© SolStock/Getty Images

Flexible vehicle IT

How decoupling systems leads to more flexibility

11/2017 – On ICE trains in the future, the IT systems for operational and customer service applications will be separated from the train's instrumentation and control systems. This will ensure faster and more secure updates, improvements and innovative developments.

There’s a saying: “When you buy a computer, it’s already outdated.” This is true to some extent, as technology is advancing at a fast pace. The same applies to IT on board ICEs. Previously equipping trains with new or changed IT technology was a process that, depending on the complexity, could sometimes take years to complete. This was due to safety relevance and technical differences between ICE classes: for over 25 years, ICEs of different classes and technology generations have been operating in long distance transport. For example, changes to passenger information had to be commissioned multiple times. “Thus four different projects at four different suppliers had to be carried out. All of this simply to ensure that consistent passenger information is available on all trains”, says Stefan Herbst from DB Fernverkehr while describing the former situation.

At the same time, every system change had to be reviewed and approved by the Federal Railway Authority (EBA) because the vehicle control system (instrumentation and control systems) and passenger information were not separate from each other. “Until now, passenger information in classes has always been closely related to the safety-critical topics such as brake control units and traction control”, says Stefan Herbst. For this reason, every single modification to this had to be assessed by an expert to ensure that the safety-critical systems were not affected. This also means more effort for software development processes and software documentation.

Standardised technology for different classes

Questions arose such as: how do you achieve standardised hardware and software technology for all classes, so that functions only need to be developed once? And how’s it possible to achieve a situation where only safety-critical modifications need to be approved? This was the starting signal for the “Flexible Vehicle IT” (FlexFIT) project. In a first step, the idea came about for decoupling the vehicle control system with the safety-critical systems (instrumentation and control systems) from the operational area on which services such as Maxdome and the ICE Portal run. Based on a prototype, it was confirmed convincingly that achieving independence from the EBA or expert reports is feasible. In collaboration with Vehicle Management at DB Fernverkehr, DB Systel and DB Systemtechnik, an architecture concept viable for the future was developed for vehicle IT in long distance transport. On this basis, DB Systel developed the train IT platform (ZIP) for DB Systel and now operates this on all 255 ICEs.

But in the long term, information from the vehicle control system, for example, details of the wagon sequence and platform orientation information, should be able to flow into certain applications of ZIP and to land. Even comfort-relevant information for passengers and on-board staff is important, such as temperature in the carriages or information about toilets that are out of order. “All of this information is known in the vehicle control system, which we need, of course”, says Stefan Herbst. The solution is called the instrumentation and control systems decoupling gateway; in short: LEG. Even though there’s a connection between vehicle control system and comfort systems here, and relevant data can be retrieved, there’s technically no return channel, which means the installation only needs to be shown to the EBA once. “We’ve designed the relevant interfaces together with DB Systemtechnik, DB Systel and the Vehicle Management department, and DB Systel has implemented them already in one class on the comfort side in the ZIP”, says Stefan Herbst.

Free choice of technology

“Since the new platform is decoupled from the safety-critical systems on the train, we had a little more freedom when choosing technology”, says Heike Hallenberger, developer in the FlexFIT team at DB Systel. “We’ve used state-of-the-art technology that is currently available on the market. The new system allows us, for example, to roll out and install software on all trains in a flexible and automated process”. What’s more, the new system allows fast delivery of security patches, which increases security considerably. “As soon as we have software that we want to install on all trains, we can do this at the push of a button and roll it out to the entire fleet”, says Heike Hallenberger.

Since the cloud is a key part of developing and operating the overall rail system, processes can also be monitored remotely: as soon as a platform detects a fault, a relevant alert for the operating mode is triggered and the fault can be analysed and resolved immediately and without significant effort. “This is a significant advantage compared to existing systems, where there was a lack of monitoring”, says Stefan Herbst. “Previously we had to rely on feedback from train crew if we wanted to know whether everything’s working. Now we see it directly at the moment something happens.”

Blueprint for rollout to other classes

The ICE 3 is the first class that is equipped with ZIP and LEG as part of the redesign in accordance with the new vehicle IT architecture. To some extent, this is also the blueprint for rolling out the infrastructure to all other classes of DB Fernverkehr. New functionalities are also possible in the future, for example, the convenient check-in and associated reservation display: customers can check-in to the seat themselves and thus no longer need their ticket inspected because train attendants see the valid tickets on their tablet. One aim of this measure is to offer passengers significantly better availability of travel information and reservations.

Yet this platform has even more to offer, as shown by an internal hackathon conducted by DB Systel. On a single day, more than 70 participants from eleven divisions developed exciting ideas on how the results from the FlexFIT project for innovative applications could be used on trains. One team, for example, looked at the generated train data and developed a dashboard for train drivers and human resources that displays the status quo of climate control systems, doors or emergency brakes. Another team focused on the pattern-based detection of faults and unclean toilets based on train utilisation. Internal reviews are now taking place to determine from which of the nine ideas presented prototypes will be developed. However, the hackathon shows, above all, that the platform can be enhanced at any time. “I’m very impressed by the number of ideas created. But this actually reflects precisely our expectations following the results of FlexFIT”, says Stefan Herbst. And adds: “FlexFIT is the basis for many things that we, as DB Fernverkehr, want to do in the future.”