Teaming up to tackle railway disruption with Nottingham University

UK railway operators face a significant challenge when it comes to mainline signalling. Cable theft, equipment failures and replacements are just a few examples of the many costs that operators are presented with. Not only do such issues have financial implications, they can also mean significant disruption and delays for passengers. With this in mind, Thales UK has developed a proof of concept (PoC) solution to this problem, in partnership with The University of Nottingham (UoN).

The PoC system was successfully developed to utilise low power, solar power and track-to-train communications, enabling real time asset data monitoring at a fraction of the current cost. Richard Carr, Industrial Engineering and Configuration Manager at Thales UK, says "the low cost signalling system is an idea that can go completely cable-less, using existing wireless technology and green energy". It could also be developed further to become autonomous, as it is compatible with other systems and requires minimal infrastructure to integrate it. Secured by Thales technology, the devices forming the system are able to communicate without risk of interference, allowing for real time monitoring.

Rewind two years, to when Thales and Nottingham’s work first began. The challenge was to develop a PoC solution that would be both robust and applicable to the signalling issues UK rail companies are facing. With existing systems relying on a physical grid for power and data delivery, an opportunity was quickly identified to produce a non-invasive, wireless solution. Such a solution would allow for easier maintenance, maximise the occupancy of UK branch and local railway lines, whilst, crucially, saving on operating costs.

The partnership’s project began with the UoN looking into available low cost communications systems and how they may compliment the requirements of the project. These ideas for potential solutions were then developed collaboratively, drawing on Thales’s experience and expertise in rail communications. Once a suitable option was identified, the team worked to integrate this technology into a system, with a view to creating a PoC that could be demonstrated at a live test track to Network Rail.

The work between Thales and UoN highlights just one of the many opportunities of corporate-academic partnership. Working collaboratively to address an industry issue, both parties are benefitting from the opportunity to share their bright ideas and expertise. Steve Greedy, Engineering Professor at Nottingham, says "Working with Thales as part of the team investigating the application of Low Cost WiFi Signalling has allowed my work to benefit from the support and advice of industry experts whilst permitting me, within a relatively short period of time, to gain a valuable insight into the complexities of the rail industry. Furthermore, working with Thales and experiencing the real world applications of their work has certainly motivated the research students involved to continue coming up with bright ideas.”

Following the development of the PoC, Thales UK and UoN successfully demonstrated their innovation at Long Marston test track in November 2016 to Network Rail. Seeing the need for such a system, Network Rail was interested to see how far this concept could be taken. A clear success, this corporate-academic collaboration is continuing to develop the concept, exploring how it can best meet the challenges faced by Network Rail.

The PoC will also be demonstrated at Rail Live 2017 where visitors will be able to talk to the team from UoN and Thales about how it was developed.