London Underground hums with better data on tracks

London's public transit system aims to keep trains on time with a little known form of asset management

Most London Underground riders probably never heard of linear asset management, though they might be glad it exists, if it gets them to their destinations with fewer delays in the future.

The London Underground public rapid transit system has deployed linear asset management software from IBM to improve the efficiency of its track maintenance.

The approach could result in fewer delays and increased safety for the commuter rail system, said James Foley, director of asset management and engineering for London Underground support contractor Enterprise AMS, speaking Wednesday at the IBM InterConnect conference in Las Vegas.

Many organizations keep tabs on costly physical assets such as vehicle fleets by using asset management applications. Fewer organizations know of a subset of this practice called linear asset management, though they might benefit from the software, Foley said.

Linear assets differ from standard assets, or discrete assets, in that they are physical things that stretch over a considerable length, and change in notable ways over the course of that length. Think oil pipelines, telecommunication conduits, highways.

Railroad tracks are linear assets. A railroad line needs to be maintained to a very high standard throughout, though its components may vary over the distance, such as the quality of the roadbed, the speed limits for the trains, and the heaviness of the rails.

Such information is vital to maintaining a system as busy as the London Underground, which has 402 kilometers (250 miles) of track and is used by over 1.2 billion riders a year. Linear asset management provides all the details about the state of the track precisely at the location where the work needs to be done.

For the London Underground, track maintenance is typically confined to a four-hour window late at night when trains don't run. The linear asset management software can provide the crew with all the specific data about a location beforehand, so they don't waste time on site inspections to determine what materials and tools would be needed to complete the job.

In one case, a problem was found at a track location at 5 a.m. -- just before the morning rush hour. A crew was dispatched to the scene, but didn't have up-to-date information, and so waited for hours for the needed materials to arrive. As a result, the line wasn't reopened until 2 p.m., angering many commuters.

Foley noted that the London Underground has historically gotten a fair amount of criticism for a number of injuries and delays caused by insufficient data -- much of that data was tied to linear systems.

An update of the IBM Maximo software used to track linear assets aims to correct this problem, he said.

The London Underground has used Maximo for linear asset management since 2004, though the user interface in the early editions was so cumbersome that information wasn't consistently entered, leaving asset data hopelessly out of date.

Compliance has been improving with the recent update, Foley said. The software now has a graphical interface making it much easier to enter data.

Enterprise AMS also developed a mobile app to enter information trackside, rather than entering the information back at the office later, which increased the probability that the records wouldn't be updated at all, Foley said.

Before the mobile app, workers taking meter readings of the signals updated the corresponding records only a few dozen times a month. With the mobile app in use, the updates climbed to over 300 a month, Foley said.

"If you capture that information up front, you save time later on," Foley said.

London Underground has also implemented a policy that requires asset information to be updated before a work order can be closed out, which all but ensures it will get done.

Foley did not provide any specific metrics showing fewer delays, but if fewer news reports about London Underground problems surface in the years to come, it may mean linear asset management is doing its job.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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