Meet our new Global Rail Systems Lead, Mike Taylor
Mike Taylor has joined AECOM’s rail leaders as Global Rail Systems Lead. Mike has over thirty years of rail systems and systems engineering experience in the digital rail sector. He has led technical advisory workstreams for major state government agencies and advised treasury teams on delivery systems integration and risk exposure.
Mike has delivered significant rail systems contracts and subcontracts in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and China. He is a keen supporter of emerging young professionals and conducts university accreditation audits for Engineers Australia, where he is a fellow.
We sat down with Mike for an ‘off-the-rails’ discussion about his thoughts on the future of rail systems.
What do you think is most exciting about the future of rail systems?
New technology is enabling better outcomes in so many ways. It’s almost limitless – and so much is yet to be discovered. I’m excited by the possibilities! For example, why not lose the ticket gates so commonly used at major stations? I’m sure you know the ones – they try and grab you as you walk through – why not replace them with sensors and create a smoother passenger experience and improved passenger flow in the stations?
Passenger experience is just one of the ways rail systems can make a difference. Important, less visible improvements can be made with operations analytics – like predicting passenger numbers based on prior behaviours. We can feed these predictions into real-time decision-making, for example, adjusting the heating and cooling systems in stations to achieve better energy outcomes.
On the design side, we can optimise station design by running passenger scenarios to simulate everyday events. For example, we can simulate a football match finishing and crowds rushing to the station and the analytics can then feed into lift and escalator placement and platform size. Analytics has long been used in preventative maintenance but we can now predict very accurately when failures are likely to occur and replace worn parts before they fail. We’re getting smarter at preventing critical failures that affect rail operations, such as ensuring points machines don’t fail.
What impact has new digital and data-driven technology had on rail systems so far? As a rail customer, you notice when there is a step change in your experience. When new technology is rolled out, we often say, “how did we manage to do things before?” It’s like Google Maps – how did we ever get by without it? On railways, we engage with technology solutions before arriving at the station, like real-time train departure times and live rail traffic information on smartphones. Then, there is the station experience, with a much better and safer experience on the platform, thanks to platform screen doors.
The truth is, so much new technology is ‘under the hood’ that we don’t even know it’s there most of the time. All we know is that we feel safer, things seem more reliable, and, if there’s an issue, there’s a systems-driven reaction. For example, when building a modern railway, systems thinking dictates that we always consider, “what if this goes wrong”? There’s an entire Rail Systems Safety in Design approach to building a railway for normal, abnormal, degraded, and emergency scenarios. In every case, the digital rail system must react quickly, safely, reliably, and in an integrated way.
What skills will future rail systems professionals need most? On the modern digital railway, we must have predictable, resilient, scalable, integrated, and safe technologies, which is where systems engineering comes into play. The real skill is to look at the big picture while not losing sight of small intricate details. Below are three key focus areas for rail systems professionals.
Understanding the project lifecycle: Rail systems professionals must understand the project life cycle or ‘V’ – all the life cycle phases and disciplines. They need to think abstractly as well as in the physical world and be able to imagine the holistic railway as a physical entity with cables, computers, and smart hardware. They must also think logically about an extensive system broken into subsystems and components for manufacture and how all these parts integrate to deliver a working railway.
Systems integration: It’s probably this last area where the skills of rail systems professionals will be most valued – systems integration. There’s no doubt there is a buzz around integration and systems integration. It’s because, as an industry, we’ve been ignoring it for too long, and it’s holding back project success. The UK does a good job of commissioning independent reports on lessons learned on major infrastructure programs. In a 2019 UK Department of Transport sponsored report, one of the five major lesson themes is ‘Deal with Systems Integration Risk’. Systems integration is quoted no less than 47 times.
When building a modern railway, money and focus are often on civil infrastructure and structures. That’s for good reason; when mistakes are made in these areas, it can cost millions of dollars. However, the first day of service commonly stays at a fixed point in the project schedule, usually linked to a political outcome. But, because of the civil delays, there is not enough time to complete the systems integration properly, and a project can quickly run into problems.
Growing awareness and capability We are seeing more investment across the industry to increase awareness of the importance of systems integration. UK’s Institute of Civil Engineers is pioneering the Systems Approach to Infrastructure Development to raise awareness of the importance of systems thinking and integration. In response, government agencies are creating partnerships with systems integrators and large infrastructure consulting firms like AECOM are also responding. Part of our commitment is forming the Rail Systems Enterprise Capability Centre, a global virtual centre that I’m delighted to lead. Our governance ensures the right people are available, no matter where in the globe, to help support our clients in getting rail systems integration right.