Stuart Marshall, sales and marketing manager at Symology, discusses his company's unique interface between road, rail and utilities.
Since 2013, Britain has boasted Europe’s safest railways (twice as safe as France, four times safer than Germany, and fifteen times safer than Spain) despite being one of the densest and busiest, and receiving between one quarter to one third of the government subsidies enjoyed on the continent.
Network Rail is also Europe’s fastest-growing railway and this renaissance is driving a large programme of new lines and network upgrades, including line electrification. For these activities to progress smoothly, Network Rail is obliged to inform every other interested party of its actions, generating 35,000 notices per year on average.
Network Rail took the decision to replace their its old Street Works software at the end of 2015, opting to move to Insight for Street Works from Symology.
According to Rob James, Network Rail's national highways interface manager, the existing software was inflexible and not cost-effective: 'We needed latitude to make changes while remaining within tight fiscal restraints. Symology’s Insight solution gave us a reliable and stable market-leading platform and the Symology experts wanted to work with us to meet our real needs.’
A different type of client
From a Street Works perspective, Network Rail is an undertaker according to the Department for Transport (DfT), and operates nationally as an authority for bridges and streets, promoting works on streets owned and maintained by local authorities while simultaneously publishing and maintaining its own set of uncoupled ASD data that is published to Geoplace monthly. This differentiated the company from all other existing Symology customers.
Mr James admits that the project came with several unique difficulties, almost all of which surrounded accessing Network Rail’s existing data.
He cautions: ‘It is worth bearing in mind that getting data from an outgoing supplier is likely to present challenges and almost certain to cause a delay. For instance, our legacy data was presented in a CSV format rather than XML. Yet, it is something that is rarely considered when starting a new project.’
The size of the data also provided its own challenge. With more than three million data files it was too large to transfer via FTP and the files were eventually sent to Symology by post.
‘Data transportation is another area that is often overlooked,’ Mr James concedes.
Although Network Rail was unable to provide any data metrics, due to restrictions within their outgoing solution, the switching process, which included mapping the entire railway network, was successfully delivered in just over 12 weeks, a period that included Christmas and the New Year.
‘The attentive and high-quality service we have come to expect from Symology’s account and project management teams was in evidence throughout the switchover project,’ says Mr James.
‘It was fairly smooth and without significant issues, those that did arise being caused by the structure of the historical data which necessitated a lot of work from Symology. If you take our data issues out of the equation, you know what you are going to get with Insight and it delivers.’
At the end of the implementation project, Network Rail is using 15 licences to support 28 posts across the country. For the staff involved, a one-day training workshop was all that was needed to get them up-and-running with the new system.
Coping with scale and change
With more than 15,000 miles of track intersecting highways large and small across the UK, the fully scalable nature of Symology’s Insight solution was put to the test. The ability to dynamically adapt Insight also allowed it to be configured for Network Rail’s unique method of working. That adaptability was also confirmed when Network Rail changed its entire operational structure.
Comments Mr James: ‘When we chose to work with Symology and Insight, our operations were divided into four geographical areas, each of which had numerous Operational Districts (ODs). Insight users within each area needed to be able to view works in their own area and promote works from any of the ODs within that area.
'Since we generate approximately 35,000 notices per year, and as a maintainer work to very tight and inflexible deadlines, the ability for the ODs to be supported within the four operating areas was paramount.’
This initial set-up allowed users to be assigned to these geographical areas, with permission to operate in only their own assigned area. Users could view other promoter works in their areas; when they created their own works, they would see any potential conflicts.
The configuration was such that they couldn’t view outside of their own defined area, as per the organisation’s requirements. Each area was assigned a set of ODs. The OD under which a user can promote works is dependent on the area they operate in. This ensured that a user was not seeing data superfluous to their requirements, allowing them to operate efficiently.
But as they tend to do, things changed. Mr James explains: ‘All structures should be able to adapt, though, and in 2017 The Highways Interface Team was devolved in to the nine Routes that make up Network Rail.
'Rather than the distinct boundaries within which each of the users had operated, the change to a route-based structure means that the nine teams can find themselves within the same geography, even at the same road-rail junction. The Insight software has also had to adapt to mirror the way the teams now need to interface with each other.
'One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is our responsibility to publish the Associated Street Data monthly. Symology’s help with this business process marks them out as more than just a software company.’
Whilst Network Rail raise approximately 35,000 notices per year for some 12,000 of their own works, it also operates as a transport authority. As a result, they have a requirement to see when other promoters are working near their its apparatus.
Consequently, the uncoupled ASD provided by Network Rail ensures that it receives notices for works from these other promoters, including authority own works, for assessment.
Additionally, these works are included in the conflict checking facilities when Network Rail create their own works which they send to the local authorities. Network Rail are subject to the same noticing and permitting rules as other promoters, and receive permit responses from councils as other promoters do, confirming whether they can proceed with the work on the proposed dates.
Moving the railway forward
Following the initial implementation of Insight, Network Rail looked to exploit the power of the solution to reduce some repetitive tasks for its users. Because of the nature of the rail network and its maintenance obligations, it is common to repeat tasks at individual locations, such as level crossings and road bridges, and repeat common tasks at different locations. Therefore, it was highly beneficial to Network Rail to develop the Insight solution to allow the replication of tasks.
Symology worked with Network Rail to enhance the replication functionality in order to help with these repetitive functions, allowing those common tasks to be repeated at different locations with minimal effort. The majority of data is copied, and only the necessary amendments are required.
With the implementation of DfT’s Street Manager project in England, Network Rail is continuing its work with Symology to ensure a smooth transition to the new format.
The approach will see Network Rail use Insight to raise their works in England and Wales where the solution will determine whether the works are to be sent to the central Street Manager system in England or separate Authority systems in Wales, thus allowing Network Rail to continue realising the benefits of the implemented Insight solution including the aforementioned replication facilities.
For Mr James, the future looks encouraging. ‘Having witnessed the expertise of the Symology teams during the implementation project, the adaptability of the Insight product to make wholesale changes that reflect the changes to the organisation, and the urgency of tackling our replication wishes, I am sure that Network Rail is set to more than keep pace with our dynamic industry.’