Synthetic Environments –
what are they and what benefits do they bring?

The Synthetic Environment offers a radically different approach to developing a new signalling control system.
David Shipman, Network Rail.

David Shipman, Network Services innovations engineering manager at Network Rail, explains the concept of the Synthetic Environment, one of a number of new analysis techniques that are coming through as the railway becomes increasingly digital.

Network Rail is about to begin the process of procuring a Synthetic Environment (SE) for the development of future Control Command and Signalling (CCS) schemes.  But what is a Synthetic Environment, and how will it change the shape of CCS development in the coming years?

Even before the current pandemic, which has caused passenger numbers on our railways to plummet, the cost of renewing an ageing signalling infrastructure was expected to become unaffordable without a significant change in approach to the traditional technologies and processes. 

The move towards radio-based (ETCS) signalling technology forms a major part of this, bringing down up-front capital requirements for each renewal as well as reducing the whole life cost through reduced lineside infrastructure.  A major element of the cost of implementing a new signalling scheme, however, is the process of specifying, designing, developing and implementing the technology, whether using conventional lineside signals or replacing these with in-cab systems.

Automated design processes

Despite gradual improvements in processes over many years, the fundamental approach to delivering a new signalling system still relies heavily on traditional design techniques, reviews of paper-based documents, manual data transfers, and reliance on testing a final, built system in the real world. 

This is where the Synthetic Environment offers a radically different approach.  During the design phase, new tools will be brought together in an integrated design platform, enabling greater use of machine intelligence to automate design processes, using proven building blocks based on the appropriate technologies for radio-based signalling solutions. 

Close integration of design and simulation at this stage, through digital data management, will both simplify and accelerate the design cycle and reduce the amount of expensive customised design that characterises current processes.

Moving into the later stages of project delivery, the impact of the Synthetic Environment will be even more noticeable.  Here, we will be able to build a digital model of the entire system, driven by the data directly from the design process, into which we can integrate and test real system components without the need to access the trackside or interfere with the regular operation of the railway. 

Simplified testing and commissioning

As our signalling suppliers each complete their respective system components, the integration will continue to the point of having a tested and proven full system within the Synthetic Environment which emulates the outside world interfacing with real components.

At this point, final commissioning of the system is greatly simplified, with disruptive possessions reduced and on-site testing minimised.  Altogether, the testing and validation phase is significantly shortened, commissioning times are reduced, and system reliability is maximised from day one of operation. 

The data-driven approach through the lifecycle then continues into the handback of the new system data into whole-life asset management, seamlessly and without delay.

Additional benefits

At the same time, the Synthetic Environment fulfils additional purposes.  Supplier products can be fully tested and validated in an integrated form far more easily in this environment, proving compatibility and reliability in conjunction with multiple other products ahead of being required for a specific project.  This feeds back into the design process, ensuring that solutions are built around proven technologies, rather than technologies being proven through their first use in critical projects. 

Meanwhile, training for maintainers, operators, and even drivers can be integrated and facilitated with real-scheme data ahead of project implementation, enabling more realistic and timely updating of skills.

Understanding Synthetic Environments

Synthetic Environments are not new to industry as a whole, and Rail has a lot to learn from related environments such as aerospace, defence, roads and many more. 

Our journey towards providing this environment is an exciting one which will bring about great improvements in the delivery of efficient, sustainable CCS solutions for years to come. 

Solution providers, system integrators, SMEs and others from across rail and other industries are invited to join Network Rail to find out more about this journey, starting with an information webinar taking place on 17 February 2021. 

Contact DRPProcurement@networkrail.co.uk to register your interest in the webinar and / or future communications on this topic.

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what are they and what benefits do they bring?"

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