Telent: Maintaining rail’s communication assets

Liverpool to Penzance using any route across London and taking in the sights of Norwich on the way – a bit of a strange trip even if you love train travel. However this is one of several journeys you can take where the communications assets are now maintained in some part by telent.

The doubling in size of the company’s rail maintenance business over the past two years proved a strain on its existing operations centre, based on the outskirts of Stratford’s Olympic village. However, somewhat ironically, it was not space which prompted the need for a move but a compulsory purchase order to make way for Crossrail. This enforced relocation offered an ideal opportunity not just to have a larger facility, customised for the running of a 24/7/365 rail communications maintenance business, but for improvement in process and the fundamental way telent ’s rail business worked.

The new larger facility located at Pirin Court near West Ham Station not only encompasses maintenance activities but also those related to the complete lifecycle of communications assets. This is only right, as a large proportion of the work telent undertakes is concerned with the management of whole-life cost for its rail customers. However having Research & Development (R&D), project delivery and long-term maintenance integrated in the way they are at Pirin Court is relatively rare.

A tour of the facility brings this reality to life, as was demonstrated by an event organised for the company’s customers last September. Over 30 representatives from Network Rail, train operators, London Underground, Crossrail, Docklands Light Railway and Serco Docklands paid a visit to experience first-hand everything from state-of-the-art technology to vintage equipment undergoing loving repair. The day generated so much interest that further tours have taken place since. So here, for the benefit of a wider audience, is a closer look at what goes on there.

A new way of thinking

With a bonded store that contains 16,000 unique assets, a workshop that can repair equipment long obsolete and an organisation of 150 field engineers with back-up support from system engineers and duty managers, some requirements of the new facility were clear from the start. But the final building now also supports the needs of R&D activities, software development and project delivery – perhaps a surprise to some that only know of telent as a service business.

However it’s not just the office space that makes Pirin Court a facility worthy of note. On touring the building and witnessing the life-cycle of systems and assets – from development through to obsolescence – it’s clear how it has brought about a new way of working.

An outstanding training and development lab houses test rigs of key and complex systems designed and maintained by telent. These are used for staff training, customer education and fault resolution as well as putting new concepts and enhancements through their paces. Unusual in this field, the facility enables all departments to get involved in the many stages of the development process, ensuring systems are designed, installed and commissioned in the most practical way for future maintenance.

It is the lab that is the focus for new product development. Whilst asset selection is often dictated by project or customer requirements, the firm does invest in research covering both design techniques and products specific to the rail environment. You are likely to see large London Underground signs having ‘shakers’ installed to make them into speakers or the latest IP speakers under test by acoustic design engineers. The latest high definition cameras submit to a variety of tests, not only to understand performance issues relevant to the rail environment but also to assess maintenance considerations for the future and transfer knowledge to field staff ready for the move from lab to real-world deployment. This is in addition to a variety of help point, information display and public address systems – both legacy and cutting edge – that are part of the training facility.

Management systems in development and testing

Fast delivery

The staging and marshalling area is where assets such as PA, CCTV and station management systems are assembled and tested prior to installation on site. With all elements of the process now under one roof and with the space to build and test, much more can now be completed before arrival on site so that the usual London Underground four-hour engineering period can be approached rather like a Formula 1 pit stop – a far cry from the traditional time-consuming method of on-site assembly. It is this approach that proved so effective during the complete upgrade of 70 Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly line stations which telent has successfully completed over the last five years.

An area that often generates a great deal of discussion is the purpose-built workshop. Component-level repairs are undertaken here and it is often products from a bygone era in pieces that provide the most interest. With some stations relying on operational assets over a century old, it’s not surprising that many systems contain components that are now obsolete, with the original manufacturers’ support no longer available. Repair is often the only practical solution and telent has brought back to life countless assets such as VHS video recorders and CRT monitors, as replacement by current technology is just not an option.

Extensive recording of fault data is also used to assess trends and many older assets will have a range of components replaced – even if they have not yet failed – to ensure their operational life is extended to the maximum when they are put back into service.

Communications hub

Even a relatively straightforward communal area – with tables, chairs and refreshment facilities – plays its part in the process. Calm and peaceful by day as the main line rail teams are out and about fixing faults, at night it comes to life when the numerous shift engineers are planning with their staff to make the most of the short working time available on the Underground network, and the main line teams return from their day’s work. During these shift handovers, there’s a real buzz as the area provides a central communications hub for the night’s activities. In 2010, for one customer alone, this saw the closure of 25,038 faults -10,038 of which needed parts replacing.

Pirin Court now provides the strong, integrated support facility needed for the often challenging, occasionally quirky, rail business. CCTV is generally considered a modern phenomenon but some stations still use cameras dating from the 1970s, working alongside new cameras transmitting video over modern state-of-the-art fibre networks. Clocks have definitely been around for some time and in rail that can mean up to 100 years and heritage status, but they still need maintaining.

Elsewhere, maintenance of GEC 4000 and DEC PDP computers the size of fridge freezers is provided alongside the latest ‘biscuit’ PCs that are many times more powerful and built into the back of TFT screens.

As much as it is the range and age of the technology that is a challenge, it is also the environment. In November 2010, telent was called to a station to repair a signal post telephone fault only to find most of the relevant cables – and, as far as the eye could see, both tracks – were submerged under several inches of water!

Take the tour

One year after moving into Pirin Court the results have exceeded expectations, with real benefits not only for the customer but also within telent. A good example is the surprisingly close working relationship that has developed between maintenance engineers and software developers.

The control system most in use at London Underground stations was developed and installed by the company and now forms a key part of a proactive maintenance strategy, providing status information on asset condition. However, when telent was then asked to take on full support to code level of a third-party system, the extent of its involvement increased dramatically. A large area of the training and development lab is now dedicated to an array of different management systems that telent maintains, whilst both maintenance and software engineers work together to rectify problems and develop ways of improving performance.

As to the future, even original development is being undertaken here. The firm’s new lightweight command and control system, known as MICA Horizon, and a web-based customer information system – both to be installed at stations across the capital – are in the final stage of development within the facility. These projects saw telent maintenance system engineers directly involved in the user workshops and in influencing many improvements based on their vast knowledge of common user problems, including the addition of items that will aid diagnostics and speed up system rebuilds. Improved efficiency within the company is saving time and cost for all parties.

Pirin Court is a facility telent proudly opens up to its customers and there’s an open invitation to those interested. Just email [email protected]


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