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How Network Rail Plans to Preserve its Digital Data

Network Rail owns and operates the United Kingdom’s railway infrastructure and has done since 2002. It’s a non-departmental public body of the Department for Transport and has no shareholders, instead investing its income back into the railways.

Since the organisation is relatively new, the majority of their data is already stored digitally. This includes all of the company reports, board meeting minutes, and marketing documents. It even includes old engineering drawings dating from the 1830s.

However, while the document archive may be nearly complete, it doesn’t mean work is done. In fact, far from it. The data is still at risk from becoming obsolescent.

That’s because some of the data has been created using applications which are at end of life, or will be there soon. Considering the rate at which technology changes, it’s no surprise that these niche file formats likely belonging to proprietary software is at risk.

“Whereas other companies might have huge ledgers and huge amounts of engineering drawings, or project and correspondence files, all of that kind of information only exists for Network Rail digitally,” said Vicky Stretch, Network Rail archivist. “It is a 21st century archive, but we do have historical drawings that relate directly to our infrastructure, and they enable the 21st century railway to exist, run efficiently and be developed.”

There’s also a legal obligation for Network Rail. The Railway Heritage Act 1996 means that all business and infrastructure records must be available indefinitely, available for study at any time.

A traditional archive would involve putting something in an acid-free box, in a temperature-controlled room, and job done. You could come back in a decade, open it up, and view that information. It’s not the same for digital content.

To combat this, Network Rail began a project a year and a half ago to try and be more proactive with how they archive its digital data. Because of this they have partnered with Preservica, a digital preservation software provider.

The aim is for a cloud-based repository to be created to hold the archive. Preservica host their platform on Amazon’s cloud. The system will manage file formats proactively to stop them becoming obsolete.

Network Rail are now migrating their data to this platform. They have about 4TB of current business records ready to be moved. However, that’s far from the end of it. They also have around 200GB digitised historical material. This includes plans by iconic engineers like Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Robert Stephenson.

After having all their existing data archived, the aim for Network Rail is that all new data will automatically be included in this process.

Not only will this mean the data is available for existing and future staff (which will not only inform day-to-day decisions, but also understand how the past shaped the present), but they want to build a facility so that the public can look at the records. Currently the company deal with global requests about things like infrastructure, history and operations, which could be well answered by an online service.


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