Metro Express: rail technology novelties, a windfall for engineers and IT professionals

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The Metro Express brings with it a wide array of highly sophisticated technologies which, put together, will contribute to change the transport system in the country.

Passengers currently waiting for a bus have few inklings of the time the bus would arrive. Soon, this would change when travelling on the Metro or the upcoming bus system. Passengers would be able to view the continuously updating waiting time in minutes on passenger display screens at the station or the bus stop.

Passenger Information System is just one example of the highly sophisticated technologies that would be ushered in with the coming of the Metro. These technologies are unfamiliar or little-known in the country. In addition to rail technologies, a plethora of technologies, under the umbrella of Intelligent Transport Systems, would emerge. This should be a boon for budding engineers and IT professionals. This paper outlines some of these technologies and their potentials.

Tram Technologies 

The tram and train infrastructure technologies and equipment as well as the power supply system are a first in the country. The Metro also introduces hardware and software integrated system of train operation and control technologies (Train Control & Management System), centred at an Operations Control Centre (OCC). An Automatic Train Protection System would oversee basic safety features such as automatically applying the brakes if the tram’s speed exceeds a regulated speed. The tram operation itself could to a certain degree be controlled remotely at the OCC rather than solely by the tram driver.

All the equipment in the tram and the whole rail infrastructure may be monitored distantly at the OCC. The status of all the equipment and faults are diagnosed in real time through computerised Diagnostic and Maintenance System, which continuously monitors all the equipment. CCTVs and access controls at stations and sensitive areas are managed by a Security Management System platform. All these systems plus passenger traffic operations are linked in real time at the OCC through a computerised Communications and Information System. The tram technology also incorporates an active Signal Priority System where the traffic lights would automatically change giving priority always to the oncoming tram over other traffic.

Electronic Ticketing System 

The Metro brings in the Electronic Ticketing System, a paperless and cashless system, which makes use of the smart card as tickets. The smart card is equivalent to a virtual wallet to pay for the trips. Although smart cards are widely used in the country as debit and credit cards, this system would be contactless. Passengers would purchase for once a rechargeable smart card onto which they can recharge money just like mobile recharge. Upon tapping the card on a card reader, it opens and closes the swing gate to allow a passenger in and out of the platform.

At the end of a trip the fare payable gets deducted from the card. Equipment used would comprise ticket vending machines, ticket validators, card readers. The software development allows flexibility in price discounting, changing of fares for peak, off-peak and night travel. The smart card may be configured to be integrated in both the Metro and buses equipped with the ticketing system. This would in turn require centralised software system to electronically split the ticket income at the end of the day between the Metro and the different bus operators.

A related upcoming field is travel data mining. Transaction registered when the smart card is used contains fine-grained information on the passenger’s identity, time, boarding and alighting locations. These when anonymised in a large smart card dataset, can be used to reconstruct the detailed profile of passengers over time.

The ticketing technology is evolving. Contactless debit and credit bank cards are now being used supplementary to the travel smart cards. The smart card itself as ticketing instrument is also increasingly being replaced with mobile phones with Near Field Communications (NFC) facilities (as are most new smart phones).

Automatic Vehicle Location System 

CAF Spain, the manufacturer, would also be equipping the tram system with an Automatic Vehicle Location System (AVLS). With the 18 Metro Express trams operating, the AVLS system al- lows an operator sitting at the Operations Control Centre to monitor the movement in real time of each tram, on screens affixed to a wall (video wall). As the trams run on the rail tracks, strategically placed transponders on the tracks relay information on the movement of a tram to the OCC. This information is also used in tracking the speed of the tram and in keeping safe distances between each tram running in the same direction. In more sophisticated metro networks, the transponder system is being replaced with a satellite based tracking system.

In a rejuvenated bus operation system that would be in tune with the modernity of the Metro system, an AVLS system for the Metro feeder buses or other buses is a well-tuned and affordable application. The AVLS system for the buses uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) to track the movement of an operating bus. In a nutshell, a GPS equipment installed on a bus continuously sends information on the real time location of the bus to a satellite which beams the information back to a central control unit. The movement of the buses is followed on a video wall of interactive street maps. The AVLS system is generally accurate to within 10 metres of a bus location. The AVLS allows improved responses to service disruptions as well as enhanced monitoring of frequencies and on-time performances of the buses.

Passenger Information System

Since the AVLS tracks the movement of the metro tram and buses in real time, it can thus determine the arrival time of a tram at a station or a bus at a bus stop. This has opened up an offshoot technology under the Passenger Information System (PIS), providing real-time travel information through visual, voice or other media.

The waiting time in minutes for a tram or a bus is displayed on LCD screens at the platform or the bus stop and is updated every minute as the tram or the bus approaches. Likewise, similar type information may be given inside the tram through displays or voice systems. PIS has also unfolded into “infotainment system” where additionally news, advertisements and other presentations are shown on the screen displays. Further PIS technology has extended into real time journey information on the web and on mobile phones.

Local engineers and IT professionals would benefit only if the foreign companies introducing these technologies allow locals to be deeply involved in and not be made to stay behind at the peripheries of the applications and development of the technologies.

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