University of Portsmouth Researchers Develop Algorithm to Reduce Rail Delays

Researchers at the University of Portsmouth have developed an algorithm to help reduce rail delays.

Working in collaboration with First MTR South Western Railway via a two-year knowledge-transfer partnership (KTP) that was funded by Innovate UK, the researchers developed the first algorithm capable of detecting delays on tracks automatically.

It is not easy to keep disruption to a minimum when there are more than 1,700 trains operating on South Western Railway’s network every day. This volume makes it hard for controllers to spot delays quickly, which then triggers further delays in implementing contingency plans. Although there has been a large increase in passenger numbers, trains and crews, operators have still been using the same systems and technology for decades.

Dr Edward Smart, KTP Academic Supervisor, said:

“As a commuter myself, I'm delighted to be able to contribute to this project that will improve the customer experience. It highlights the impact that machine learning algorithms can have for real world applications.”

The tool developed by the researchers automatically analyses data to determine the point of delay, identifies what trains will be affected and selects the best contingency plans to get services running on schedule again. Designed with machine learning, the tool aims to significantly cut the time it takes to analyse and process the relevant data.


“Automatic detection of delays represents the future of the rail sector. This project has made an important first step in realising the potential represented by machine learning to mitigate railway delays.”

The tool is currently in use at South Western Railway’s Control Centre, which controls the movement of trains across the network.


“Working with the University of Portsmouth has been an excellent experience for SWR and has transferred understanding into the business on systems development and AI. Together we have developed a system which improves the speed to response to recover late running, learn from and continuously improve SWR customer's experience.”

South Western Railway is a JV between FirstGroup and MTR Europe and delivers around 235 million passenger journeys per year.

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