Given the sheer scale of rail networks and their critical role in transporting cargo and commuters at top speeds across remote regions and bustling metropolitan centres, railway planning must be conducted with care, abiding by strict regulations, codes, and rules. Railway project management involves many large-scale planning challenges, with far-reaching consequences when things go wrong and enormous budgets at stake.
This article explores how digital simulation can transform the traditionally lengthy and error-prone planning process into an agile, interactive system, boosting return on investment (ROI) and minimising stakeholder frustration. Drawing upon real-world examples from railway infrastructure projects in Australia and around the world, this article illustrates how real-time virtual models can increase planning efficiency, accelerate approval timeframes, and lead to quicker, safer, and more reliable journeys for passengers.
What is railway planning? A brief overview
Railway planning involves the strategic oversight of all railway systems and related infrastructure. This includes track alignment, rail capacity, logistics planning, maintenance scheduling, safety checks, signalling and communication networks, track access, landscaping, vegetation control, and on-site organisation of assets and equipment. This process requires synchronising human resources, such as engineers, architects, urban planners, rail construction managers, transport officers, railway contractors and crews, as well as coordinating traffic, passengers, and pedestrian flow. If not managed correctly, grappling with this level of complexity can lead to misunderstandings, accidents, obstacles, cost overruns, and unexpected delays. Effective railway planning requires clear communication and the cultivation of a shared understanding of a project’s objectives and vision.
Why is railway management important?
Effective railway management is vital for enhancing the performance and safety of a rail network, reducing disruptions and failures, and increasing rail capacity. The goal is to create and preserve functional, aesthetically pleasing, people-centric spaces with cost-effective and sustainable infrastructure that withstands the test of time. Proficient railway management ensures the seamless transit of goods and passengers, spurs economic growth, strengthens regional ties, and generates employment opportunities within the rail industry and beyond.
How digital twins aid railway planning
Leaders of the best railway infrastructure in the world are increasingly turning towards 3D virtual replicas or digital twins as a planning tool. Digital twin railway planning software generates intelligent, dynamic models of the rail network, creating a virtual representation of complex 3D environments, accurately mimicking the appearance and behaviour of the real-world infrastructure.
In an international survey conducted by BearingPoint, feedback was sought from rail infrastructure managers. The findings revealed that 81% of respondents felt traditional decision-making processes were too time-consuming, 89% believed these processes led to unnecessary duplication of effort, and 86% were overwhelmed by paperwork duties.[i] Although many expressed an interest in adopting intelligent infrastructure technologies such as digital twins to address these challenges, uncertainties surrounding implementation and a lack of clarity about the benefits posed significant hurdles. This article addresses these concerns, presenting tangible examples and use cases, outlining the many advantages that digital twins offer railway planners.
Rail safety management and risk mitigation: the benefits of CGI
Railway is an incredibly high-risk environment, with the potential for serious and life-threatening accidents, including derailment. Poor planning can lead to catastrophic outcomes, necessitating emergency evacuation and passenger rescue. Working within constrained environments near railway tracks under varying weather conditions carries unique risks, such as exposure to high-voltage overhead lines and the potential for collisions. Safely working in the rail corridor requires specialised training before rail corridor access is granted, and careful crew management to ensure that operations proceed without incident.
Digital twins play a growing role in rail risk management, providing a platform for real-time analysis and mitigation of potential risks. By simulating various operational conditions, rail infrastructure managers can evaluate the effectiveness of safety measures and pinpoint system vulnerabilities, developing robust prevention and incident management protocols.
Digital twins are highly useful for educating employees about safe workplace procedures and enhancing decision-making in high-risk situations. An effective crew management system in railway often incorporates simulations, because on-site training can itself involve risk. Some governing bodies now go so far as to stipulate that, in scenarios where on-site training is dangerous or unsuitable, virtual training is preferable or even mandatory. For example, the national standard for Australian SARC (Safely Access the Rail Corridor) training specifies the following:
“Assessment must occur in workplace operational situations where it is appropriate to do so; where this is not appropriate, assessment must occur in simulated workplace operational situations that replicate a rail corridor.”– Unit of competency details, TLIF2080 – Safely Access the Rail Corridor, Training.gov.au[ii] (emphasis added)
Rail shutdown work: disruptions and planned railway works
Shutdown planning is a critical facet of railway management. It includes orchestrating railway maintenance tasks, such as block of line planning (or shutdowns) and temporary works planning, as well as emergency repairs. As an example, Queensland Rail, Australia, uses the Scheduled Corridor Access System (SCAS) to strategically schedule line closures, often over weekends, with high-voltage railway electrical services deactivated, creating a safe environment for essential maintenance tasks while minimising inconvenience to customers.
Railway shutdown periods prompted by accidents, malfunctions, routine maintenance, or planned engineering works are vital to ensure safe and efficient operation of the railway system. In cases of unforeseen disruptions, immediate adjustments and decisions are required.[iii] This may necessitate rerouting certain lines, modifying timetables, redeploying vehicles and crew, and communicating with passengers about alternate routes or modes of transport.
Suitable digital twins can significantly streamline this process, allowing shutdowns to be managed more effectively and even anticipated, predicted, or avoided. Intelligent digital twins can play a pivotal role in planning the shutdowns safely and efficiently and keeping the public informed about closures or unexpected events – such as with CGI animations for announcements. Railway closures are often in areas with high pedestrian and road traffic. Hence, extreme time pressure can be involved, with a need for clear planning, engagement, training, and communication about disruptions and delays.
Landscaping and earthworks considerations in rail infrastructure development
Railway infrastructure development demands careful evaluation of the topography along the proposed route. Railway track expansion can require extensive cutting, filling, and grading operations to create a level and stable base for the track. The design of a railway track involves consideration of many factors, including the type of soil or rock underfoot, which can significantly impact the cost and feasibility of construction, as can the positioning of local ecosystems and watercourses.
Digital simulations are valuable tools for modelling the complex interactions between railway infrastructure and the surrounding environment. Using advanced geographic information systems, terrain models can incorporate data about soil types, rock formations, and hydrological features, simulating the impact of various construction techniques and layout options, enabling iterative testing and optimisation, and reducing the potential for costly errors in the real world.
“The maintenance works in the metro railway system in Taiwan currently apply BIM to manage the working schedule, and the BIM is integrated with material inventory and a geographic information system (GIS), which analyses the consequences that the underground geological structure has on the railway system.”– Sakdirat Kaewunruen, Jessada Sresakoolchai, and Yi-hsuan Lin, Digital twins for managing railway maintenance and resilience (2021) [vii]
Furthermore, digital simulations can aid in visualising how the proposed infrastructure will integrate aesthetically into the landscape, as well as illuminate potential environmental impacts, helping to ensure compliance with relevant regulations and sustainable development goals.
Decarbonisation and sustainability in railway infrastructure planning
“The [Australian] Federal Government has released its 2023-24 Budget, with a major focus on a national infrastructure review, sustainable development and decarbonising the sector.”– Steph Barker, Federal Budget 2023-24: what does it mean for the infrastructure sector? (2023) [iv]
As the emphasis on sustainability and decarbonisation intensifies among governments, leaders in the rail infrastructure market are investing in practices that curtail environmental footprints and incorporate renewable energy sources, such as electrifying railway tracks to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Decarbonisation strategies encompass more than simply transitioning to zero-emission trains. They also involve boosting energy efficiency in railway operations, adopting ‘green’ construction methods, and integrating lifecycle assessments during planning and design stages. These comprehensive measures ensure that each phase of rail infrastructure development is geared towards sustainable outcomes.
Railway alignment and line planning
Precise railway alignment and line planning are paramount in railway operations. Rail track alignment must be meticulously planned to minimise friction and abrasion on the tracks and ensure smooth transitions around bends and through track junctions and turnouts. The goal is to position the rail line optimally (along with the rail corridor and embankments) – with the decision dependent upon land use requirements, topographical and geological constraints, environmental considerations, population catchment areas, and so on.
Digital models allow planners to evaluate various track alignment scenarios in virtual space, simulating the operation of the track from the view of the driver’s cabin, at different speeds, under various braking conditions, times of day, environment and weather conditions. These simulations offer a lifelike experience of the train line, allowing you to gather real-time feedback and identify potential hiccups early in the planning process.
Live track data (such as IoT) can also be integrated into digital twin models. For example, a portable alignment acquisition system can be attached to the rear of the train, surveying track position and geometry with engineering-level precision. This allows a highly accurate model and updated representation of the railway infrastructure. Some track management systems can calculate wagon coupling forces, loading conditions, and buffer forces around curves, allowing you to predict the likelihood of derailment at any point on the track.[v]
In summary, digital twins facilitate highly accurate and informed decisions about line placement, slew alignment, switch and crossing positions, line extensions, junctions, turnouts, interchanges, and railway turntable plans, surpassing the accuracy and integration achievable through traditional two-dimensional railway planning methods.
“Railway junctions, including industrial sidings, operate in an environment of high uncertainty. This is due to the need to serve a multitude of loading / unloading areas, consumers of transport services, cargo owners with a stochastic demand for transportation. … The task of optimising the parameters and the sequence of shunting operations is difficult due to the large number of options for their implementation. This feature of railway junctions increases the need to create their digital twins to support decisions.”– Aleksandr Rakhmangulov, Pavel Mishkurov, and Sergey Kornilov, Digital twins of railway junctions based on a simulation model (2021) [vi] (emphasis added)
Train scheduling and rail capacity planning
Train timetabling and capacity management form the bedrock of efficient railway operations. This process involves carefully coordinating train routing, timing, and sequencing around constraints such as railroad track weight capacity, passenger train capacity, freight demand, rolling stock availability, and operational regulations. The goal is to reduce travel times and maximise throughput while minimising costs, conflicts, and delays. This dynamic and complex task typically requires sophisticated algorithms to resolve.
A central factor in train scheduling is headway – the time interval between consecutive trains moving on the same line, which directly influences a rail line’s capacity and efficiency. Using a simulated digital twin, the impact of varying headway times under different conditions can be assessed to establish an optimal schedule. Digital twins can also be employed to test different scenarios for distributing rolling stock and to understand the effect on overall network performance, particularly during peak hours or service disruptions.
Visibility in railway signalling design
Railway signalling is an integral component of rail operations, involving a system of signals and rules that govern train movements. These include track switching, braking operations, junction routing, speed restrictions, and level crossing control. Effective signalling requires that drivers can see, comprehend, and react to signals in time, taking into account track geometry, line speed, curvature, gradients, lighting conditions, and visual or physical obstructions. When selecting the position of signals, various technical parameters must be considered, such as train headway, block section length, and braking characteristics at different velocities.
The planning of trackside signals demands extensive testing and validation to ensure that signals can be clearly sighted and responded to in the timeframe required. Digital railway signalling simulators help with this process enormously, allowing for rapid conflict detection and optimisation in a virtual setting. Equipped with superior modelling capabilities, computational power, and artificial intelligence, digital twins are invaluable decision support tools for use with committees (usually called Signal Sighting committees) responsible for developing or auditing a signal sighting arrangement plan.
Planning for railway construction projects
“To improve railway construction and maintenance, a novel digital twin that helps stakeholders visualise, share data, and monitor the progress and the condition during services is required.”– Sakdirat Kaewunruen, Jessada Sresakoolchai, and Yi-hsuan Lin, Digital twins for managing railway maintenance and resilience (2021) [vii]
Railway construction work is complex and multi-faceted, involving the construction of new railway lines, the development of bridges, tunnels, and stations, and the expansion of existing infrastructure. Virtual models streamline the railway planning process, enabling real-time refinement of design briefs and the testing and validation of options.
A virtual model provides an instant visual representation of what an environment will look like before or after a proposal is implemented – offering high levels of confidence and assurance early in the design process. Each phase of a new railway project can be simulated, highlighting bottlenecks, safety concerns, and conflicts between components. Assumptions can be revealed in great detail, with experiencing a virtual model almost as informative as being on-site in the future world.
“Reports and diagrams weren’t enough. To help people better understand and appreciate what we’re wanting to achieve meant we needed creative, professional outputs to communicate complex information fast.”– Stephen Scott, General Manager of Future Network Delivery, Sydney Trains
Railway layout plans and space proving
Construction near railway lines frequently occurs within tight and difficult hard-to-access spaces. CGI railroad planning software allows designers to virtually test and simulate various site layouts, accounting for physical constraints unique to the project. Plant and equipment can be placed dynamically on the virtual site, simplifying railway layout planning and allowing confident alignment of sensitive adjacent assets, cadastral boundaries, rail gantries, lighting, cabling, hoarding, screening, and so on. Digital twins encourage accurate supply chains and material management, simulating the precise allocation and scheduling of material flows throughout the project’s lifecycle. Positions of all assets are measurable and geo-referenced, ensuring an accurate real-time testing fit within clearance and safety zones.
Utility and services planning in rail development
Railroad construction requires careful consideration of the positioning of utilities, such as underground pipes, cabling, and wiring systems. These utilities often form a densely interwoven network beneath urban landscapes, presenting significant constraints and challenges for railway construction and maintenance.
Railway stations, multi-directional travel hubs, and precinct planning
“…failure to plan can cost the government in lost customer journeys, reputation and confidence. The work we’re planning for is the busiest station in the biggest city in Australia – we simply can’t afford to fail.”– Stephen Scott, General Manager of Future Network Delivery, Sydney Trains
Railway stations are often described as the heart of the rail network, serving as a hub for daily human interactions. Key factors in rail terminal development include efficient boarding and circulation of passengers, seamless interchange with other transport modes, and strategic placement of amenities and services.
Digital simulations of railway stations offer unparalleled advantages for station capacity planning. They enable the simulation of passenger flow and dwell times, identifying optimal locations for wayfinding signs, tactile paths, and auditory cues, improving customer navigation through the precinct.[viii] Due to the often large and complex nature of these spaces, effective wayfinding is essential, with thousands of passengers often travelling daily, requiring clear and understandable cues to quickly locate the intended exit, platform, ticket office, restroom, or other facilities.
Traditional railway station buildings are often static, rigid structures linked by rail tracks and circling locomotives, overlooking the human factor. New railway station designs increasingly aim to re-establish a connection with people, embracing human-scale, ground-level precinct planning. Virtual models make this easier than ever before, enabling future railway stations to harmoniously integrate within the surrounding cityscape.
Train yard layout and railway depot design
Train yards are complex facilities designed for the sorting, storing, loading/unloading, and maintenance of trains. These facilities often have a complex layout that includes a network of parallel tracks, switches, and signal systems. An effective railway yard plan ensures efficient traffic flow, prioritising safety while optimising operational capacity and turnaround times.
Railway depot design includes planning facilities for train storage, maintenance, cleaning, and refuelling. The arrangement of these facilities should allow for the efficient movement of trains and provide space for machinery and personnel involved in maintenance while complying with safety regulations.
Underground rail systems and railway tunnel construction
Planning underground rail systems and railway tunnels entails careful consideration of numerous technical factors, such as geological conditions, soil type and stability, groundwater conditions, and the potential for flood or earthquake risk. Construction methods, including cut-and-cover or tunnel boring machines, must be selected based on ground conditions, surface constraints, project budget, and timeline.
Due to confined underground environments, special attention must be given to ventilation, emergency evacuation planning, and fire safety measures. Efficient signalling systems that can operate reliably in a tunnel environment are also required.
Railway bridge construction and planning
Railway bridge planning involves civil engineering, geology, hydrology, and environmental considerations. It requires determining the optimal location, alignment, and design to ensure structural stability, durability, resilience, and safety. This must be achieved while accounting for projected train loads and frequencies and considering the potential impact on waterways and wildlife. Overbridge planning and railway footbridge design also require assessing pedestrian traffic volumes, addressing accessibility needs, and establishing connections to existing infrastructure.
Digital twins and virtual simulations enhance bridge planning by facilitating the visualisation of a bridge in its environment, thereby aiding with a functional assessment and aesthetic integration. Some digital twins also have the capacity to evaluate structural integrity, simulate load conditions, and simulate the bridge’s response under various weather conditions.
Level crossing removals
Level crossings often create conflict and potential hazards for trains, vehicles, and pedestrians, resulting in numerous accidents, close calls, and traffic congestion. Consequently, governments worldwide are prioritising the removal of level crossings in their transport infrastructure strategies. The goal is to replace these crossings with safer and more efficient alternatives, such as bridges or underpasses, to alleviate congestion and allow people to cross the rail line safely. For instance, the Level Crossing Removal Project, initiated by the Victorian Government in Australia, is committed to eradicating 110 high-risk level crossings across Melbourne by 2030.[ix]
The value of digital simulation in this context cannot be overstated. Virtual models allow planners to assess level crossing design proposals, simulate traffic patterns, and predict the impact of a crossing removal on the surrounding infrastructure and community, including landscape and visual impact assessments. Level crossing removal presents a unique set of challenges, with one of the primary difficulties being the necessity to maintain functionality of the intersection for as long as possible during construction. This requires meticulous planning and precise execution to minimise disruptions to both road and rail traffic. Simulations equip stakeholders with the information needed to make informed decisions and anticipate potential challenges before the commencement of rail crossing work.
Planning an effective rail maintenance schedule
An effective railway planning system requires that maintenance occurs at appropriate intervals. Excessive maintenance wastes time and resources, resulting in unnecessary shutdowns and delays, frustrating customers. Inadequate maintenance, on the other hand, risks component failure and railroad infrastructure deterioration, potentially leading to catastrophic outcomes. Striking the right balance is complicated and traditionally involves the manual processing of enormous volumes of data fed into Excel spreadsheets, requiring intense human analysis.
One of the areas in which digital twins are particularly transformative is railway infrastructure maintenance planning.[vii] Digital models can integrate real-time data, with input from live sensors (such as railway track crack detection system using ultrasonic sensors and vibration sensors) attached to key assets. This data is fed back into the digital model and allows continuous monitoring to occur, enabling rail infrastructure managers to spot issues before disaster arises. Managers can hence transition away from reactive maintenance towards predictive maintenance, reducing costs across the asset life cycle and providing detailed insights into asset health and system behaviour.
Railway vegetation management
Vegetation management is essential for maintaining the safety and efficiency of railway operations. Overgrown vegetation can hinder driver visibility, impede drainage within the rail corridor, and create hazards that negatively impact operations, such as branches falling onto the tracks or interfering with overhead lines during adverse weather conditions.
Regular inspections, mowing, pruning, and vegetation clearance is imperative. Effective railroad vegetation management necessitates the organisation of arborists and clearing crews, access to remote parts of the track, disposal of cuttings, and consideration of seasonal cycles of flora and fauna, including the impact on local habitats and other species.
Digital simulations can make vegetation management much easier. With the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology and remote sensing methods such as LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), detailed digital maps of railway corridors can be created. These can help identify areas where vegetation encroaches on the tracks or interferes with signals, allowing for targeted and more effective maintenance scheduling. Integrating this spatial data with species identification and growth rates can also assist vegetation management strategies.
Financial and railway budget management
Budgetary management is a fundamental element of railway planning, determining the feasibility and viability of a project. Rail infrastructure projects typically involve substantial up-front costs, with the precise figure dependent upon the terrain, land acquisition value, labour costs, existing railway infrastructure, and the construction methods used. These up-front costs are followed by operational and maintenance expenses, as well as end-of-lifecycle costs associated with updates or decommissioning.
Digital simulations can assist in mitigating budget overruns by identifying potential challenges early, with solutions reached in shorter timeframes. Clear communication throughout the project increases certainty, reduces costly rebuilds, and saves money, time, reputation, and confidence. Digital simulations can also be used to market projects to the community, promoting high patronage and boosting return on investment.
Animations can also help with seeking funding by illustrating the vision and potential of a project with clarity and precision, providing potential investors with a vivid, tangible understanding of the proposal.
How our CGI Digital Twins rail planning software can help
The team at Urban CGI work with a wide array of railway companies, government organisations, railway associations, and rail industry professionals across Australia, New Zealand, and around the world. We assist a wide array of companies involved in railway infrastructure through all stages of the planning process and have proven results deploying digital twins in a wide range of use cases.
Our technology converts your data into a beautiful, immersive, interactive, geo-accurate 3D model of your project, improving every aspect of railway planning. We like to think of our digital twin as a railway master plan – an adaptable living entity that grows, sculpts, and protects your vision as it becomes a reality.
Our CGI Digital Twins technology is delivered alongside personalised rail planning services, such as facilitated discussions and integrated workshops with team members, helping you progress through the planning process in a flexible, collaborative environment. Our unique technology and acceleration capabilities allow railway clients to move 10-100x faster, with clients often telling us, “What took months now takes weeks.”
We offer a full end-to-end service and are able to work across multiple disciplines to achieve the output you require. We can assist with the capture of data, including LiDAR, filling any gaps so that your digital twin is brought to life with the level of detail required.
Our software is second-to-none and can save you enormous sums on design iterations, audit trails, and interface and integration verifications. However, what really sets us apart is our intimate knowledge of the rail industry. With over two decades of working closely with rail personnel on a wide array of infrastructure projects, our staff possess a wealth of specialised knowledge specific to the rail sector. We speak your language and understand the day-to-day challenges faced by those operating within large passenger and freight networks. Urban CGI can help you with all aspects of infrastructure development, from signalling plans to space proving, to block of lines and shutdown planning, to slew alignments and whistle boards.
We are recognised for our experience in leading and driving railway projects from concept to completion, collaborating effectively with stakeholders and project teams. We offer customer-centric solutions and are committed to building long-lasting client relationships – positioned to scale with you if your needs grow.
The Urban CGI team understand the incredible complexities, sensitivities, confidentiality, and timing required to support large railway infrastructure projects and have been involved in directly briefing ministers, the premier, and cabinet while presenting our live 3D models.
Our simulations can be exported as 2D renders, repurposed as animations or instructional videos, or used as briefings or inductions for railway staff and crew. We can turn these simulations into augmented reality maps, virtual tours, or interactive online portals, or convert them into promotional animations that engage, educate, and captivate stakeholders, investors, and the wider community.
People are always asking me, ‘Who does your amazing animations?’ I unreservedly recommend UC to anyone.– Stephen Scott, General Manager of Future Network Delivery, Sydney Trains
If you would like to discuss how our technology can help your precise circumstance, please reach out to us for a no-obligation conversation. A member of our team from the Melbourne office will be in touch. We would love to hear from you!
[i] BearingPoint, International Survey, Digitalization in rail infrastructure management: Status, potentials and constraints along the whole value chain of the industry
[ii] Unit of competency details, TLIF2080 – Safely Access the Rail Corridor, Training.gov.au
[iii] Janny Leung, Yong-Hong Kuo, and David Lai, The Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, On the Right Track: Optimisation Models for Railway Planning (2016)
[iv] Steph Barker, Federal Budget 2023-24: what does it mean for the infrastructure sector? Infrastructure Magazine (2023)
[v] Esteban Bernal, Qing Wu, Maksym Spiryagin and Colin Cole, Augmented digital twin for railway systems (2023)
[vi] Aleksandr Rakhmangulov, Pavel Mishkurov, and Sergey Kornilov, Digital twins of railway junctions based on a simulation model (2021)
[vii] Sakdirat Kaewunruen, Jessada Sresakoolchai, and Yi-hsuan Lin, Digital twins for managing railway maintenance and resilience (2021)
[viii] Rail Safety and Standards Board, Digital Twins and the Railway: One Framework Many Implementations (2020)
[ix] Level Crossing Removal Project, Victoria’s Big Build