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Surfing the knowledge ocean

Although the origins of the internet can be traced back to a US Defence Department venture from 1969, no-one then could have sensibly predicted its impact on everyday life just a generation later.

It wasn’t long ago that I marvelled at the receipt of illegible faxes and those early brick-like mobiles upon which Norman Collier was always heard. How times have changed. The advent of broadband allows exquisitely designed mumbo-jumbo to be sucked from distant servers and, thanks to Skype, I no longer have to guess what Norman Collier would sound like if he was locked in a toilet.
I no longer have to guess what Norman Collier would sound like if he was locked
in a toilet.

(For those of you with your own hair, Norman Collier was a two-trick Seventies comedian whose ‘faulty microphone’ routine and chicken impressions had us rolling in the aisles. Whatever happened to light entertainment?)

You don’t have to break sweat to surf the awe-inspiring ocean of knowledge which laps the portal of your local telephone exchange. Unless, that is, you’re a member of the merry band of Rimini planners who regale COSSs with theoretical safe systems. For them, unearthing the latest track layouts, site hazards and signalling diagrams can be more akin to virtual kayaking through remote Amazonian jungle.

Last month, the National Electronic Sectional Appendix (NESA) had its remaining holes plugged as five additional routes went live, amongst them Kent and London North Eastern. As it stands, the online resource is free, though the intention is to relaunch it as a subscription service to those beyond Network Rail. This will probably occur over the summer. Quite why contractors have to be treated as second class citizens is not entirely clear, particularly as the cost will ultimately be charged back to NR with a markup.

The system delivers all you would expect of it - general and local instructions, route clearance tables, poor rail adhesion sites and, of course, Table A diagrams. All these features are presented in a consistent format and can be searched by location or ‘free text’. Navigation is straight-forward, using up and down arrows to view adjacent sections. Branch lines are explored via a drop-down menu. For convenience, you can collate booklets of personalised content and render them as a PDF using the ‘Route Builder’ facility. All clever stuff.

The big advantage here is the continuously refreshed data. No longer do you need to wrestle your paper Appendix and then cross-reference it with the latest PON. As if we ever did that! From a track safety perspective, the next logical step would be to align NESA, the Hazard Directory and 5-mile track diagrams to create a one-stop planning shop. COSS and Line Blockage Forms could be populated automatically. Alas, though NR accepts such a tool has appeal, it doesn’t currently command much managerial focus.

Whilst I’m connected to your network, it’s worth marking the recent conversion of Track Visitor Permits from analogue to digital. For the past four years, sponsors have been free to plough their own furrow, issuing TVPs pretty much at will. Now applications must be made online to the NCCA who, assuming certain criteria is met, will deliver a printable file to your inbox, price tag £1.

This means that the COSS on site can check the validity of a permit, just as they do a Sentinel card. Meantime, Network Rail’s number-crunchers will keep their beady eyes on those abusing the system. Anyone visiting the railway more than a dozen times a year will be pointed towards the PTS training room.

So will more of the railway’s data traffic be diverted onto the superhighway? Common sense demands it, although cost and short-sightedness will keep the outside lane coned off for a while yet. Freely sharing up-to-date information and easing access to it has to be a done-deal if the ‘safety always comes first’ mantra is truly meaningful. In business terms alone, the case is overwhelming.

Technophobia is treatable. Let’s get the IT doctor in.

Story added 1st March 2007
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