Computers are taking the strain out of the train - especially for those mapping the track.
The IT revolution in asset mapping of railway infrastructure is continuing apace. Maps of the rail network, or on-screen line diagrams of track, can now be linked to 3D drawings and even real time pictures using the Autorail package.
The asset mapping being developed by consulting engineer Aspen Burrow Crocker provides a template on which firms can superimpose the information they need. Engineers no longer need to refer to endless diagrams on hard copy which can be years out of date.
Paul Goldsmith, who developed the system for Aspen, stands in front of a map of the UK and, as if in a council of war, points to whole areas of the UK's 16,000 route km of track that have been colonised by Autorail since the software was introduced in 1992. Railtrack currently has 4,800km asset mapped by Autorail and parts of the West Coast Main Line have recently been added.
Aspen hopes to persuade other companies to use the system for their rail contracts.
Moving to the screen displaying a map of the UK, Goldsmith clicks onto East Anglia, and clicking again, a five mile route diagram in Norfolk appears. In seconds, he has pinpointed the overbridge he was looking for and then flags up a photograph.
'For the last 150 years, drawings have been used to keep account of track condition, curvature, gradient, bridges and signals. British Rail used to devote whole offices to creating updated drawings for each five mile stretch of track, and bound them in little green books. The labour costs were massive.
'What we are offering is a software system which can give you an overview of all your track and then download you to the exact area you want. To my knowledge we are the only people doing this,' says Goldsmith.
The major marketing weapon for Autorail is speed and concentration of data. 'An engineer can look up all the information needed about one bridge in one go. On hard copy the bridge would be competing with information about gradient, curvature, permanent way and so on. On screen, the bridge can be flagged up large and exclusively and with enough space for detailed information beside it. In theory, the software saves the engineer from a time consuming data search using various sources.
'By being able to play around with the display, zooming in on small areas, it's possible to get more information up onto the screen and much more can be keyed in.'
Engineers in the field using hand held global positioning systems equipment can feed the grid co-ordinates back to Autorail in the office so that all information on the stretch of track can be downloaded immediately.
Maintenance contractors will have the benefit of the latest track upgrades as they happen. Areas with defective rail still waiting to be relaid can be colour coded with the date of when the work will be carried out. 'Future works used to have to be looked up on a tabulated database and it was a nightmare,' says Goldsmith.
As a project management tool Autorail saved time and possibly many disagreements on the Heathrow Express project, by providing a masterplan keeping all parties up to date with track and signalling work over the two year construction period.
'Colours denoted work being undertaken by different contractors and when it would be carried out. This gave local authorities, planning authorities and the rail inspectorate an overview of a highly complex project,' said Goldsmith.
As a multi faceted information source with links to 3D graphic drawings, photographs and databases of reports and costings, Autorail is increasingly used as a project management tool. 'This is an area that has really taken off in the last year. It's been a requirement of Balfour Beatty and Railtrack and we've responded to that.'
Aspen, which used to be called DHV, is trying to persuade other contractors to follow the lead of Balfour Beatty and embrace Autorail as an all embracing management tool.
'Railtrack and AMEC have gone part of the way and I'm hoping we can persuade Jarvis, GTRM and Amey that they can't do without it,' says Goldsmith.