As governments search for ways to combat global warming, railways represent a climate-smart and efficient way to move people and freight - promoting economic growth while cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

In the UK alone, before the COVID-19 pandemic, over four million people were travelling by train every day. With this huge number of people on the railway at any time, improving and modernising the network to deliver more frequent, reliable and safe services can be tricky without disrupting passengers. 

Imagine being able to take a rail network and change different elements of signalling, rolling stock and track, before hitting the ‘fast forward’ button to watch how the changes would impact services over the following hours and days. Picture being able to predict delays in passengers boarding trains at crowded stations and being able to predict the ‘knock-on’ effect on services. Think about being able to plug ‘live’ data from a new locomotive into a live digital vision of the network and analyse the impact that the new equipment will have on services.

This is exactly what railway experts at the Birmingham Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) are doing. BCRRE researchers are driving rail improvements around the world without needing to leave their computers! And they are achieving this from brand-new facilities on campus which house the Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems (CEDS) in the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN). UKRRIN is designed to create powerful collaborations between academia and industry, and the Centre of Excellence in Digital Systems is led by BCRRE - working with Lancaster University, Swansea University, Cranfield University, Imperial College and University of Hull.

Clive Roberts, Professor of Railway Systems, BCRRE Director and UKRRIN Lead Academic Partner, is clear about the importance of Birmingham’s work in this field.

“We can simulate a rail network from the laws of physics up; we can incorporate all the detail on the track, gradients, signalling and add the rolling stock characteristics such as mass, aerodynamic effects and traction system capabilities. This enables us to test the impact of different decisions on a railway, thousands of times faster than in real life. We can plug the digital simulation into live data from the network, replay the data and review the decision or simulate different future outcomes.


“Whether testing the impact of new signalling, passenger dwell times at busy stations, the impact of tunnels on the aerodynamics of high-speed trains or the introduction of new rolling stock, we can create many different predictions for how these proposed improvements will affect services and what the impact on passengers will be.”

Ahead of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth games, BCRRE researchers have created a ‘digital twin’ of the West Midlands’ rail network. This enables them to model the numbers of passengers boarding and alighting trains at key stations associated with Games venues such as University station – the University of Birmingham is hosting the hockey and squash competitions.

“Our West Midlands network simulation allows us to analyse passenger traffic during the Games and beyond,” explains Professor Roberts. “Large numbers of passengers getting on and off trains can delay scheduled departures and have knock-on effects for the wider rail network. We can look at how managing the flow of passengers through stations can help to maintain service timings across the regional network at times of exceptional demand.”

BCRRE researchers are not just working on existing railways. They are also modelling digital scenarios for networks under construction – teaming up with HS2 to bring Britain’s planned high-speed services to life. The Birmingham experts are stress-testing operational plans to ensure smooth running of services from day one; a first for a new railway anywhere in the world.

Real-world construction on HS2’s first section between London and the West Midlands started in 2020. Meanwhile, the nine-month virtual research project will assess the proposed timetable’s robustness when faced with the physical challenge of reliably operating services at over 200mph in different weathers and serving hundreds of thousands of passengers. The digital simulation will help to develop procedures for managing and recovering from an unplanned event, such as an early terminating service or a platform being unavailable. These recovery plans will be built into HS2’s automatic traffic management system.

Beyond the UK, BCRRE experts work with railway operators across the world, notably in India, Singapore, Malaysia and China.

The team has built a digital simulation of a 170 km rail line from Jhansi to Bina Etawa, across the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Using this virtual railway, the researchers are helping Indian Railways to implement design decisions that will upgrade the line to European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 standard. Their work dovetails with the University’s partnership with the National Rail and Transport Institute of India (NRTI) which has established a joint MSc programme in Railway Engineering that is training India’s future rail experts.

The researchers are working with Singapore metro operators, SMRT, to simulate the impact of a signalling upgrades on the urban rail network, as well as investigating power supply problems on SMRT’s East West MRT line using digital simulation techniques.

“This is the latest in a long line of partnership working between BCRRE and SMRT, which again ties into rail engineer training,” says Professor Roberts. “Some 300 rail engineers in Singapore now have a University of Birmingham qualification and all have used BCRRE’s digital rail simulation facilities as part of their training.”

In Malaysia, the research team is working with counterparts at Birmingham-based transport information specialists Zipabout and Selangor-based mobility technology experts Asia Mobiliti. Backed by the UK’s Newton Fund, the project aims to integrate real-time data from various transport services into a digital platform that improves passenger connectivity to public transport services, initially in the city of Kuala Lumpur.

BCRRE experts have been working with the Guangzhou Metro Corporation (GMC) since 2013, also helping to keep journeys safe and comfortable for the 8.2 million people who use China’s third largest urban rail network every day. Their digital simulation expertise has allowed them to analyse energy utilisation resilience and assess power demand on the network as trains accelerate out of stations. This research has helped GMC to deliver energy savings of up to 8%, representing a financial saving of around £8 million.

“Our research has helped rail partners around the world deliver the best performance on their networks to the benefit of millions of passengers, but the ongoing challenge we face is that our simulations will always be a model of reality at a given moment in time,” comments Professor Roberts. “It can take us anything between two to six weeks to model a railway line, depending on the level of complexity. There will always be a debate around what level of trade-off is required between modelling accuracy and flexibility.

“As we move forward, the prospect of developing our ‘hardware in the loop’ analysis offers huge potential and is very exciting. This is potentially game changing technology and will provide an exciting research future for BCRRE and our partners in Britain and beyond.”


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