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Introducing the digital systems innovation centre for rail

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The railways were considered a sunset industry by the late 20th century due to the rapid development of the automobile and airplane.

How things have changed: The great success of the Japanese Tokaido Shinkansen line, as well as the development of the French, Korean, Spanish and, more recently, Chinese high-speed railway networks changed history.

Populations continue to grow, rapid urbanisation around the world is leading to megalopolis and citizens demand better mobility. High-speed inter-city railways and new, efficient metro systems are becoming common place in advanced economies. Convenience, efficiency and speed are valued by customers and the railway industry is revolutionising local, national and international transportation.

The Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) at the University of Birmingham is Europe’s largest university-based centre of its kind, with more than 140 academics, researchers and professional support staff and some 200 postgraduate taught and undergraduate students. BCRRE engages with industry and academia nationally and internationally and delivers world-class research outcomes and high-quality education programmes. The main research activities of BCRRE include railway operation and simulation, power and energy, traffic management and control, system condition monitoring, etc.

Centres of Excellence

Early in 2017, The University of Birmingham successfully bid for substantial funding from the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) and now leads a £92 million network of industry and academic partners, comprising three major Centres of Excellence which involve eight UK universities and 20 industry partners over an eight-year funding window. The Centres of Excellence will be the first elements of the industry-led UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN), within which Birmingham will lead the Digital Systems Innovation Centre (DSIC).

The DSIC will build on the expertise of BCRRE and the UK’s industrial base to deliver a step-change in digital systems capability for the railways. It will provide a system-wide approach to transform the results of academic research, industrial development and innovation into tangible business benefits. Housing openly available facilities, key areas of technology will include railway control and operations simulation, condition monitoring and sensing, data integration and cyber security. DSIC will also offer technology incubation opportunities.

In the area of railway control and operations simulation, the DSIC team will develop macroscopic and microscopic railway simulators using data supplied by project partners. The simulation can then apply advanced algorithms, for example to modify rolling stock performance, operational rules, amend timetables, or implement smart driving strategies to improve network punctuality and energy consumption, without affecting an operational railway system. The DSIC will include a comprehensive simulation and testing lab for design validation and verification, and for hardware- and software-in-the-loop testing.

In condition monitoring and sensing, projects will include developing and configuring instrumentation and processing systems that can be used to measure, track and predict the health of various railway subsystems. Such systems can be used to improve operational reliability and support business cases for variations to existing maintenance procedures.

Emerging field

The growing data integration and cyber security area covers data modelling and architecture and the integration of operations and customer-facing systems. This exciting, emerging field delivers appropriate information and knowledge through efficient data processing and algorithms. The opportunities offered in this field cover almost every element of the railway system.

Professor Clive Roberts, director of BCRRE, and Felix Schmid, director of education of BCRRE, look forward to the new railway revolution. ‘These are exciting times for railways. Society relies on railway systems more than ever; they have become integral to how people live and economies grow in the 21st century.

‘Our work in research and education is having an impact across the globe in realising the transformational benefits of railways.’

As a world-leading rail research centre, BCRRE is looking forward to working with research and industry partners across the world to deliver innovation that establishes the UK.

This article was written by Ning Zhao, Jenny Illingsworth and Felix Schmid.

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