February 16, 2009
A Critical Need for Systems Engineering in Surface Transportation
By ANNE O'NEIL and CAROLYN HAYWARD-WILLIAMS
Systems engineering is an essential tool for the development and delivery of technology-based solutions in the defense, space, security, and information technology (IT) sectors. Extensive documentation proves the value added from its methodologies and tools. Yet systems engineering is still in its infancy in the transportation sector.
Numerous investment programs in Europe have applied systems engineering techniques in the past five years, such as the Dutch High Speed Line, the London Underground Infrastructure Investment, and the Copenhagen Metro. Systems engineering also is being developed and applied in Australia by agencies such as the Australian Railtrack Corporation. But it has not seen comparable levels of adoption in the U.S.
The Federal Aviation Association’s systems engineering department and processes primarily reflect defense and National Aeronautics and Space Administration experience. The Federal Highway Administration has developed systems engineering guidance relating to the Intelligent Transportation Systems initiative. State and local transportation agencies have begun assessing the role of systems engineering in capital construction projects and asset management initiatives.
Advancements in transit communications, tracking and location systems, smart card technology, financial/back-office systems, and human resources/asset management systems are “crying out” for systems engineering practices to facilitate the application and migration of these technologies as part of capital investment. The significant increase in integrated systems and software-based applications requires new approaches to plan, design, and procure these solutions. Furthermore, delivery of most transportation capital investment programs on time and on budget proves to be a challenge as a result of these advances.
The European experience demonstrates that the added-value of systems engineering applications in transit varies as a result of the inconsistent approach in application. This largely results from limited systems engineering expertise, and knowledge base within the sector, including among transportation suppliers, government agencies, A&E companies, and consulting firms. Furthermore, the standards which define and outline systems engineering are geared toward the defense and IT sectors, with limited detail relating to the some of the key delivery challenges associated with transit—specifically the evolutionary migration of technology and solutions given the ongoing operational demands, often around the clock in nature, of transit systems.
APTA, supported by the International Council on Systems Engineering, has embraced this challenge and has formed a new Systems Engineering Subcommittee, listing as its purpose raising awareness of systems engineering principles and benefits across the U.S. transit industry and developing guidance and best practice documentation to be applied to capital investment programs within the transit industry.
Members of this subcommittee—including U.S. transit agencies, engineering firms, and suppliers—have identified systems engineering awareness at the executive level as their first major challenge.
Documentation of the business case of systems engineering within the transit industry is well underway and will be presented in June at the APTA 2009 Rail Conference.
Editor’s note: The authors are co-chairs of the APTA Systems Engineering Subcommittee.