As the first phase of the Digitally Enabling Electrification scheme comes to a close, Ben Clark speaks to Adam Locke of Laing O’Rourke and Ali Najimi of Atkins to discuss its successes and its potential for driving unprecedented levels of productivity into the future of infrastructure development

The UK’s current electrification programme is the biggest the country’s rail industry has ever seen. Over the coming years billions of pounds will be invested into upgrading over 2000 miles of the Midland Mainline, Great Western and Northern routes to create a faster, greener, quieter and more reliable network across some of the UK’s largest and busiest lines. Electrification work is never a simple process. It involves multiple design, construction and manufacturing partners coming together to install key pieces of infrastructure across considerable geographies. With increasing pressure from rising passenger numbers and the subsequent demands for greater capacity and reliability, plus the scheduling and funding issues that have plagued the programme from the start, doing so in a quick and efficient manner is critical.

However, a number of challenges currently stand in the way of successfully achieving this, and a collaborative research project co-funded by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) and Innovate UK, and made up of, Laing O’Rourke, Atkins, dhp11 and Imperial College London, set out to overcome these. As one of 11 programmes funded under the Enabling the Digital Railway initiative, the Digitally Enabling Electrification (DEE) scheme is targeted at applying digital technology to enhance productivity in electrification through effective use and exchange of information. Work on the Staffordshire alliance contract on the West Coast Mainline has been a key platform upon which the industrial research and alliance partners, Atkins and Laing O’Rourke, have been able to learn from and develop their solutions.

Taking a deeper look
Many of these issues start at ground level, or rather below it, where the foundations required for electrification masts are submitted to unseen environmental factors that amount to variations in their positioning compared to the original design. This results in a lot of on-site possession time being spent making adjustments to the equipment in order for it to fit, and therefore reduces the productivity of each possession time. It also raises safety concerns as much of this work is carried out at night, in the rain and at height. Considering that each construction site is essentially hundreds of miles long, being able to avoid such a loss in productivity has the potential to create huge savings in both time and cost.

“What we want to be able to do is enable the industry to bring pre-adjusted components from the fabrication shop onto site that can go up in place as they are and therefore drive efficiency and safety benefits into the possession period,” explains Adam Locke, project director at Laing O’Rourke. However, at this point even more problems impede progression. Firstly, how to rapidly survey a site to see the exact foundation positioning, and secondly, how to quickly share this information in order to make the necessary adjustments in a timely manner. Working together, the research partnership has been developing three critical solutions that have the potential to help realise an efficient and digitally enabled process.

“In order to quickly capture the position of each foundation we have been trialling a number of technologies such as drones, point cloud, photogrammetry and LIDAR to accurately assess what adjustments need to be made, so we have demonstrated the potential here,” Adam continues. “The next problem of course is how we then pass this new information on to all the other partners to continue these efficiencies.”

Enabling digital communications
At present most companies involved in the design and construction phase of such a project have their own digital design tools that have resulted from years of investment and development. However, within the electrification segment there has so far been no effort to facilitate an effective interface between these separate systems. Ali Najimi, senior engineer and project manager at the programme’s design partner Atkins, explains that until now whilst all designs would have been carried out on state-of-the-art BIM software, this would have been passed on to the contractor – in this case Laing O’Rourke – in the form of thousands of sheets of paper. This data would then need to have been re-input to be compatible with their own systems.

“What we needed was an open standard where any manufacturer, contractor, designer or installer can share and access an open design format,” he says. “This is where the research group’s solution, called OLEDEF (Overhead Line Electrification Data Exchange Format) comes in. Using XML (Extensible Markup Language) the new format provides the widest compatibility to be interpreted by anyone using BIM software. Not only does this massively increase the speed of the process from design to construction, but it also means that all designs can be kept fully up-to-date.

“This was in line with one of our other main focuses on the project which was to incorporate the PAS 1192 standard into electrification schemes – this is the code of practice for the collaborative production of engineering and construction information. Therefore meaning that all the parties involved in the project can develop their own models with the level of detail that is relevant to their stage of the cycle, and then share it in a data environment.”

Having established methods for capturing rapid surveys and quickly sharing this data, the next step for the research programme was to develop a digital tool capable of modelling everything efficiently. “Atkins have spent all this time investing in their digital design tools and producing an XML file, which can now hold critical information like where a component will be, along with its rotation, height, what mast type it needs and so on thanks to their design and the survey data,” highlights Adam. “We then needed to apply this to our own design software to make use of the information very quickly. The great thing is that across the electrification project Network Rail has a standard set of components and we have created incredibly detailed virtual 3D models of each of these. These can then be selected, adjusted and installed by the software according to this design file in order to recreate a virtual railway line. Because of how detailed this is we can then accurately schedule, fabricate and install the real thing, with all of the adjustment work being carried out before it goes to site, thus increasing possession productivity.”

Sharing this knowledge
As the two-year research project recently came to an end, a dissemination event held at the end of January at the National Railway Museum in York, was the perfect stage for the partners to share the benefits such practices could bring to the future of electrification. With 80 key representatives from across the UK rail industry, including Philip Bennett from Network Rail’s Digital Railway team who called for the audience to actively embrace such solutions, Adam and Ali both highlight the event as a success and both see a positive future for digital electrification.

“What we have done is prove the concept,” says Adam. “We’ve shown that you can create a model from a library of components, you can do quick surveys and you can share this across an open data environment. The next step is to properly deploy this on a real project and we have a very unique opportunity to do so as, together with Atkins, we will be working on the East West Rail project where we hope to carry the system’s development onto the next level. Of course, if another opportunity comes up sooner we would jump at the chance to get an even earlier win and really demonstrate its advantages on a full-scale project.”

Ali echoes this sentiment going on to emphasise: “The one thing this project has really shown is that there are real savings to be had both in terms of time and cost. It’s about increasing the overall productivity of each possession time and therefore creating a much more efficient programme on the wider project level.”

Looking beyond the present
What is perhaps even more key to take from the DEE is its implications far beyond electrification. Similar systems are being developed in the signalling sector and other rail developments can potentially follow. Even further afield Laing O’Rourke is already applying the same approach to its work in the water industry and are also looking at its applicability to upcoming bridge contracts. Similarly, Atkins’ highways division is keen to find out what benefits it could bring them. “Ultimately, the benefits of this project are of interest from an entire BIM point of view across the wider construction industry,” Ali notes.

Digitisation will be playing a crucial role in the rail industry’s development over the coming years as it looks to meet the growing capacity and reliability needs of the network. We already see it being rolled out to enhance the passenger experience and in creating a far improved signalling system. However, by implementing it in to the design and construction phases of the enormous electrification scheme, the DEE is proving just how much potential it can have in bringing significant time and cost savings to a project where both these aspects pose challenges. As a society we have arguably been living in the digital age for a number of years now. Yet, as its benefits trickle down throughout various industries our ability to bring about significant change to infrastructural development is only just starting to emerge. Ultimately, not only is the work carried out by the likes of Laing O’Rourke, Atkins, dhp11 and Imperial College London so vital to achieving this, but it also suggests that the network will very much be the better for it as it moves forward.


Ali NajimiAli Najimi, senior engineer and project manager, Atkins Adam Locke Adam Locke, project director, Laing O’Rourke