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Every metro journey depends on an Operation Control Centre (OCC) – a high-tech control room that keeps everything running smoothly. How can OCCs be adapted to respond to the Covid-19 crisis – and how might digital technologies help?

Running a metro network is a complex task at the best of times. But the challenges presented by Covid are exceptional.

First, passengers and staff must be protected against the risk of infection. Stations and trains must be kept spotlessly clean. Congestion and overcrowding must be avoided at all costs. All of this requires extra supervision and central coordination.

Second, there is a need to provide a safe, socially-distanced working environment for employees. The only way to comply with social distancing in a busy control centre is to reduce the number of people who need to be there.

Third, there is an urgent need to cut operating costs – not easy, given the increasing workload. With recovery in ridership likely to be slow, operators need ways to make their revenues go further.

In short, Covid is a perfect storm. Not only is there more work to do, but there are fewer staff on site to do it and less money to pay for everything. How can these competing forces be balanced?

New needs, new solutions

Thales is developing a range of digital solutions that are designed to tackle challenges linked to Covid. All of these solutions are integrated via the OCC, so operators can leverage existing technology investments.

Record and report sanitising operations. Keeping stations and trains clean is a top priority. Thales’ monitoring solution helps operators to keep track of cleaning activities at hundreds of different points across the network.

“Our solution allows operators to record and report sanitising operations and to generate alarms if cleaning teams don’t report back,” explains Franck Butterlin-Fillon, Operation Control Product Line Manager, Thales. “Cleaning is a priority and our solution allows operators to integrate sanitising regimes into OCC operations management.”

The solution also provides tools to coordinate air-cleaning routines using station auxiliaries, such as air conditioning and ventilation systems. In addition, it can be used to adapt schedules so trains can be sent to the depot for internal and external cleaning.

Remote secure OCC. Teams in control centres need to work collaboratively – but what happens when social distancing makes this more difficult?

“Our solution is to enable remote working using secure mobile devices which replicate part of the OCC’s monitoring functions,” says Butterlin-Fillon. “This allows operators to protect the safety of the workforce while maintaining productivity.”

The remote OCC solution allows employees to monitor KPIs and alarms via dashboards. The beauty of the solution is that notifications can be filtered, so employees only receive alerts that are relevant to their location and role.

Cybersecurity is key. Like all Thales’ solutions, the remote OCC is cybersecured by design. This means that security is built in to the solution, with end-to-end security for critical communications and multi-factor authentication for mobile devices.

Adaptive operations. Covid means operators are under pressure to avoid overcrowding. To do this, they need to adapt train services to match demand.

“We are now capable of providing passenger flow forecasting and real-time tracking. This allows operators to predict passenger flows throughout the day, so trains can be injected, headways adjusted and dwell times adapted to avoid overcrowding,” says Butterlin-Fillon.

The solution is designed to provide maximum re-use of existing systems. Schedule adaptations can be executed via existing Automatic Train Supervision (ATS) systems. Meanwhile, timetable changes can be synchronised with passenger information systems.

Adaptive solutions save money: for example, train services can be reduced if lower demand is predicted. Energy savings might also be possible: lighting, escalator operation, ventilation and air conditioning output can be varied in response to predicted passenger numbers. This matters because auxiliary systems account for up to 60% of metro power consumption in some geographies.

The technologies behind all of this are passenger flow analytics and distributed intelligent video analytics. These tap into existing data streams from CCTV networks and ticketing systems, so there is no need to install extra sensors.

Resilient systems. The Covid crisis underlines the need to avoid disruption at all costs – a major OCC system outage, for example, could trigger congestion across the network. Thales’ approach is to provide solutions that offer a high level of resilience. These can be applied to both new and existing systems.

Cloud technology can be used to increase resilience and open up even more benefits, explains Butterlin-Fillon: “With cloud, you can leverage different physical servers. This gives you more scalability and greater resilience – if there is a failure somewhere, the system automatically balances the workload using different resources.”

This not only boosts resilience, but also reduces the need for maintenance and therefore the number of people on site. It also enables greater flexibility: shifting services onto the cloud makes it easier to take advantage of new capabilities, such as remote working.

As well as supporting customers during the Covid crisis, solutions like these are designed to generate savings and provide productivity gains that will deliver value year after year.