Engineering for data: The evolution of rail services

    Friday, August 28, 2015

    It's easy to think of the internet as a giant invisible blob encasing the globe.

    Terms like 'cloud computing' only reinforce this misrepresentation. In reality, the web is comprised of billions of physical assets connected via fibre-optic or copper cabling. 

    So, when civil engineers open the discussion about integrating digital technologies into next-generation railway projects, they must design solutions that are compatible with the internet's tangible infrastructure. 

    Understanding 21st-century technology

    Before analysing the repercussions of engineering internet-connected railroads, let's take the time to understand two terms that have taken the tech world by storm: big data and the Internet of Things (IoT). 

    According to Gartner, big data refers to an unfathomable amount of varied information generated at a rapid pace. It's a concept (or movement, depending on one's perspective) that obligates organisations to implement solutions capable of managing a high volume of diverse data and leverage it to gain competitive advantages.

    TechTarget described the IoT as a situation in which people, objects, animals and other 'things' are equipped with data production assets, enabling them to share this information with one another over the web automatically.

    How the IoT and big data impact rail engineering 

    Railways will invest $2.41 billion in big data annually by 2021.

    Rail companies have expressed interest in new signalling and asset management systems that allow them to establish data-based transportation networks.

    Imagine being able to readjust a train schedule to accommodate an unforeseen burst in demand or notifying maintenance crews of pending malfunctions to prevent faults. Supporting these capabilities requires thousands of smart devices, a dependable fibre-optic network and software able to process and organise all of that data.

    Interest in such technology is tangible. According to Frost & Sullivan, rail companies across the globe will invest approximately $2.41 billion in big data every year by 2021. 

    "The main aim of the rail industry's implementation of big data technologies has been predictive analytics. Integrating media analytics to improve the security of rail infrastructure and payload are also key applications," said Shyam Raman, research analyst at Frost & Sullivan Automotive and Transportation. 

    A new mission for engineers

    The IoT and big data will impact how engineering consultants design railways, buildings, water systems and other solutions. Because these technologies will define how 21st-century rail networks operate, specialists must conceptualise tunnels, bridges and tracks that work in tandem with digital automation. 

    An engineer's job is to design a solution that serves a specific purpose. If a rail system's purpose is to independently make educated decisions based on a real-time information, they need to assess the design implications associated with such an operation.