Meeting passengers’ needs by ensuring trains run on time

The rail industry’s independent safety body, RSSB is collaborating with Network Rail to co-fund the Data Sandbox + research competition. This is aimed at developing data driven solutions to improve operational performance on GB rail.

UK passenger journeys have doubled over the last 20 years, and the high growth trend is expected to continue. With critical parts of the network running close to capacity during peak times, small delays can easily build up, and can be difficult to recover from.

Service reliability has worsened, resulting in 16.7m delay minutes in 2018/19. In the 2018 National Rail Passenger Survey, run by Transport Focus, punctuality remained the biggest single influence on passenger satisfaction.  The survey also identified that the way train operating companies (TOCs) handled delays had a strong influence on dissatisfaction.

The Data Sandbox+ competition is part of the PERFORM programme. This is a cross-industry initiative led by RSSB, which aims to achieve performance improvements. Essentially its aim is to run trains on time today, while improving the rail performance of tomorrow. This looks into the potential of helping rail deliver operational performance improvements by exploring advanced data analytics technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. As well as  reducing costs, these provide the opportunity to enhance the customer experience.  This activity is strategically aligned with the Sector Deal and supports the Joint Rail Data Action Plan.

The cross industry collaboration on Data Sandbox, consisted of five feasibility projects funded by RSSB and supported by various TOCs. RSSB launched the Data Sandbox+ competition on 4 April 2019 at the PERFORM programme launch event.

The budget for the Data Sandbox+ initiative is £1.3 million, of which £650,000 was contributed by RSSB, and Network Rail matched this figure from its research and development portfolio. The initiative is targeted at academics, suppliers and innovators with the aim of supporting research into the novel use of data to improve service reliability and punctuality. The new projects that will be funded through this competition build on previous Data Sandbox work, or propose new approaches and ideas in the form of feasibility studies.

Four projects, due to start in November 2019, have been awarded funding in the first round of the competition. These are:

  • “Real time prediction and mitigation of disruption through personalised passenger communications”, led by Zipabout and the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with LNER
  • “Data-driven robust timetabling”, led by the University of Southampton, in collaboration with Network Rail and Bellvedi/Tracsis
  • “Rail performance modelling for strategic decision making”, led by Risk Solutions, in collaboration with City University, Heriott-Watt University, University of Southampton, Steer and Tracsis
  • “IntelliDoorDwell”, led by Porterbrook in collaboration with ScotRail, University of Southampton and Elastacloud.

The second round of the competition is due to close on Friday 6 December 2019.

Rail Minister, Chris Heaton-Harris, said: “New technology has always sat at the heart of our transport network and it is through innovation that we can lead our railway into the future. Our absolute priority is giving passengers trains which run on time, and rail operators across the UK can and should make better use of the data they hold to improve services. Creating the incentives for new ideas to be introduced, through competitions like this one, allows the UK’s railway to stay at the cutting edge of technology.”

Giulia Lorenzini, Senior Partnerships and Grants Manager at RSSB said: “We are excited to join forces with Network Rail to provide industry with a unique opportunity to apply and test the latest data analytics, Machine Learning and AI techniques to maximise the value of industry data. The competition will build on successful collaborations between innovators, academia, train operators and other industry bodies in order to ultimately improve operational performance and a better customer experience.”

Alison Smith, Senior Programme Manager for Network Rail’s research and development portfolio explained: “Research and development has a vital role to play in ensuring service reliability increases and delay across the network falls. Network Rail is proud to be working with RSSB on this competition as it will ensure the rail industry is able to make the most of the wealth of data available to ensure passengers receive the punctual services they expect and deserve.