London Underground Turns to Internet of Things to Increase Efficiency

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Anyone who has traveled the London Underground can appreciate the challenges of keeping such a beast running smoothly. The iconic transport system is massive, complex and old; it celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, making it the oldest subterranean railway network in the world. Nearly half of its 250 miles of track winds through a sprawling warren of tunnels, some of them over 60 yards below city streets. And it’s incredibly busy, serving well over a billion people a year.

The potential for chaos is enormous. So is the potential for inefficiency. Which is why Transport for London (TFL), the organization that runs the London Underground, is turning to the Internet of Things to streamline maintenance of the system, improve customer service and boost efficiency by 30 percent over three years.

The organization has partnered with technology services company telent to install sensors in escalators, elevators, air conditioning systems and subway tunnels, and to monitor PA systems and Closed-Circuit TV (CCTV). It’s begun to move these previously siloed legacy applications into a streamlined cloud environment that makes it easier to manage, monitor and automate individual tasks.

“The big attraction is making it easier and cheaper to maintain,” says Steve Pears, managing director of telent, which spent over a decade designing, installing and maintaining assets for the Underground before bringing in IT services firm CGI last year to extend its approach. “It’s driving improvements in availability and efficiency—they’re really the big issues.”

Initial efforts are focused on the Jubilee line, the newest and third busiest of the 11 lines that make up the Underground. But over time Pears says he expects the scope to include the thousands of assets maintained by telent on the UK rail infrastructure.

Proactive Maintenance

Maintaining the abundance of legacy infrastructure on “the tube,” as locals call the Underground, has historically been a cumbersome process costing billions of pounds.

“Some of the assets are very old indeed,” Pears says.

Fixing a piece of faulty equipment—an escalator or elevator, for instance—typically meant mobilizing personnel to a site to investigate the issue, and perhaps an extra trip to retrieve the right tools. Add to that the fact that some equipment is hard to access—CCTV cameras on a high ceiling, for instance—and that workers often had a narrow window of time in which to get the job done.

The Internet brought improvements. As more and more pieces of equipment became Internet Protocol (IP)-based, Pears says telent developed maintenance models to monitor and interrogate them remotely. Instead of dispatching workers to a faulty asset to do reactive maintenance, the client could do proactive maintenance based on insights into performance and trends.

“An increase in vibration in an escalator, for instance, can tell you that something is starting to go wrong,” Pears says. “You can start your maintenance regime ahead of it actually breaking. That’s the drive in all of this.”

The Cloud Underground

Despite these improved maintenance models, telent’s solution was still essentially a machine-to-machine (M2M) operation running on the Underground’s patchwork of custom-made networks. So in 2014, telent approached CGI as an IT partner to both expand the solution and bring it into the next generation with cloud.

“In principle, you can connect anything to anything,” says John Hicklin, a telecommunications consultant with CGI. “The elephant in the room is, where is the value? Can we do this in such a way that it’s commercially viable? We saw this as a first step of implementation.”

CGI has integrated telent’s implementation platform onto a new network powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud-based Intelligent System Service. This simplified IT structure enables more sophisticated predictive modeling in which real-time data can be used to closely monitor temperature, vibration, humidity, fault warnings and system alerts. These data are available in a central location to provide access to needed information on mobile apps, via a Web browser or through text alerts.

Better Customer Service

London Underground passengers already benefit from a variety of new technologies. The Tube Map mobile app helps customers get live travel information, plan journeys and more. And TFL recently announced customers will be able to pay for journeys with a swipe of an NFC (near field communication)-enabled smartphone by the end of 2014. The new cloud solution is expected to further improve customer service through better infrastructure planning, automated processes and the detection of faults before they have a chance to affect rail services.

“One of the benefits of cheaper maintenance is much better availability,” Pears says. “So if you’re a member of the traveling public, there’s a greater chance of being able to look on your smartphone and see that your train is running to time.”

In the future, Hicklin adds, customers with disabilities may be able to sign up for a service that provides near real-time updates on what services—an escalator or elevator, for example—are available or not. He says the cloud approach has much broader applications, including aviation, and transport and logistics companies in need of greater operational efficiencies in the face of increasing regulation, cost pressures and competition.

“This has a huge amount of value in transport in general,” Hicklin says. “We’re on this journey to open up the dream of serving thousands of devices instead of a few hundred.”

About the author


Laurence Cruz

Laurence Cruz is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. A U.K. transplant, he has worked as a reporter with The Associated Press in Seattle and as an environmental reporter for The Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon. He has a BA in English from Oxford and an MA in Communications from Washington State University. Used with the permission of