When bigger is not always better


While the term “the last mile” has come to prominence to in road transportation to describe the challenges of getting goods to their final destination, rail has its own first and last mile. In a 2016 report commissioned for the European Commission, the authors found many of the last miles in rail were in need of renewal, the majority being more than 50 years old. Infrastructure such as private sidings, intermodal terminals, and rail logistics centres were identified as needing critical investment to allow for a productive rail network.

In Australia, the rail last mile is also a critical link in connecting primary producers to the national network and large manufacturers with raw materials. At one end of the supply chain, these may be a siding next to a grain terminal or the line from a mine’s loading facility to the main line, and at the other end, it might include a loading facility for a container yard or port. These last miles can also range in complexity from a single line adjoining the main line to multiple interconnected paths that criss-cross a complex facility such as a steel mill.

Ensuring that these critical links in the rail supply chain operate efficiently is a shared goal for their owners, rail freight companies and the wider logistics sector, and this can often depend upon the signalling equipment that these private sidings have installed.

Richard Ogilvie, director at RCS Australia said that COTS solutions reduce complexity for small operators

Richard Ogilvie, director at Rail Control Systems Australia (RCS Australia), has been looking at how signalling systems for the rail last mile can be improved. “We’ve done a fair bit of work in various private line or industrial sidings or yards around Australia. Traditionally, signalling has been done with old mechanical, hand locked set of points with a key or it might be an industrial control system that is using some weird and wonderful control system to operate a level crossing.” According to Ogilvie, owners of these private sidings have seen main line signalling systems as overly complex, and rightly so. “Main line operators have signalling systems that are designed to move large amount of rail traffic efficiently and safely, but perhaps are perceived as being overkill for a lot of other scenarios where a safe automatic operation equipment would be very beneficial.

With the growth of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in the signalling market and it’s adoption by mainline operators, there is an increase in interest for signalling systems designed for the needs of private siding operators. Private operators now have the benefit of access to the same technology as mainline operators, but as a cost effective solution that can be scaled to their requirements. RCS Australia has pioneered in the application of this technology to rail signalling in Australia, providing a cheaper, safer and more efficient solution than those previously used in small private rail operations.

Daniel Grivicic, senior systems and safety engineer at RCS Australia, works to design a system right for the task.

“What we’re trying to get across is that there are options and alternatives to do signalling on a cost effective, small-scale basis to suit a particular situation.” Daniel Grivicic, senior systems and safety engineer at RCS Australia outlined that this approach delivers a solution that is designed to meet the client’s needs. “We listen to the client; we understand what they need and we’re able to customise not a product but multiple products in order to provide a solution. What you end up with is a cohesive solution which is incredibly cost effective, safe and that suits your needs rather than the needs of an organisation that is selling a single product that is shoehorned into your requirement.”

Another benefit of using commercially available equipment is that in many cases it will look and feel similar to the industrial control and automation systems that these private sidings use in their internal processes. “We offer a rail automation system which is probably more familiar to these smaller operators,” said Grivicic. This familiarity enables staff with existing knowledge and understanding of process control to translate this expertise into rail signalling, said Ogilvie. “The types of operators and end users that we’re talking about here will have a rail siding, but they’ll also have some industrial facilities or safety systems or control systems. What we’re offering is exactly that – it’s systems that look and feel like those used in other parts of their operations, can be maintained by the same people, and use the same principles and operations but are able to be engineered and suitable for that railway operation and particularly for a seamless interface to their mainline operator as well.”

With a solution that is designed to meet the scale of these rail last mile facilities, unlike in mainline signalling environments where specialised signalling staff are required, maintenance can be conducted as needed and by staff who work on other systems within the business. “If you’re a loading facility operator, for example, you’ve got all sorts of safety systems that you maintain and have a maintenance provider for, whether it be in house or an external contractor. Those people aren’t necessarily from a rail background, they’ll be process or industrial electricians and by offering them a COTS system, it gives them much more power and control over how they look after and maintain those systems,” said Ogilvie.

“In the past, users have been told that’s a signalling system which requires a specialist rail signalling person to maintain that system and that’s just not the case here.” In addition, these systems can be connected to web-based diagnostics, so maintenance can be supervised remotely by a specialist, if required and then on-the-ground changes carried out by a suitably skilled member of staff.

Rail infrastructure managers and operators, even those with a smaller scale infrastructure, have a duty to ensure safety as far as reasonably practicable under national regulations. While in the past, upgrading manual rail signalling systems for private sidings was not feasible, the new solution offers a way forward. “The onus is on the employer or the operator to provide a safe work place as far as reasonably practical. In the rail movement space, this becomes a lot more attainable as the cost and complexity of such signalling systems is greatly reduced,” said Ogilvie. “Customers come to us and say, ‘I know I’ve got this problem.’ In the past, I would’ve just said that it’s too hard, but there are now feasible and workable solutions.” The safety improvements from moving away from manual signalling or points systems are considerable. Instead of a driver having to exit the cab and move the points, the driver can remain in the cab, have the points operate remotely with a fully integrated interlocking between the siding and the mainline. In more complex systems, road and rail interfaces can be managed.

“It’s not necessarily the system itself that’s going to make things safer, but what you’re doing is you’re removing interfaces that you otherwise would have to manage or protect using old systems,” said Ogilvie. “So, solutions that remove the interface between people and trains and between vehicles and trains increases your level of safety dramatically compared to having no systems or having old, outdated systems.” RCS Australia has seen these systems come to fruition in the efficient management of train movements. For example, RCS Australia installed a signalling system for a steel mill in South Australia when the creation of a new rail line to connect a loading facility brought together previously disparate railways. “In each of those areas, each train was operated independently under a manual
procedure, and then all of a sudden they had lots of opportunities for trains interacting. They recognised they needed to do something to provide a level of safety, not only for the trains but also a large number of level crossings inside the facility that needed to be protected,” said Ogilvie.

Based on general signalling principles tailored to the specific needs of the facility, RCS Australia created a solution using COTS technology. “They’ve now got a system that safely controls points so drivers don’t have to get out of their cab and that provides safe passage for trains.” Overcoming a perception that signalling systems were too expensive or complicated for a private network service a steel mill of this size, RCS Australia implemented a system that improved safety and increased the efficiency of the network. “That’s been operating for over 10 years very successfully and they look after it and maintain it themselves,” said Ogilvie. “They’ve got a couple of people in house who are trained to look after the system and they manage that very well.” With the technology proven on the ‘rail last mile’, there is the potential for this cost effective and safe system to be rolled out to other, quieter parts of the national freight network. Ultimately, this will enable more freight to be handled on a reliable, efficient and future proof network.