Part of the problem may be that neither side knows exactly what it is talking about. There is no complete record of British Rail's infrastructure, and even though there are more than 20 databases relating to it, much of the information is incorrect, inconsistent or simply out of date.
BR's Train Systems group in Derby has come up with a solution. A pilot project to create a unified computer system for cataloguing and managing all the railway infrastructure was recently completed and has already been demonstrated to Railtrack.
The pilot involved cataloguing about 1,600 miles of track around Birmingham using a specially developed video train. This method of surveying the track is so successful that BR has been approached to apply it in North America and on the Moscow to St Petersburg railway. It has also been consulted about whether the equipment could be mounted in a boat for surveying rivers in Bangladesh where frequent heavy flooding causes the rivers to change course.
The scale and nature of the railway infrastructure makes the creation of a single system for managing it a daunting task. British Rail is one of the largest landowners in Britain, but most of the land is in ribbons 10 to 20 metres wide, more than 10,000 miles of it. There are more than 23,000 miles of track and it is estimated that overall there are one million items of infrastructure.
'Privatisation enabled the railway to take a hard look at its infrastructure computer systems. The urgent need has been emphasised by the creation of Railtrack whose sole assets are the land and the infrastructure, and whose sole income is from the revenue these assets provide,' says Ray State, manager of the infrastructure project.
Scrutiny of existing databases showed:
The location and identification of the infrastructure was incomplete.
Distances were incorrect or in unhelpful measurements such as chains.
Assets were listed that have been disposed of and some new assets were unregistered.
Many of the current shortcomings stem from the age of the infrastructure. A parliamentary bill in the 1840s required the railway companies to install distance markers every mile and quarter. 'The pilot survey showed the quarter-mile posts to be anything from 350 to 600 yards apart,' says Mr State.
BR's problem in trying to build a comprehensive and up- to-date infrastructure database, in common with other utilities, such as BT, British Gas and the water companies, is the cost of collecting the data. A manual survey carried out by teams of two surveyors with a lookout would present safety problems, cost between pounds 4m and pounds 6m, and take two to three years to complete. The survey data would then have to be overlaid on computerised Ordnance Survey maps at 1:1250 scale, costing more than pounds 6m.
Mr Slate also considered doing an aerial survey, but although this would take less time to complete, it would still have to be backed up by manual survey work. It was seeing an item about a video road-surveying system developed by Geografix, a software house in Norwich, that gave Mr State the idea of developing a rail-mounted survey system.
Using the video train, built in 1958, it will cost pounds 1.7m to collect and process the data. It will take 12 to 18 months to complete the system, with the survey work taking less than six months.
Apart from up to five video cameras, synchronised so that the tapes can be replayed simultaneously, the train has a compass and a global positioning system for checking position, an odometer for checking distance and an altimeter for recording gradient. The surveying team also records a running commentary.
The tapes are then processed to extract the data. This is done by replaying the tapes through a personal computer. As each item of infrastructure is selected on the screen, all the data relating to it is automatically stored against it. The appropriate managers, for example a track specialist or a signal engineer, can do this in their offices, annotating the records as necessary.
Each of the 8,900 items of infrastructure surveyed in the pilot has also been related to the existing database information, which has been updated where necessary. BR has also created its own route and track maps by feeding the data into a standard geographical information system, Arc-Info, running on a Hewlett-Packard workstation.
The maps are as accurate as the Ordnance Survey's 1:1250 standard.
This system is used as a gateway to access the data on the other asset databases, enabling BR to create a coherent system from the previously unrelated databases running on a range of computers.