New train of thought

UTS Data Arena. Photo by Aaron Luo

UTS Data Arena. Photo by Aaron Luo

In summary: 
  • The Responsive Passenger Information Systems (RPIS) is combining cameras with big data to better understand how people are using trains and enable transport officers to respond to problems as they arise
  • RPIS is just one of the research projects currently being undertaken by the recently launched UTS Transport Research Centre

A new multi-disciplinary and industry collaboration could spell the end for overcrowded and delayed trains. The Responsive Passenger Information Systems is combining cameras with big data to better understand how people are using trains and enable transport officers to respond to problems as they arise.

Though it was launched only four months ago, the UTS Transport Research Centre has already moved into the fast lane thanks to its current research initiatives like the Responsive Passenger Information Systems (RPIS).

RPIS aims to improve the efficiency of public transport rail services and the experience for users by monitoring the interactions between the two. One facet of RPIS is being developed in partnership with Downer Rail and the Rail Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (RMCRC).

Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Autonomous Systems Alen Alempijevic is working on RPIS and other related projects. He says, “If you can effectively improve the interaction between the service and the passengers, then you’re onto a real winner.”

Alen Alempijevic and Mike Ayling. Photo by: Hannah Jenkins Alen Alempijevic and Mike Ayling. Photo by: Hannah Jenkins

The cross-disciplinary team’s current RPIS project is Complex Dwell Time Diagnostics (CDD). It’s looking into technology that enables passive cameras to monitor passengers on platforms in real time.

Alempijevic hopes the cameras will solve major issues like overcrowding and inform transport officers of the reasons for delays in departure, whether that be due to passengers arriving late or if train doors are closing too soon.

The project will eventually see transport officers receive this information in real-time and thus appropriately direct passengers and respond to complications as they arise.

Alempijevic says, “Our work is really unique, as tracking people is not like tracking a vehicle. You have kinematics of a car that prevent it from doing certain things, but a person can move in any orientation and for any reason, which is what we’re exploring in the transport spaces.”

Transport planner and Research Director at UTS’s Institute for Sustainable Futures Michelle Zeibots is the founder of RPIS. She came up with the idea after realising there was a lack of accurate real-time data about the number of people in a physical space such as a railway station. This prompted her to assemble the “perfect cross-disciplinary team”, which included Alempijevic.

“Michelle is not just good, she is exceptional, at translating the needs of the transport providers and conveying the gap between what people currently use and what is possible in the future,” says Alempijevic.

Commuters at Central Station. Photo by: Jamie Williams Commuters at Central Station. Photo by: Jamie Williams

“Together, with myself and the others involved, we are kind of like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. We work together, and without having the person in transport with the insights and then the engineers who can translate that into the engineering behind it, it wouldn’t happen.”

The Transport Research Centre is also working on two other major programs - Network Planning and Optimisation, and Condition Monitoring.

The former looks at the structure of transport systems and how they are evolving as a result of new and innovative technologies, like OPAL in Sydney. The latter is more focused on data analysis, control of intelligent machines, and programming. It is also a partnership venture with the Rail Manufacturing CRC, with the centre committing over $300,000 in funding to the UTS and Downer project.

The Rail Manufacturing CRC is a not-for-profit organisation, funded by the Federal Government’s Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) program, which works directly with industry and research institutions to drive the development of new products, technologies and supply chain networks to increase the competitiveness, capacity and productivity of the Australian rail manufacturing industry.

General Manager of Innovation at Downer EDI Rail Mike Ayling is excited about where the UTS partnership is headed.

He refers to it as an “interesting marriage” as, despite the two parties being driven by completely different forces – academic and commercial – they have been able to forge a working relationship with many benefits.

“We have a really strong relationship with the university, and this partnership will only go from strength to strength, so there are very exciting times ahead,” he says.  

Commuters at Central Station. Photo by: Jamie Williams Commuters at Central Station. Photo by: Jamie Williams

Ayling says the RPIS cameras were tested and well-received by Queensland Rail in February 2015 and May of 2016. The next stage is perfecting some minor bugs in the system, using UTS’s Data Arena, before going through another trial period.

Following that, the team hope to turn the research into a commercially viable product so it can be distributed state-wide, Australia-wide or even internationally.

“This technology is so new and there’s really nothing like it at the moment, so there is a lot of interest from industry about where we go next,” says Ayling.

And there’s great interest from PhD students too.

Alempijevic says, “The students who are part of this team get to be on the forefront of technical challenges that are always state-of-the-art. You won’t necessarily walk into these roles out in industry without having PhD qualifications first.

“UTS does extremely well in cross-disciplinary research and the Transport Research Centre, as well as RPIS, is an example of this. With the knowledge and insight from this cross-disciplinary team, UTS can make a leap and bound that is beyond one individual faculty.”