AusRAIL, Signalling & Communications

More than the sum of its parts: Thales’s end-to-end metro solution


The integrated metro offering from Thales takes a whole of system approach to rail.

It’s said that the human body is the most complex system in nature. Its effective functioning requires the effective interconnection of many separate systems, including organs, the nervous system, and the skeleton.

Today, as urban rail systems become more complex, director of programmes, ground transportation systems at Thales, Luca Nucci says they are more closely resembling the interconnected human body.

“The components of the Metro system are subcomponents and subsystems that have to work in a similar, integrated manner to provide the final result, just like the human organs in the body. The organs are synchronised; each one has its own function, but they are seen as a whole.”

Approaching the delivery of a metro system, or any rail system for that matter, in this integrated way means that each element of the system performs more efficiently, just as a human arm is more useful than a mechanical hoist, due to its interconnection to various other systems. Instead of thinking of a metro or urban rail network as an agglomeration of systems, there are greater benefits when understanding the metro as an interconnected whole, said Julien Terrochaire, global solution engineering manager at Thales. The convergence of a number of technologies to more ‘ethernet’ based solution moves the know- how from the detail of the technology to the integration of those technologies. The technical challenge is no longer how do the cables, plugs, communications connect together at a low level, but rather how do the solutions fulfil the business rules of the customer and deliver the expected outcomes. Therefore, the challenges become more about speed and managing risk and safety/security, rather than detailed technical issues.

“If we have isolated systems, the challenge is how to understand, harmonise, and then analyse the data to make a decision. The data needs to be transformed. In contrast, if the system is harmonised it’s easier to analyse the data and use this to inform decisions.”

The customer and the public are looking to extend the normal functions of the system from simply moving passengers from point A to point B, to moving them in the most efficient way, with the right information and the right connections, while providing a safe, comfortable and secure environment. It’s all about providing good customer experience to commuters.

Thales is delivering on this promise of an interconnected rail system with its end-to-end solutions. Thales is able to bring together these functions from operators around the globe into a cohesive solution while each sub system of the overall solution has a dedicated product line manager who is responsible for managing the associated roadmap and incorporating new developments into the system including responding to changing requirements.

Specifically for metro, Thales’ solution ties together Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) signalling technology with integrated supervision and control systems, as well as predictive maintenance, security systems, and advanced analytics and decision-making tools. As Terrochaire describes, the system is built by Thales from the ground up.

“The advantage of Thales is we provide the field equipment itself, meaning everything from the signals, to the switches, all the computers on board the train and the platform, the human machine interface that display in real time the status of all of this equipment and also all the status of the trains.” These solutions are further integrated with COTS products and also draw upon “the secure by design” characteristics of Thales’ cyber solutions.

Nucci concurs, highlighting the advantages of having a system that is designed to work together.

“We are one of the few companies that are able to deploy our own platforms. We integrate solutions, but we also make the system from the basics. The software is deployed by Thales and we have specific platforms that interoperate with each other. Consequently, the result is not shopping list of various products, suppliers, and architectures that are blended together to form a system spread across different platforms, including signalling, trackside equipment, communications. In Thales’ approach, the platforms and software work together and are developed as a total system. Each product which is used is fully validated and integrated as part of our product line policy before being deployed on a project. This is the element which enables us to move quickly and minimise the risk for our customers.

Having manufactured the system from its component parts, Thales has designed its metro systems to be interoperable with each other from the beginning. As Terrochaire points out, this speeds up implementation and the delivery of the integrated system.

“The time to deploy and to commission this kind of system is reduced because we are able to conduct testing in our premises and factory and this is not repeated on site. So, when we arrive on site the solution is already integrated.”

Testing not only for functionality but also reliability can be conducted prior to commissioning, enabling the more advanced systems to be rolled out from day one.

These kinds of advanced systems that come about through the interconnection of the various subcomponents can be seen by both passengers and operators. For passengers, real time information displays can be calibrated with signalling and supervision and control functions to deliver updates in real time.

From the operator’s perspective, notes Nucci, simplified human-machine interfaces can bring together various sources of information in the one stream.

From their console, the operator can supervise the entire status of the line in an integrated software platform. This includes collecting all inputs from the various systems, overseeing the functionalities and sending commands – although any commands would only be executed if the predetermined safety rules in the system considered it safe to do so in that particular moment. The systems are fully integrated and perform in coordination with each other. For example, when it comes to the safety of the passengers, the operator can impart single commands that reach multiple systems in parallel: a passenger call for emergency would trigger phones, help points, cameras and even the rolling stock in some circumstances.

With the system in operation, the connected collection of data can enable the deployment of predictive maintenance, reducing downtime or service interruptions.

“In this way collecting data, having every single system, from the elevator to the lights in the room under control, we can have statistics and plan preventive and corrective maintenance at the appropriate time with a reduced cost for the operator,” said Nucci. “Having an integrated, reliable system makes it easy to predict future faults Not only is maintenance about fixing faults, but also ensuring the system is operating with the latest technology. By working with one provider, upgrades can be installed that utilise the various components of the system, without having to rewire. By leveraging the existing product/solution roadmaps we can ‘refresh’ the technology over time to improve availability, add functions and improve features. These additional benefits can come without the hassle of changing equipment. Gone are the days where equipment is installed and then upgraded at 15 years or 20 years, customers want the latest and greatest and this can be delivered as part of an ongoing support activity. We should be talking about ‘technology refresh’ and no longer about midlife overhaul.

“The platform is designed for future expandability and to enhance the features. For example, cameras at the beginning may have standard features like CCTV, however with future software releases and minor changes to peripherals’ hardware can provide enhanced functionalities like facial recognition, information about passenger density areas, conduct body temperature checks, without the need to replace the technology infrastructure because the system has been designed to be expandable and receive updates with the most state of art technology,” said Nucci.

The end-to-end solution is already in place on metros such as those in Doha, Dubai, and Santiago, which have leveraged the CBTC technology to improve operations. The integration of signalling systems, station infrastructure such as platform screen doors, and passenger movement tracking and announcements enable a secure and dynamic network. For example, in response to crowding on platforms, automatic announcements can be generated to disperse passengers, and analytics can be used to improve scheduling of services. In Dubai, these systems not only communicate with the rail operator, but security services as well, creating additional value for metropolitan authorities. Thales already has solutions in place to address the challenges of COVID-19 such as limiting and coordinating the number of passengers in a station/platform/vehicle.

The key point is that the functions required to be implemented have moved more from the individual systems, to the functions performed across systems. The functions are changing faster than ever before and the means to be able integrate, validate and qualify is far easier. But with this comes a different risk which needs to be managed, which is cyber security.

Underpinning these interconnected technologies is a cyber secure by design approach to each of the system components.

“When we say integrated it doesn’t mean that it’s an open book,” said Terrochaire. “In the display, we can have the display of the brake of the train, but that doesn’t mean that from this display the operator can modify the status of the train.”

As Nucci explains, the commands available are limited by design.

“Wherever we give the interface to the operator to display and see all the data, the commands are limited to the ones that are safe to be operated. The system rejects any command that is not safe for the operation.”

One benefit to cyber security threat prevention from having an integrated, end-to-end solution is also the possibility of introducing patches across the system. In other system architectures, digital components that are not as frequently updated can introduce vulnerabilities into an overall network, however Thales can ensure that the components are constantly receiving the latest upgrades to maintain safety.

“Any transport line can be the most updated one even if it’s 15 or 20 years old because it can be updated planning a continuous enhancement of the functionalities along the years, with massive advantages in terms of cost compared to the cost of refurbishing the entire line or technology system” said Nucci.

This process also avoids expensive overhauls at the end of a system’s life.

On a more functional level, just as the first commissioned components can have their interoperability tested, future system upgrades can be introduced without compromising interoperability.

“In Thales we have what’s called a ‘product policy’ which means that all of these components are isolated and also integrated to each other,” explained Terrochaire. “Depending on the customer needs, Thales’ innovation and R&D centres provide new and existing customers with upgraded solutions that are certified and validated as integrated systems prior to their deployment.”

In this way, just as a body needs a health check up every now and then, so too an integrated rail system will benefit from regular attention.