Rugged handhelds keep London Underground on track

When London Underground officials were testing rugged handheld devices in late 2004 for deployment throughout the subway system, they intentionally dropped one into a 6 foot-deep pit. It was an informal test - and could have proven costly, given the £950 pricetag for the hardware.

“But it carried on working afterwards,” said Martyn Capes, project manager for Tube Lines in London. Tube Lines, a subway maintenance company that works in partnership with the Underground, chose the handhelds in late 2004 as part of $52 million Underground renovation, Capes said recently.

After spending about six months researching handhelds to be used along 207 miles of track and at 101 stations, Tube Lines settled on the Symbol Technologies PPT8800. About 200 of the devices were put into service in January 2005. Ruggedness and resistance to damage from drops were a big factor, as were battery life, wireless capabilities and ease of use.

“They have been dropped 15 to 20 feet and dropped into water and covered in oil. We’ve only had two break in all this time,” Capes said.

One of those two was accidentally run over be a train; the other was run over by a forklift, Capes said: “I can say that there was not much left of the one run over by the train."

The handhelds - which weigh 10.8 ounces and can fit in a large pocket - run software designed by US firm Syclo, and have transformed work for maintenance and renovation crews, who can easily access information once contained on 550 databases. For the first time, skilled technicians are able to get information while on a job site, including equipment repair history and failure information, Marc Chesover, director of Syclo’s European operations, said in a statement.

In above ground sections of the Tube networks, the PPT8800s operate on Wi-Fi installed along the rails. Underground, there are Ethernet cables for connecting to data from the handhelds, Capes said.

In all, the Wi-Fi and handheld hardware cost about £240, 000. Capes does not know the cost of the software integration, and a process to evaluate ROI has just begun. Already the devices have helped chop a 15-step process for submitting a work order to just two steps. “Instead of filling out paperwork, people have embraced the technology and one person commented he could do the job he was paid to do, and that’s to manage the train depot,” Capes said.

Users are choosers
According to Capes, users were asked to take part early on in the selection process. “We let users choose the device and had them involved from the start,” he said. “That way they felt a part of the process. These guys have to carry them for 12 hours every day.”

The biggest issue in the implementation stemmed from a problem in the original Pocket PC 2003 operating system, which failed to boot properly at first. But after a trip to Symbol headquarters, a patch was created to correct the problem, he said.

Capes also had to conduct a safety test of the wireless and handheld system to reassure Underground officials that it would not inadvertently switch signals for trains. Proving that took six months - “a lot longer than we thought,” he said.

In the future, Tube Lines hopes to use Global Positioning System capabilities in the handhelds and integrate that with a Graphical Information System that would help with digging operations.

The Underground is considering RFID tags to keep track of where trains and emergency vehicles are located, Capes said. Tube Lines is also conducting trials on the Symbol MC 70 handheld, which is equipped with cellular radio. That capability would allow workers to get work orders at home, saving them a trip to the office before heading to a job site.