Q&A: Thales contributing to light rail revival

In this exclusive interview, Andrea Bastianelli and Massimo Poli discuss the innovative, digital solutions Thales is bringing to light rail transit, including the future Parramatta Light Rail project.

Andrea Bastianelli, is Thales’s product line manager for Light Rail Transit (LRT) Management and Control Systems and is based in Florence, Italy.

Massimo Poli has spent his recent life as project manager of many of Thales LRT projects, and is currently in Australia as global project manager of Thales’ Parramatta LRT.

Rail Express (REX): What’s your perspective on the revival of light rail transit in Australia and around the world?

Massimo Poli: Transport needs and challenges vary from city to city and the flexibility of light rail provides each city with the means to adapt LRT solutions to best serve their transportation needs and solve their challenges.

For example, it is in used as the main public transport mode in medium sized cities like Florence, Palermo and Manchester, and in larger cities it is used to complement the likes of metros and/or buses, to guarantee a multimodal and efficient public transport journey.

It is often used to connect emerging neighbourhoods to the main transport ring in larger cities like Taipei, where the new districts of Danhai and Ankeng are connected to the metropolitan transport network via the LRT line, or in Shanghai where the new district of Songjiang is connected to the urban mass transport system through an LRT network. The same goes for the Brazilian city of Santos and, of course, Parramatta in Western Sydney.

In other cases, LRT lines are also used to connect two cities together, as is the case in Cosenza-Rende, Italy.

With flexibility and sustainability at its core, it is a pleasure to be directly contributing to the rebirth of this transport system all around the world. In recent years, Thales has been actively involved in the implementation of LRT projects in Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia.

Andrea Bastianelli: The introduction of new generation LRT vehicles, with a low floor guaranteeing greater comfort and performance, has also contributed to the rebirth of this sector.

Newer project designs are increasingly providing lanes reserved for public transport. This has also ensured a more regular and punctual service.

If we also consider the characteristics of cost effectiveness, attractiveness and sustainability, it is easy to imagine why LRT networks become part of the cultural identity of the cities they serve – symbols of civic pride.

REX: So improved vehicles and corridors have been the key?

Poli: In part, yes. However, over the years every single LRT has been improved in order to provide a better value for money solution.

Thales has always provided control systems for public transport systems, including LRT. In particular, over the last 10 years or so, Thales has redeveloped
its solution designed specifically for this type of market, so that we can continue to deliver the highest levels of satisfaction – both for passengers and customers alike. Our solutions innovatively address the needs of passengers: Having a regular service, being informed accurately during normal operation or special events, security, and above all command and control systems that guarantee the movement of vehicles in a safe way.

REX: How does Thales help achieve that?

Poli: Our LRT solution provides the operator with an innovative command and control tool that performs functions in an integrated way; for example:

• Planning, automatic vehicle localisation, tram regulation, innovative priority management at road intersections, and signalling;

• Passenger information and comfort, and passenger security; and

• Remote control and communication.

Our new generation LRT solution was installed for the first time in the city of Palermo, in Italy. The architecture of the system and the technologies used give the system a high degree of flexibility, modularity and upgradability.

REX: And you’re always working to improve that offering?

Poli: Yes. Since the first commissioning of the first version of the new generation system, Thales has continued to regularly develop and improve its LRT solution based on experience and feedback from our customers.

One example is the development of a highly integrated control system that allows the optimisation (reduction) of hardware and software components on board, on the trackside and in the control centre, which in turn reduces equipment dimensions, installation complexity, maintenance requirements, simplifies configuration, and provides significant energy savings.

Another example is the development of an innovative architecture for the Automatic Vehicle Localisation (AVLS) function and priority request at road crossing and tram regulation, which provide the ability to automatically manage even special operating scenarios.

We’ve also worked to provide operators with a selection of technologies, so they can choose what’s appropriate to the operational scenario in question. An example would be the option of a passive RFID tag rather than inductive loops for vehicle detection.

Thales also provides additional tools such as configuration, simulation, playback functions including analysis tools and quality of service tools which are all focused on improving the LRT solution. This results in increased efficiency, reduced capital and operational costs, and a better customer experience.

REX: As we enter a new decade we can expect the further digitisation of systems
all throughout rail – what’s the roadmap for light rail?

Bastianelli: As Massimo described, Thales is continually updating and improving its LRT solution, to provide public transport operators and other customers with an increasingly efficient solution. The digitisation process of the LRT solution has been underway for several years.

Of particular note, some of the packages we are developing are focused on increasing the level of autonomy for light rail systems, some of which are already under test in Europe:

• Smart Positioning will allow the vehicle to geo-locate itself safely and autonomously using different sensors and information including Global Navigation Satellite Systems.

• Obstacle Avoidance to avoid collisions with possible obstacles on the LRV route.

• Broadband connectivity including the future operating scenario which will lead to autonomous driving for transport systems of this type implies. This required the ability of the vehicle to be always connected with the ground and control centre devices with large data exchanges between these devices.

• Of course for Thales, cybersecurity is integrated into our systems across all sectors, so such countermeasures have already been integrated into the solution and will also be configured in the next system that we are implementing for one of our customers.

These macro functions, combined with autonomous studies Thales is currently carrying out, will constitute the autonomous driving system for LRT-type transport, the implementation of which will follow the timeframes and recommendations that the national and international regulatory authorities are discussing.

During this transition period, macro functions will be added progressively to the standard solution in order to contribute with increasingly advanced systems in the implementation of efficient and sustainable LRT systems.

REX: Thales is sponsoring and taking part in the ARA’s Light Rail 2020 event in Canberra in March. What are you hoping to see discussed at the event?

Bastianelli: The message I would like to share is for customers to ensure they select delivery partners who have developed specific solutions for this market, with a high degree of innovation and additional functions in order to provide a regular and high quality service which is able to seamlessly manage normal operations as well as special events.

The selected partners should also have a clear vision on the future of digitalisation, without forgetting the knowledge of the specificities of the destination country.