Highways Agency

Company: SybaseCustomer: Highways AgencySubmitted by: Portfolio CommunicationsKeeping the traffic moving in Britain is an ever-increasing problem. More cars on the road than ever before means traffic jams are frequent, more road-works are required and accidents occur more often.

The Police manage incidents on Britain’s roads. To cope with their ever-increasing workload, they have developed two ground-breaking traffic management systems using Sybase technology.

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History in motion

Following an accident, the traffic often stops suddenly and queues build up. This leads to frequent shunt accidents (where a moving vehicle hits the rear of the queue) which compound the original problem and can bring the UK road network to a grinding halt.Up until about five years ago, the 13 police control offices used a manual system for managing the traffic flow. Traffic information came in from police patrols and the travelling public and was then relayed by telephone to other offices.

This process was inefficient because the police were not aware of incidents until queues had already started to build up.This situation had improved slightly by 1998 with the creation of traffic control offices, in Welwyn Garden City and Perry Barr, that attempted to control traffic incidents in their particular region. However, each system could only handle one event, on one road, in one region. It could not cope with the knock-on effects of incidents and was not updated frequently enough, leaving police unaware that a queue had been cleared.In the last few years, the Highways Agency has attempted to remedy this situation using several different schemes. For both projects, they called upon the international, multi-disciplinary firm, Mott MacDonald.

The two projects use state of the art Sybase technology to create revolutionary traffic management systems. The first is the Midlands Driver Information Service (MDIS) and the second the Quantified Motorway Information Supply System (Q-MISS).

Supplying information wherever it’s needed

MDIS provides strategic route guidance information to drivers via ‘variable message signs’ positioned on motorways and major trunk roads between North London and the heart of England. The aim of MDIS is to alert long distance travellers to delays and supply alternative routes. At key decision points along the route they are provided with reminder messages to help them avoid traffic queues.

The MDIS system has to be very reliable, with the performance to support and update a constant stream of information as each traffic situation develops.

Choosing the tools for the job

Project developers Mott Macdonald chose products from Sybase to meet its need for openness, reliability and speed of development.Sybase’s OpenServer was chosen because it extends the value of existing legacy applications by allowing communication to them by RPC (remote procedure call) commands from any open systems application.This ability to connect to virtually any software application allowed Mott MacDonald to integrate existing mainframe databases and associated applications into a new distributed applications environment. OpenServer also simplifies application development by handling all communications between applications on a network – shielding clients and servers from underlying network formats and protocols, allowing the rapid development of bespoke applications, such as MDIS.

To meet the need for high availability and integration, SQL Anywhere was used in conjunction with Open Server. This provides the Control Offices with a small footprint solution for a self maintaining data management system.This combination of products allowed integrators Mott MacDonald to develop applications rapidly, but without being locked-in to proprietary standards. Dave Bonn, Project Director of Mott MacDonald comments: “We chose Sybase after a comprehensive review of all the products on offer. Sybase was the best in terms of cost and technical characteristics.

Its products offer scalability, openness and the support we need.”

How the system works

Using MDIS, the police control officers take information that comes in from CCTV cameras above the roads, police patrols and loops in the road that detect traffic flow. They use this information to set matrix signals, lane control signals (on motorways), lighting and ‘variable message signs’ (electronic signs on motorway gantries that advise motorists of delays and diversions).Control staff sit at terminals within the control offices and set signals that are then transferred through the local network management interface in the Police Control Office back to the MDIS central server.The MDIS system collects traffic flow data at different times to work out a “normal” day pattern for any given day, for example, a weekday, a Sunday, or Christmas Day.

In order to prevent traffic jams being simply shifted from one road to another, MDIS takes normal traffic flow and peaks into account when proposing a diversion plan for an incident. Traffic is never diverted onto a road which is already at peak capacity.David Bonn at Mott MacDonald explains: “When the application software detects that a new event has occurred, it carries out an analysis of all the events it knows of on the motorway network. It then either handles the single new event or prepares a response to the new event in the light of all the other events and traffic flows that it knows about.”The MDIS system then proposes diversion routes to the central motorway police group in Birmingham.

If the police agree with the systems’ suggested routes, ‘variable message signs’ are set immediately for the drivers to follow, and, as the traffic progresses into the diversion, the signs are updated until the queue is eliminated.Because the system presents a solution to traffic problems as they arise it has significantly reduced the workload of police control officers.Sybase products are powering a solution that gives the police accurate traffic information which enables them to respond more effectively to traffic incidents. The project’s success has led Mott MacDonald to again choose Sybase to supply products to provide the software platform for second project – Q-MISS.

Missing the queues with Q-MISS

Q-MISS started as a research project at the Highways Agency.

It saw an opportunity to use the data produced at the roadside to manage traffic more efficiently. Ian Fraser, Project Manager explains: “The role (of the Highways Agency) was changing from being a road builder to a network operator. We needed a way communicate network information more efficiently to information service providers who in turn inform the public when incidents occur. Q-MISS was developed to pilot the information delivery service.”Prior to the installation of Q-MISS, motoring organisations would telephone Police Control Offices to enquire about the traffic situation.

This was causing a strain on the police who were tied up answering telephones when they should have been handling traffic incidents.The Highways Agency envisioned a ‘travel information highway’. The idea is that traffic information could be pushed out to businesses and motoring agencies (such as the RAC, AA and Metronetworks) who would then use it in travel broadcasts to the motoring public.Contracted to construct the initial phase of the project, Mott MacDonald opted for Sybase EAServer (formerly known as Jaguar CTS) and Adaptive Server Enterprise for the QMISS project. It chose these products because it needed to develop the applications very rapidly, but in a stable, open environment that could be easily interfaced with the computer systems of third parties.

“We needed to develop the system rapidly, but in an open way, so we chose to build the interfaces using CORBA and Jaguar CTS. Sybase was the only choice for us. Sybase’s in-depth knowledge allows it to launch new products quickly which is really helping us to answer complex business needs,” explained Mott MacDonald ‘s John Glen.Glen explains how the project works: “Q-MISS gets data from all of the 33 control offices in Great Britain and from MDIS and uses this data to build up a picture of any part of the road network. Our job was to make the system open to others so that they could get the information they needed using the facilities and IT tools that they already have.

“The realtime traffic data that is provided by Q-MISS, enables third party agencies to provide up-to-the-minute traffic information services to motorists and prospective travellers via Web sites, mobile phones and teletext.Although still in an early stage, the Q-MISS system promises to be a world-class demonstration of the power of object software architectures – and of Sybase products – to easily connect multiple computer systems together, as well as handling the extreme demands of online, realtime operation.The ability to provide road users with high quality real time traffic information is seen by the Highways Agency as being an important step forward in making better use of the road network. The aim of its Traffic Information Highway is to provide a ‘one stop shop’ data exchange environment encouraging new services and information delivery mechanisms to be established giving the traveller more choice and better quality information.Sybase products are providing the hub for this next generation data exchange environment.

“Sybase products are scalable and backed by the support we needed to get the job done. Our choice of Sybase products has given us the power we needed to create highly innovative and successful applications,” concluded Glen.