra McGrath, who said conference highlights included:
- Two full days of site visits, including to the Metro Tunnel, V/Line and MTM train control centres, and a corridor tour of Pakenham Line CBTC and Level Crossing Removal Project (LXRP) sites
- 52 papers over three days, with two concurrent streams
- A trade show with 25 industry exhibitors
- Social events including the welcome reception on the Polly Woodside tall ship, the conference dinner in the majestic State Library, and the closing social event on the Puffing Billy tourist and heritage railway
- 15 Younger Member bursary winners were sponsored by IRSE to travel to Australia, with some of them presenting papers at the conference – for some, this was their first trip overseas, and for all, it was transformative. Another 10 younger members from the IRSE Australasian section were also awarded bursaries to attend.
Artificial Intelligence and automation
“Keynotes and papers focused on emerging technology opportunities such as artificial intelligence, automation and telecommunications, and how to bring these into the rail domain,” McGrath said.
“Topics included machine learning and video object recognition, cloud computing, use of robot track workers, and many different applications of sensor technology and data analytics to streamline delivery, optimise asset management and get the best value out of the rail network.
“Almost every session mentioned the changing cyber landscape, with cyber risk being front of mind for all rail technologists – with Alexander Patton (Japan), John Boss (Netherlands) and Henry Cheung (Hong Kong) each sharing some powerful techniques to understand and develop cyber maturity.”
Cultivating the next generation
It was not all unbridled enthusiasm for new technology: the human contribution was an important theme too.
Peter Woodbridge, Krishnan G Venkateswaran and Felix Schmid (all UK) spoke of the need for the generalist railway signalling engineer with deep and broad knowledge who can see the railway as a whole, understands how the systems that make up the railway interact with each other, including over time, and can advise on targeted changes that can optimise operations.
“There was ongoing discussion about developing this kind of rail professional, recognising that the old routes to this expertise via apprenticeship, rotation and breadth of education are not as obvious to today’s emerging professionals in an increasingly globalised, proceduralised and siloed rail industry,” McGrath said.
Communication and community
Several interesting papers addressed how the signalling industry can better engage outside engineering: Alessandra Scholl-Sternberg (Netherlands) spoke about accessibility and mobility as a service (MAAS) to support inclusion; Dr Amanda C Elliott (UK) ran a master class on tabletop testing techniques to de risk commissioning; and Keith Upton urged engagement with young people via STEM education in schools.
Dr Ben Guy (Australia) demonstrated a physics-based full-context 3D CGI model to support engineers in design, with use cases of developing the railway’s operational concept, cross-disciplinary engineering review, driver training and signal sighting, overall yielding risk reduction, design efficiencies and smarter, faster delivery.
Strategic early involvement
McGrath said a hot topic was the need to get the signalling and operational systems strategy in place before the projects kicked off, and ‘shift left’ to move the design of these systems earlier into project delivery.
These operationally and safety critical digital systems are a rounding error on a megaproject delivery budget, but if neglected, operational outcomes of the railway can be compromised.
“David Ness (Australia) shared the learnings from taking a long-term portfolio view of signalling, Bill Palazzi (Australia) explored how to shape an investment case, and I gave a rapid-fire run down of digital system contract management which including a cheat sheet for choosing the right contract for the system,” McGrath said.
Younger members took a key role in shaping the conference, with site visits, practical activities and training sessions that were crafted by and targeted to new engineers.
The Dingoes Den competition was a highlight of the program, and was both entertaining and hard hitting. Three innovators had the opportunity to present their innovation pitch to the panel of “dingoes”, being senior industry experts, who then interrogated, critiqued, and occasionally helped the presenter out.
The winner received professional development sponsorship of $1000 with a clean and straightforward application of machine learning and object recognition which would automatically link drawing references and help engineers navigate the complicated chains of legacy paper drawings that are the bane of most rail operators.
Out of puff
The conference was concluded at the Puffing Billy Railway Lakeside Visitor’s Centre, with the formal handover by Boshier of a specially engraved token to the incoming IRSE President and Chair of the 2024 Toronto Convention, Jane Power.
“Overall, the conference was a huge success with attendees walking away from it with new ideas and broader understanding of emerging technologies and historical practices, maintaining safe and efficient rail operations while leveraging innovation and digitalisation, and reignited human connections which bring together the railway signalling tribe around the globe,” Boshier said.