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Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) – Cutting costs and streamlining operations

By: Jan Richard, and Technology Manager at Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) • Issue: Machine-to-Machine technology – the key to operating excellenceCategory:

  • SBB is gradually introducing M2M technologies across its network in areas where technologies can improve efficiency and cut costs
  • M2M is promoting a change in thinking at the railway from reactive to proactive management
  • SBB is working to move away from remote M2M applications to develop a centralized management system capable of handling all types of architecture

From timetable tools to operator management systems, route settings and all aspects of signaling, railways throughout the world are successfully utilizing Machine to Machine (M2M) technologies in all areas of operation.

Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) is no exception. The operator is using M2M innovations on 3039 km of lines across its network. And with the railway aiming to make cost savings of up to 15% from more efficient technologies by 2017-2018, there are significant plans in place to introduce further M2M solutions that will improve performance and efficiency over the next few years.

“Across the whole value chain, M2M is optimizing operations across our network,” says Jan Richard, SBB’s innovation and technology manager. “It was first introduced 20 years ago and since then we have gradually implemented it in all areas. We have done it in a very pragmatic way because rather than doing a full rollout over the entire network which would be very difficult and potentially disruptive we are doing it step by step when certain parts of the system are renewed. Technically it is working very well with a lot fewer failures at the substation.”

“One example of where M2M is helping to improve operations is in point maintenance. If a point starts to become worn or faulty we can see that happening and can schedule maintenance to address the fault before it becomes a problem.”

SBB has not emphasized a single technology in a specific area of operations during this rollout, instead selecting M2M solutions that will bring efficiency savings and an improvement in operations.  Telecoms operations, fiber optic systems and overall operations are all areas where M2M is having a significant impact due to greater efficiency in management operations. Inevitably though, SBB has, and continues to experience, significant challenges in this gradual rollout.

Richard says that one of the most difficult issues to overcome is the change in professional standard of employees required to operate and manage the new systems. As a result, extensive training programs have been introduced to help SBB’s employees get up to speed while a number of new staff with the required skills has been hired.

Another major challenge is to minimize traffic disruption while the new systems are rolled out. “Rail traffic could potentially be greatly affected during this migration, which would not be good for the railway or for our customers,” Richard says. “We therefore have to plan very carefully how to switch from the old to the new system.”

While adjusting employee skill sets to operate and manage M2M has certainly been challenging, this change is already resulting in significant efficiency savings in human resources. Greater centralization of operations and the replacement of human operators by machines have all helped to reduce the wage bill freeing up funds to be allocated elsewhere. Maintenance procedures are another major target for cost-cutting through M2M, as Richard explains.

“One example of where M2M is helping to improve operations is in point maintenance. If a point starts to become worn or faulty we can see that happening and can schedule maintenance to address the fault before it becomes a problem.”

“It is similar in rolling stock maintenance. Railway operators are able to monitor their rolling stock more accurately, they can see where they are being used and can again schedule maintenance to address any potential problem. It can be done in a very specific way due to the nature of the system.” With the high level of safety that has to be maintained when developing new technologies for the railway, and also the great volumes of data accumulated during the process, Richard says that applying M2M is a very technically challenging process.

Perhaps the most complex aspect is the huge volumes of data retrieved from M2M solutions which can take a great deal of time to process. Richard says in many cases it is not yet worth making the switch to these more advanced technologies due to the difficulties encountered and time it takes to apply the solution which can actually lead to a cost increase rather than saving.

Simplifying this process means streamlining a localized network accessed remotely into a centralized platform which is able to support multiple applications on different platforms. This is one aspect of M2M application that SBB’s is currently working to address, and when it is achieved, it will have a major impact on the railways’ system management efficiency.

SBB’s Technology and Innovation department is currently studying how to migrate traffic management, command, control and signaling systems as well as operating management systems and their respective architecture into an advanced rail management system. It is hoped that such a system will be able to provide even greater efficiency of operations.

“There are different types of technology that we have to rely such as point-to-point and IP-Ethernet,” Richard says. “Although right now it is very specific, there should be an effort to move towards a more harmonious system that is centralized. One possibility is to have Ethernet and another point-to-point or IP-based transport system to transfer information in parallel from one subsystem to another subsystem with each subsystem knowing what it wants to do. By using similar architecture throughout the system rather than individual separately operating parts, it will allow us to conduct more efficient and better maintenance and operation of the network.

One particular area that this could have a big impact is through ICT applications. While remote operation has streamlined and improved management, in the existing railway environment, even with M2M applications in place, the traffic manager is still the first person to recognize any traffic disturbance. As a result Richard says that SBB is currently considering how much efficiency can be gained by introducing a train traffic management system based on a holistic design for the so-called railway production management system.

The main difference that the new system will provide in architecture design is the use of cab signaling combined with an adaptive traffic management system. Under this approach, railway production management is separated from railway system management so that roles, competences and responsibilities are clearly defined.

It also implies a change in thought process within the railway from asset-oriented thinking to service-oriented behavior. At present railway systems generally employ reactive working practices with sub-system faults only identifiable after a failure is reported. But through monitoring and surveillance applications that work in accordance with sub-systems that monitor all relevant train, failures can be accurately predicted and disruptions potentially minimized.

Richard says that this new approach could have significant impact on rail operators and the supply industry. And while he admits it is still few years away from being reality, he advises that all sectors should be ready for change.

“We are in the very early stages of the conceptual stage, but once it is completed it will make the system much more efficient in all aspects,” Richard says. “As the technology becomes more mature it will result in greater efficiency in operation at the subsystem which we believe will result in further reductions in operational costs.”

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