Riding on Technology: Digital solutions reshaping metro rail construction and O&M

The metro rail sector in India is growing at a fast pace, with new networks coming up in almost every key city in the country. Managing and governing such complex systems present numerous challenges throughout the life cycle of the asset. In response, the industry is witnessing an increasing interest in digital solutions and technologies across all facets of systems including design, construction, and operations and maintenance (O&M). In particular, technologies such as digital twins hold strong promise in areas of design collaboration, integrated project controls and digitalised asset management, empowering stakeholders to make informed decisions and en­hancing governance and control over metro rail networks. Recently, Indian Infrastructure, in association with Bentley Systems, organised an event on “Digitalisation of Metro Systems”, whe­re metro rail operators, contractors and consultants shared their views on the adoption of technologies across different aspects of me­tro rail operations, key benefits and challen­ges. Key takeaways from the discussion…

Metro rail networks are emerging as essential components of India’s urban mobility landscape. That said, owner-operators face many challenges during project execution and O&M of infrastructure, meeting time and budgetary constraints and dealing with distributed teams. Additionally, there are se­veral pre-development and construction-related issues. In recent ye­a­rs, digitalisation and technological advan­ce­ments in planning, ex­ecution, construction mo­nitoring and operations have helped overcome several of these challenges and made operations efficient.

Accelerating digitalisation

Most of the metro rail operators are using in-house developed integrated data management systems for project management and O&M pra­ctices. Technologies such as internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence and 3D printing are being used for predictive maintenance of ro­lling stock, signalling, and electrical and me­chanical systems. Drones are being used to identify issu­es related to track and overhead equipment.

On the construction side, mechanised te­chniques, advanced machinery and automation have revolutionised the process. Digitali­sation tools such as building information modelling (BIM), project management software and data analytics are being used in project pla­nning, design and monitoring. The utilisati­on of data analytics and specialised software streamlines the project management process by improving scheduls, resource allocation, risk assessment and cost control. Drones are now being used for surveying and inspections. Deployment of methods such as 3D printing and modular construction are on the rise as they help reduce construction timelines, en­hance quality control and minimise waste. IoT sensors are being used to prevent pilferage and identify faults.

BIM, in particular, has emerged as a pivotal tool, enabling stakeholders to visualise and coordinate more effectively. It enables simultaneous execution of design and documentation. Globally, BIM is evolving into a crucial and mandated process, while in India the technology is still at a nascent stage.

Data management

Significant amounts of data and information get generated at the conceptualisation, design and execution stages. Unfortunately, this data and information often gets lost or neglected. The deployment of digital technology in infrastructure projects helps in retaining and sharing crucial information from each stage, which can be subsequently used in the O&M stage. This accounts for approximately 75-80 per cent of the project life cycle cost.

In such a scenario, efficient data management is extremely crucial. It starts with a good project management information system, but most certainly does not stop there. It is imperative that all the data must be gathered to take the right decision at the right time, using business intelligence. All documentations should al­so be very efficiently managed using a docu­me­nt management system.

Organisations are now looking at adopting a common data environment (CDE) platform. Such platforms tend to work separately in each phase of construction and help in integrating the information and data from all construction phases into a common thread. BIM-enabled CDE serves as a centralised platform, where all project stakeholders can access and share the relevant project information. Any design change will trigger updates ac­ross all aspects of the project for all stakeholders involved.

Strong case for digital twins

The digital twin technology enables optimisation in construction, helping identify issues in advance and work on their resolution. A digital twin functions as a digital representation of a physical asset and can assist in building projects by speeding up and automating traditional design, production and operating processes. By using digital twin technology, businesses can keep track of assets and plan maintena­n­ce. Immersive inspections via a digital twin can enhance the speed and quality of inspections. The ability to generate a digital representation of a physical asset enables all development stakeholders to share knowledge and coordinate complicated procedures through the use of a single digital resource.

For capital projects, a digital twin can help drive efficiency and increase quality within multidisciplinary and digitalised workflows, enab­ling streamlined collaboration, maximum productivity and better-informed decisions. During operations, combining data from continuous su­r­veys, photogrammetry, LiDAR, walked ins­pections and/or remote sensors, digital twins help optimise rail maintenance strategies to reduce cos­ts and improve overall safety and reliability.

Metro rail systems can embrace digital tw­ins to enhance design and planning, enable real-time monitoring and predictive mainten­ance, opti­mi­se O&M, enhance safety and em­ergency response, and improve life cycle assessment management and the passenger experience.

Key challenges and the way forward

More than the lack of technology solutions, it is the lack of awareness and implementation that is a roadblock. The systems today have a host of legacy data and their integration is a challenge. Change management is a key issue. The players in the ecosystem, especially metro rail operators/owners and collaborators, may have di­ffering views on the adoption of digital tools and thus need to be educated and trained on new elements and their benefits.

Cost considerations continue to drive business decisions. People often consider technology as a cost and overlook the value it will bring in the long run. Any digital investment must be viewed in terms of the value that it creates.

Going forward, digitalisation needs to be pu­s­hed across all aspects, right from design, to construction and O&M. The technological stri­des will fundamentally reshape metro rail co­nstruction and the O&M landscape. Digi­tal twin te­chnology, in particular, can be a ga­me ­ch­anger for the industry. It will provide opportunities to deliver improved business outco­mes across the entire rail and transit asset life cycle, and can help reshape how metro rail in­frastructure is pl­a­­n­ned, designed, built, ope­ra­ted and maintained.