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Underground Upgrade

At the end of the last century, realizing they had a massive, crumbling infrastructure on their hands, officials of the London Underground decided to launch an upgrade and renovation of the system, beginning with the Jubilee, Picadilly, and Northern lines, which, combined, make up about a third of the Underground's track mileage.

Work commenced in November 2004, with a goal of completing the project in time for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The upgrade acquired a tragic urgency in the wake of the terrorist bombings last July 7, which left 35 dead on the Underground as well as two people who died on a street-level bus.

Working at night in a system of 275 total stations, comprising 253 miles of lines in tunnels dug starting in the mid-19th century, Tube Lines -- the public-private partnership that for three decades has been in charge of maintaining the physical infrastructure of the Underground -- faced a huge task. The project was made more daunting by an outmoded paper-based system for assigning and tracking nightly jobs for field engineers.

Now, that system has been chucked in favor of a mobile wireless application developed by Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based mobile-apps provider Syclo, running over handheld devices from Symbol Technologies Inc. (NYSE: SBL). About 230 handhelds have been deployed since last summer.

The changeover, says Tube Lines project manager Martyn Capes, is that jobs that previously took more than three weeks from identification of the problem, through approvals and assembly of materials, to completion by engineers, now can be accomplished in 24 hours or less.

"Real-time data upload and download allows the engineers to view what work has previously been performed on a track or a carriage, giving the complete work background," says Capes. In addition, he adds, "We're able to track virtually every asset."

Essentially, the Syclo/Symbol solution is a workflow monitoring system. Engineers reporting to Tube Lines' two main depots on the underground receive nightly job assignments on Symbol's "semi-ruggedized" PPT 8846 handheld devices. The handhelds carry detailed work plans, equipment history, failure data, and the like. When engineers return at the end of their shifts, they use 802.11 wireless connections to download the job status information. All the data flows back to Tube Lines' Canary Wharf headquarters for collation and the creation of the next night's work plan.

"It's a secure way of downloading all the information collected within a shift," says Symbol sales account manager Michael Guinan. "Previously they didn’t have the ability to do that sort of real-time passing of information back to the station, so it obviously saves them huge amounts of time."

Moving from saving time to saving lives will be the focus of the next stage of work on the Underground. Since the July 2005 atrocities, the government has made real-time tracking of transit employees a high priority. Underground officials are looking at a number of solutions to accomplish that, including RFID tags that incorporate biometric information for individual employees. Details are not yet set, says Guinan, but a potential solution has taken shape: RFID tags with biometric data would be incorporated into the plastic cardkeys that Underground employees already carry, and a system-wide WiFi network would carry monitoring information from any location within the system back to the Underground's operations center.

"It's an absolutely enormous undertaking, and it could be a hugely costly exercise," says Symbol's Guinan, "so they're looking now at what is the most cost-effective way of doing that."

Meanwhile, work on bringing the Underground into the 21st century goes on below the surface, in an attempt to keep up with ever-rising demand. Total passenger journeys on the Underground reached an all-time high of 2.6 million per day last year.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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