People who live and work in modern urban environments are likely to rely heavily on underground public transportation to get around. Gridlocked roads have made underground transportation appealing for travelers and city planners for decades. In fact, this is why during the 20th century so much of mass transit rail system expansions in densely populated areas were placed underground rather than on elevated tracks as the most efficient and effective way to increase capacity for fast, efficient, safe transportation.
In a recent Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) TrackTalk e-zine article, “Going Underground,” Stuva CEO Roland Leucker said the prevailing philosophy of urban planners during the 20th century was that people should live aboveground and travel underground. This strategy continues today as augmented by the use of aboveground light rail.
Leuker starts with the compelling value proposition that, “Underground transport, particularly rail which has higher capacity than individual vehicles, is the most effective way to move thousands of people very quickly.” He noted that underground travel traditionally worked best in relatively small and densely populated urban areas. However, horizontal urban sprawl in places like Sao Paulo and Tokyo meant older tunnels could not handle the capacity needs. This is why in recent history aboveground transportation has been the fallback for service capacity expansion and for service extension.
That said, reality is the game is changing. Technological advances in the past two decades—most notably, the introduction of tunnel boring machines—is making it possible to build new and longer underground transportation networks. “TBMs are very effective at boring and their use is more conducive to worker safety,” Leucker explained. “TBMs have also helped to reduce the amount of time it takes to construct tunnels and decreased costs because you are not so reliant on manual labor.”
Along with tunnel digging capabilities, advances in information and communications technology (ICT) are helping transform the efficiency of underground transportation engineering and construction processes, and worker safety.
For example, RFID tags are being used to track workers and machines underground. And wireless sensors can be used to measure settlement displacement during tunnel construction. These sensors detect any dangerous ground movement above and below the tunnel structure.
“Communication Technology has improved the quality and the extent of communications possible in a tunnel environment, both during construction and when the tunnel is operational,” Leucker pointed out.
Modern wide-area networks are beneficial not just during construction but also for tunnel communications after construction, too—for railway operators and passengers.
“Drivers can stay in constant contact with control centers so they are capable of immediately reporting any problems experienced during the journey, improving response times and safety…Passengers can also access this GSM signal on their mobile phones so calls are not dropped when traveling through a tunnel improving journey experience.” Leuker related. And, from a passenger experience perspective this can be important since expectations are, no matter how long the tunnel, that they will be able to obtain uninterrupted high-speed wireless communication service as they travel underground.
Next generation communications for new and existing tunnels
An illustration of what is possible now because of breakthroughs in construction and communications technology is highlighted in another TrackTalk article, “Guaranteeing success in the world’s longest tunnels,” Author Rolf Sigrist, Alcatel-Lucent’s global centre for excellence rail/runnel, takes a look at all of the challenges that are being overcome by ALU and numerous partners on the project to construct the 57km Gotthard base tunnel in Switzerland. Slated to open in 2016, when it is completed it will be the world’s longest tunnel. And, for its part of the project Alcatel-Lucent is undertaking some innovative and ambitious tunnel communications projects.
Sigrist says that success for this project involves overcoming a clash of industry cultures, as Alcatel-Lucent works with a consortium of different parties involved in the tunnel project, including technology partners, subcontractors, and construction teams. He notes that, “We know how to deal with anyone from tunnel excavators to track-laying companies whose part of the story is completely different…After years of working in this environment, we are used to a multi-vendor management and integration projects and have learnt a great deal from it.”
A project like this is massive in scale, and can take over a decade to complete. Forming good working relationships among partners early on is vital. Sigrist noted that Alcatel-Lucent began working to form relationships with various involved parties as long as a year before the Gotthard RFQ was issued. This proved a successful strategy for getting experienced partners on board.
What Sigrist emphasized is that new tunnel projects like Gotthard can be built with reliable WAN infrastructures in mind from the start, and existing tunnels can also benefit from new technology. The prime example being the upgrading of the communications infrastructure for EuroTunnel, the world’s longest undersea tunnel.
The EuroTunnel communications upgrade project got underway in late 2009. It involves installation of GSM-R communications technology, making the tunnel interoperable with adjoining railways and introducing greater flexibility. “A key advantage of the GSM-R project is that it supports the rollout of a public GSM-P public network, and this summer the Channel Tunnel will be the first long tunnel in the world to provide 3G coverage throughout its entire length,” Sigrist said. Just in time for the London Olympics.
What can be seen from the articles is that next generation networks can be both a foundational enabler for the construction of new underground tunnels that are extending high-speed rail travel in urban and inter-city settings, while also serving as the platform for customers riding the rails to enjoy the broadband connectivity they expect in-transit. After all we live in a world where commerce never sleeps and staying in-touch can impact a customer’s choice of transportation mode and is vital for interacting with freight trains as supply chains become real-time information dependent.
Edited by Peter Bernstein