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RFID Goes Underground in London

Tube Lines, one of the companies maintaining London's subway rail system, is already tagging engines and passenger cars, and hopes to tag ties and tools.
By Jonathan Collins
Tube Lines' cleaning staff is required to carry out a number of tasks in each car. A list of the required duties is automatically uploaded to each cleaner's handheld computer. When a cleaner completes a task indicated on the computer, he or she marks it off as being finished. Once all tasks have been carried out, the worker places the computer within a few inches of the RFID tag in the window to signal the car has been cleaned. That RFID read also provides a trigger for the handheld computer to upload its cleaning data over a wireless LAN covering the train depot. This informs Tube Line's back-office systems that the car has been cleaned.

"Using handhelds and RFID has transformed a 13-step process of getting work carried out to just two steps, and a 10-day paper-based system into real-time notification of completed work," says Capes.

Before commencing the RFID trial, Tube Lines first required clearance from Transport for London (TfL), the governmental body responsible for the citywide transportation system. The company had to prove the tags and readers would not interfere with train operations or impair safety. The trial uses interrogators and tags communicating over the 915 MHz spectrum cleared for use in the United States, but not in Europe. Tube Lines says it used the U.S.-specification equipment with special approval, as they were the only samples available for the trial. However, Symbol's planned EPC Gen 2 EU-compliant readers and tags have been earmarked for Tube Lines RFID rollouts.

The Tube Lines RFID trial ceases at the end of April though the company hopes to be able to get permission to continue using the tags on its trains and elsewhere in its operations. This, however, depends on its obtaining the necessary approvals from TfL.

Tube Lines has been preparing applications for permission to add RFID tags to other assets in its operations. By the end of this summer, the company hopes to add RFID tags to the sleepers, or ties, to which the rails are attached. At present, plastic engraved sleeper nameplates are placed on sleepers every 100 meters (328 feet) so maintenance workers can identify damaged sleepers and later locate and repair them. With such a long distance between markers, maintenance engineers often incorrectly estimate a sleeper's exact location, which can be up to 50 meters (164 feet) from a nameplate. Because of their lower price, RFID tags can be placed at closer intervals, 10 meters (33 feet) apart.

"An engraved sleeper nameplate can cost up to £150, but an RFID tag costs just pennies," says Capes. In the future, Tube lines says it may also tag maintenance equipment and tools to manage its inventory and working practices more efficiently.

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