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Engineering Marvel: ITCS

Engineering Marvel: ITCS in Fahrt

The transport authority VGF moves its passengers safely, conveniently and on time to their destinations – thanks among other things to the lntermodal Transport Control System (ITCS), a computer-based operations control system.

ITCS enables a lot of things, ranging for instance from continuous data exchange between the on-board computer inside the vehicles and the process control computer to the driver and the operations centre manager by analogue radio transmission or to real-time passenger information. Today, this has become all but indispensable in providing railway and bus transport services – and this is also true in the case of VGF. “We have now reached a state-of-the-art level with ITCS,” says Michael Braun, project manager with NT32.31. He told us how the system works exactly.

”ITCS organises all the communication between the operations control centre and the vehicles. This concerns voice communications over radio as well as the transmission of reams of data from the on-board computer inside the train or bus.
Every operations centre manager or dispatcher just needs to take a glance at the display screen to  pinpoint the location (nearly on the spot) of a train,” explains Michael Braun.

Though the “old” RBL was also capable of doing this, there is still a vital difference between the two systems: Whereas the predecessor system was still based on a centralised design, where everything was handled out of the operations control centre, the new system is decentralised. Now, most of the intelligence is located on board the vehicles. It is much like the internet: The individual network nodes are interconnected multiple times. This type of link-up creates complex networks capable of ensuring very robust data transmissions on the basis of smart transmission settings and load distributions. As a consequence, communications are secure even if one or more links should fail.

As a result of the change-over to ITCS, our trains now have to be linked up every fortnight with the WLAN instead of only once a year in order to load the network data such as vehicle routes. But this is worth the trouble.

For example, it is now possible to respond to detours with greater flexibility than ever. In such moments, it used to be that the next stop was announced incorrectly or the loudspeakers remained silent. This should no longer happen in the future. Instead, our passengers now are informed at all times, up to the minute about the route, the transfers and a lot more.

In addition, the ITCS controls the above-ground dynamic passenger information displays that offer passengers real-time information on upcoming trips.

RBL, the predecessor system, had reached the end of its useful life after serving for over twenty years. This was the moment to consider changing over to a new system. The first rough conceptual study dates back to the year 2011, followed one year later by the invitations to tender, which were established in collaboration with two consulting firms. The contract was awarded to Trapeze. This Swiss company developed the new system on the basis of VGF’s individual needs and requests, as it had been the case before with the existing RBL. The men and women in the operations control centre have been using the ITCS since September 2016.

The new on-board computers are to be installed inside the rail vehicles starting in the spring of 2017. From 2019 onwards, all our underground railways and trams are expected to be handled by ITCS. This also required the renewal of the radio transmission system: At over 30 locations, spread across the entire city area, the systems were updated to a state-of-the-art level.
Without the Integrated on-Board Information System (IBIS) – the computer installed inside trains and buses – the best ITCS would be useless. The IBIS performs all the functions of the operations control system inside the vehicles. It also handles voice communications over radio. Announcements, displays and ticket printers inside the vehicles can be controlled, too. Moreover, the position of the vehicles can also be determined either by infrared beacons and/or GPS, ensuring that the driver and the control centre are informed at all times about deviations from the schedule.

This is not the only change brought about by ITCS: The user interface differs fundamentally from its predecessor.

It took our colleagues in the control centre quite a lot to get used to it. In particular the “old hands” initially had some trouble coping. But dispatcher Falk Nentwich says of the new system: “It is no doubt a great improvement.” He thinks the individual computer windows have a more modern and fresher appearance than before. And overall, he believes everything is much clearer.


Every beginning is hard

The renewal of the ITCS system involved substantial changes for all users. Mike Hackei, Head of ITCS / Operating Data Supply of NT43.3, says the whole thing is very similar to privately buying a new computer or laptop, which suddenly runs on a new, unaccustomed operating system that is different from what you were used to – and that in addition you have to first configure. This takes more than just a few short minutes before everything functions as it ought to.

But at VGF, not merely a single computer is involved with everything that comes with it. This was one of the arguments favouring a soft and gentle change-over rather than an abrupt switch to ITCS. ITCS users operate everything on the basis of the new ITCS system. But during the migration phase, until all the on-board computers inside the vehicles have been upgraded, the old and new systems will run in tandem. The vehicles not yet equipped with the new technology communicate with the old RBL system. An interface ensures during this phase that operations will be handled solely via the ITCS in order to prevent duplications. In other words, all the information will be exchanged through a bidirectional interface between the old and new systems, ensuring that operations are only possible through the new ITCS system.

Needless to say that any new system initially struggles with “teething problems”. In this case, for instance, they involved noise and crackling in the transmission lines or computer overloads. But these difficulties have now been corrected, and the ITCS is running essentially trouble-free.

In the first two weeks after the ITCS launch, system supporters coached the dispatchers and control centre managers. Whenever a problem cropped up, they intervened quickly to solve the problem in a very short time.

Just a few months earlier (in May 2016), colleagues in the operations control centre were prepared for ITCS during the springtime training session. After all, the new additional functions – including route planning, alternative detours, geographical information system – need to be properly applied. Even then, it became very clear that ITCS is an important step towards the future of VGF.


Please find the original article in German by klicking on "Download".

This article was published in the employee magazin "in Fahrt" of our customer transport authority Frankfurt am Main in the issue February/March 2017/9

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