New digital solutions are changing how to design, construct and maintain railways. For rail owners and operators, the good news is better safety for rail workers and travelers.
European rail travel is becoming more popular as people choose high-speed rail, metro systems and commuter trains over flying and driving. However, the increased demand, together with faster and more frequent trains, wears assets quicker. Combined with poor maintenance practices, this has led to an increase in accidents in some European countries where rail infrastructure can be up to 40 years old.
Thanks to the digital age, rail engineers, designers, contractors and operators now have access to a range of new tools to boost safety and improve maintenance practices. These can prevent sudden system faults, minimise service disruptions and the need for emergency repairs. By enabling better planning, they also make assets more efficient and save money.
To reap the benefits of new technology, it is important to first get the basics right. Establishing robust information management systems and processes is key, along with assembling a team with the right behaviours, backed up by support from management and the organisation. Once this foundation is in place, new digital tools can improve safety through the entire project lifecycle.
Here are six ways how:
1. Start right
One of the earliest benefits enabled by digital tools is during onsite surveys and environmental assessments. In north-west London at Old Oak Common — a planned railway station which, when opened in 2026, will be one of the largest rail hubs in the English capital — engineers are using drones for surveying to remove the need for people to be exposed to hazardous environments. It took drone operators two days to take 3,000 photographs, from which the images were then transformed into a 3D model. What would normally take eight weeks of manual work was accomplished safely in just six hours of drone flights.
2. Smart design
The rail industry already uses digital technologies to visualise designs in 3D. The digital design review, using what is known as a federated model (which combines all of the separate models into one), is a core concept of the Building Information Modelling (BIM) process. This provides the project team with a holistic view of the design, including safety and hazard issues. While this is an established process, using it for capturing safety risks and hazards is only slowly gaining momentum.
During the design phase, stakeholders can identify the risks that their teams may face in constructing, operating and maintaining assets. BIM models can capture these project risks and hazards, enabling the project team to devise a mitigation strategy. Immersive technologies, such as virtual reality (VR) headsets or walk-in simulators are also enhancing the assessment of design models. They allow engineers to put themselves in the place of travellers on platforms or in trains, to experience whether they feel safe and to analyse the risks.
3. Build safe
The BIM model is also useful for construction and logistics planning (4D) to review safety considerations. For example, linking the construction programme to the model enables the planner to sequence the movement of vehicles, to identify when a site is busy and to establish when vehicle movements may pose a risk. Communicating with designers and contractors effectively paves the way for such a BIM model.
Construction activities are often hazardous, and digital technologies can identity risks in advance. Smart sensors worn by site staff can detect numerous hazards, such as air pollution and toxins, and alert them or others when they are in, or approaching, danger.
4. Smooth operator
A data-rich BIM model provides significant benefits for operation and maintenance, and helps assess specific risks. For example, signal-sighting technology enables designers to review sections of track where the train driver may have poor visibility of track signals.
Overlaying video content with BIM model information also provides a powerful visual and analytical tool to enhance safety. A detailed BIM visualisation model can enhance driver training by providing a fully immersive simulation.
Good records provide asset owners with the right information, in the right format, exactly when they need it. Developing a complete and consistent asset database — starting in the design phase, before being handed over to operators — is key. This can also provide emergency services with information that can help to save lives in the event of an incident.
5. Manage assets
Methods for remotely sensing the condition of assets are also emerging, such as advanced track surveys, asset sensors, capturing digital data from satellites, and creating smarter assets, which provide the information themselves.
This includes 3D printing to create structures that use a “self-healing” luminous resin that rebinds cracked materials and allows passing maintenance trains with cameras to see the area being fixed. All these methods reduce safety risks by removing staff from sites.
6. Behavioural change
The final piece in this jigsaw is the behavioural change needed to embed this digital approach. As organisations put safety first, the technology, processes and people are combining to make the most of this significant opportunity, which the industry now finds at its fingertips.
Remember too, the development of more detailed and connected data can be a safety risk in itself. In the UK, for example, companies must follow government guidance on how to manage asset information security. There is a responsibility on us all to establish digital defences to protect ourselves.