Filipinos tap GPS to change rail system

A Filipino team has developed a GPS-powered, cloud-based information system that allows passengers to see the trains’ status, location, arrival and departure schedule.  Soon, the team plans to use the same technology to overhaul the train signaling system currently used across the world.

The Passenger Assist Rail Display System or Pards, designed by Filipino tech company TrackMate Business Solutions Inc., drew admiration from passengers of Light Rail Transit Line 2 where about 400 screens are already installed onboard to inform them about the status and locations of trains. Pards uses the global positioning system, a satellite-based navigation, to track the trains and put the information on high-definition screen.

A team of European rail executives will visit the Philippines this month to check the system and study how it can be replicated around the world.

“It is a GPS and graphic interface.  Basically, we can give information on speed, location and other important information that you can find using GPS. The premise for the whole thing is that commuters are complaining a lot on social media about the trains and we realize that the bottomline is that they do not know what is happening. We aim to solve that by creating a communication line between the train operator and the passengers. Hence, we created the project Pards,” TrackMate marketing manager Cielo Remorin says in an interview.

“It is like a TV network and signaling system combined together. We have 10 screens per coach, or 40 screens per train, or a total of 400 in LRT Line 2,” says Lemuel dela Cruz, the 44-year-old chief executive of TrackMate.

TrackMate installed Pards along LRT 2 at no cost to the government, says Remorin.  Its business model is based on sponsorships by companies that want to promote products or services through commercials or ads on the system.

Dan Palami, chief executive of railway engineering company Autre Porte Global Inc., says Pards has the potential to become a full-blown train signaling system that can bring down the cost of railway operation.

“When they presented it to me, on the commercial side, I told them it offers a much bigger potential in signaling system,” Palami says.  “The ballpark figure for a train signaling system is probably $70 million.  With this, we are looking at maybe a maximum of $20 million for the system.”

Several companies are now reportedly looking at GPS-powered solutions as the next stage of train signaling system, in place of traditional axle counter sensors which are costly and which take a lot of time to install.

TrackMate has already submitted an application for a utility model intellectual property right for Pards to the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines.

Remorin says as a passenger information system, it can flash information on the screen such as the expected time of arrival, expected time of departure and actual location of the train.  “If the train operators have a quick announcement that they want to do in real-time, we can do that,” she says.

TrackMate Business Solutions Inc. chief executive Lemuel dela Cruz (right) and marketing manager Cielo Remorin
TrackMate is an information technology company based in Madrigal Business Park in Alabang, Muntinlupa City which employs 40 professionals to provide GPS solutions to transport and logistics companies.

“We really are engaged in creating software to manage trucks, buses that are powered by GPS.  That system is now applied to trains.  What you see on the screen is real-time.  It has a location component.  Passengers would be able to know where the train is in real time,” Remorin says.

She says the first phase of the project—the installation of a dynamic, onboard passenger information display system across all train sets was completed in June, while the second phase involves the release of mobile application for passengers and Light Rail Transit Authority to monitor train schedule and passenger flow.

The project also includes installation of a command center that allows LRTA to monitor train performance, passenger flow, with actual images, in real time.

“The fun part is the command center [for operators].  Anywhere they are, the officials can check the snapshots from CCTV and actual status of the train on their smartphones.  We also have a map that summarizes the line.  We can set parameters on what need their attention,” Remorin says.

Remorin says that aside from LRT Line 2, TrackMate also presented the project to Light Rail Manila Corp., the operator of LRT Line 1, and the response was positive.

A passenger satisfaction survey of the three rail lines—MRT 3, LRT Line 1 and LRT Line 2—show  that commuters using LRT Line 2 are the most satisfied.  “LRT Line 2 topped the survey.  And Pards is one of the components mentioned by satisfied passengers,” says Palami.

Palami says a new signaling system based on Pards can easily replace the old system used along MRT 3.  The new trains from China cannot be deployed on the line, because their designs are not compatible with the current signaling system which is used to guide the original Czech-made trains.

“We can solve the problem of compatibility.  Even if new trains arrive, we can integrate them in our new signaling system.  It is at present an information system, but it can migrate to a signaling system because it is GPS based,” says Palami. “When I saw the technology, we studied it and we have been able to come up with a better version that it could actually allow the system to become a signaling system.” 

“Signaling system is a safety feature to manage the traffic of trains so that they will not collide with one another.  The signaling system, through the control center, will show the distance between the trains and where all the trains are.  When the trains are nearing the other trains, there is a red light warning the driver that he is not supposed to go.  The driver has to follow that and stop.  If the driver does not follow, the automatic train protection will kick in that will force the emergency brake,” says Palami.

Palami says Pards can fulfill all those functions.  Under its proposal, TrackMate will equip all trains with GPS devices and will build its own communication network for better coverage.  “We will know where all the trains are,” he says.

Dela Cruz says it is TrackMate that first harnessed the potential of GPS for the use of train operators and passengers. “Two years ago, we presented the idea to Singapore.  They saw its potential for signaling system, but it took them two years.  Now, they are also doing a pilot project,” he says.

At the moment, Remorin says passengers will benefit a lot from Pards as an information system.  “We can inform passengers once a train breaks down.  We can also show the flow of passengers. Awareness is what we are trying to achieve.  Services become better if passengers are well informed,” she says.

Topics: GPS-powered , cloud-based information system , rail system , Passenger Assist Rail Display System , Pards , TrackMate Business Solutions Inc.
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