Dialling down disruption: the future of improving rail performance

Milda Manomaityte, Senior Policy & Technical Manager, Railway Industry Association | 21 June 2021

As the UK starts moving again and we see demand on our railways begin to increase, the industry’s opportunity is clear; how to deliver an exceptional customer experience, while maintaining infrastructure performance and keeping environmental impact to a minimum?    

Here, I explore how partnerships are helping ensure smarter approaches to essential improvements and repairs on the railway, as the industry works to deliver value for money to passengers and contributes to wider sustainability efforts in the UK. 

Dialling down disruption

Repair works are an inevitable part of what the rail industry has to do. But, given the often routine nature of the infrastructure’s maintenance, there’s an opportunity to minimise disruption across the UK’s 20,000 miles of track and 30,00 bridges and tunnels. We’ve looked before at the work Atkins  is pioneering in predictive maintenance, as we recognise that there’s a growing place – and need – for technology to be part of the process.

The NMT uses lasers to survey overhead line equipment remotely and the OLE-StAT enhances this system by collecting, interpreting, and analysing data on the health of infrastructure. A visual dashboard is created, highlighting, and categorising any areas of concern. In tandem to predicting potential issues, OLE-StAT has significant workforce safety benefits by removing the need for anyone to be trackside, creating both additional time and cost efficiencies.

OLE-StAT is now being used to analyse additional OLE equipment, and there are plans to realise its full predictive maintenance potential to help locate and resolve faults before they become issues at all.

Real-time data to drive more efficient gauging assessments 

Complementing this is the likes of D/Gauge’s suite of ‘self-service’ gauging software. This technology provides rail professionals with real-time access to assessment datasets that measure the clearance around a moving train and thus ensures it is operating safely. Since data is constantly captured and recorded, this reduces the needs for engineers to undertake multiple repeat visits making assessments are quicker and safer. D/Gauge recently announced their new product D/Gauge Rift: providing a new tool in supporting Track and Infrastructure engineers.

Integrating sensors to support predictive maintenance

Another innovation that harnesses real-time data is SWIX, a low-cost Predictive Maintenance technology for Switches and Crossings. SWIX remotely monitors track substructure and critical switch components to extend asset life, reduce service-affecting failures, reduce downtime and improve maintenance scheduling. How? It uses small self-contained sensor units to help identify and capture data on the switch component’s health and substructure condition each time rolling stock passes the site. 

This data is then stored in the cloud and the resultant information can be remotely accessed by infrastructure engineers and managers. Ultimately, this tech helps teams predict failures and harness preventative maintenance, offering a step change in the cost efficiency and reliability of switches and crossings – and delivering a better service on the railway overall. An additional bonus is that it can significantly improve health and safety, enabling reduced boots on ballast whilst trains are running. 

Harnessing machine learning to understand the track environment 

Innovation continues to lead the way when it comes to ensuring both good infrastructure conditions and effective monitoring of the general landscape’s wellbeing. Take the phone-sized AIVR (Automated Intelligent Video Review), which sits inside the windscreen, or in Tail Lamp bracket housing, of any operational vehicle and automatically captures video data and telemetry whilst on the move. It’s a ‘Google Earth’ for rail, but with updating imagery. Now, rail professionals can view ‘what the train sees’ – critical lineside video data, with location, measurement, mark-up and sharing tools. One Big Circle (OBC) designed the platform with Network Rail’s modernisation plan, the Digital Railway, in mind and it has now been deployed across Network Rail and Transport for Wales’s infrastructure.  

One of the most exciting features of the platform is that it uses advanced machine learning to understand what the images show and gather further insight into the train’s surrounding environment. This means that rail professionals can use the tool to monitor and assess any anomalies to the railway environment, vegetation growth and so on, as a direct result of rail use, and can make informed decisions on how to counteract this.  

Moving towards a smarter railway 

The bottom line is that we need more intelligent solutions to infrastructure maintenance throughout the UK’s railway, incorporating next generation technology such as sensors, predictive maintenance and machine learning that provide a platform for rail professionals to make informed decisions based on real-time insights. 

To realise this requires continued collaboration across the rail supply chain to bring to market innovations capable of tackling the challenges of today and those of tomorrow. As the rail industry approaches a new restructure, following the publication of the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, it is vital that the better utilisation of digital technology is supported across the sector.

We’re pleased to have individuals from the companies mentioned above in our Ambassadors of Change series, which spotlights those in the rail community who are driving innovation. 

To learn more about how you and your organisation can be part of the rail industry’s digital future, join the next Unlocking Innovation: Data-driven Maintenance webinars on 6-7 July.

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