Predict & prevent: enhancing UK rail’s performance and passenger experience 
through technology and collaboration

Milda Manomaityte, Senior Policy & Technical Manager, Railway Industry Association | 28 May 2021

As the old adage goes, a problem shared is a problem halved. I’ve always found this particularly true for the rail industry, a belief reinforced by its response to the pandemic – where the power of partnerships came to the fore. Take, for example, Network Rail’s work with Thales to install thermal cameras in critical staffing locations to help protect staff and ensure business continuity, or Siemens Mobility empowering Govia Thameslink with technology that delivered real-time information on social distancing in passenger trains.  

As we emerge from lockdown, it’s critical that we continue to strengthen industry partnerships and collaborations like these to deliver an ever better performance and experience for our customers; particularly as the country begins moving again, and we continue to position rail as a crucial mode of transport for both passengers and freight. But where can collaborative approaches to innovation bear the most fruit? 

In this blog, I’ll explore how we can improve the reliability of our railway by innovative approaches to predictive maintenance and finding more effective ways to mitigate damage caused by our unpredictable British weather.

Prevention is better than cure

Traditionally, monitoring and managing the natural wear and tear of the network is a year-round job to ensure that the infrastructure is fit for purpose. But that constant attention has proven to be risky work, requiring rail workers to be on the track lines and in close proximity to fast moving trains. It has also meant that lines can be put out of service for passengers during bank holidays and weekends. So, finding a way to monitor the health of our railways and needing workers to be track is key.

The good news is that we’re already seeing significant innovation in this area. Atkins as part of the Central Rail Systems Alliance (CRSA), for example, has worked with the newly established SME Train Rail Infrastructure Solutions alongside Network Rail’s North West & Central Route and Research & Development teams to develop OLE-StAT, which builds on Network Rail’s existing Measurement Train (NMT) infrastructure by using data to analyse and predict potential issues before they’ve even occurred. 

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.

Preparing for the coming winter

As we all know, our weather in the UK is unpredictable – and increasingly so – which impacts the performance of our railway. For example, when heavy wind and rainy conditions cause significant leaf-fall in a short space of time, leaves are more likely to stick to the rails. Add the heat and weight of trains passing over them, and a thin, slippery layer is subsequently baked onto the rail. In fact, in the past, adverse weather has cost Network Rail £50 to £100 million per year on delays and cancellations, rising to £200 to £300 million with the wider costs to the railway such as necessary repairs. While poor weather is out of our control, the industry is working to minimise its impact by taking precautions and investing in innovative tech to help mitigate delays and risk of disasters.

For example, PlasmaTrack has developed a new, efficient, scalable, and sustainable technology to solve the perennial problem of 'leaves on the line'. It completed the R&D phase sponsored by the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) in March 2020, which took the technology through three phases of development, taking it from a lab-based concept into a railway-ready prototype tested with Network Rail. 

Safely and securely mounted to each train ahead of the wheel rail interface, this plasma technology clears the residue on tracks, returning the surface to a dry, clean and uncontaminated state – enabling trains to run on near-perfect conditions and helping ensure controlled braking in all environmental conditions. Once fully implemented, this innovation brings the potential to avoid unnecessary damage to tracks and scheduled timetables, increasing capacity on the network. 

It is now working closely with Network Rail Route Services and Wales Route to deliver Trial Product Approval testing for 2 variants of its PlasmaTrack cleaning systems. Route Services will take delivery of a High Speed MPV PlasmaTrack Cleaning System and Wales a Low Speed PlasmaTrack Road to Rail System for Autumn 2021.

Looking ahead

Delivering a reliable railway that meets (and exceeds) the expectations of our passengers and freight users will be critical to the future success and reputation of UK rail. The opportunity is there for the taking, and there’s even more to shout about. In my next blog, I’ll be looking at how the industry is using technology to minimise disruption for passengers from essential works, and continues to lead the way as an environmentally-friendly travel option that delivers value for money. 

Finally, we are delighted to include spokespeople from all the organisations mentioned above, within our Ambassadors of Change series, which spotlights members of the rail community who are spearheading innovation. 

To learn more about the role you and your organisation can play in driving innovation in rail, attend the next Unlocking Innovation: Accessing funding in Horizon Europe webinar taking place on Wednesday 9th June.

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