Railways are increasingly turning to high-tech measurement trains to analvse their infrastructure - but are these trains being used effectively? In an exclusive investigation, Andrew Roden suggests some are not.
All over the world, railways introducing sophiaticated measuring trains to monitor the condition of infrastructure with great precision - but how effectively is this new information used and integrated into maintenance strategies?
There is a growing body of thought that says the new generation of measuringequipment - which can track
the status of every aspect of the infrastracture from the track and formation to catenary and structures- is not used effectively. Traditional reactive and periodic maintenance strategies are still being used when the vast amount of data being collected offers greater insight into infrastructure condition. Information is only as valuable as the use in which it can be put, and too many railways are not making effective use of the wealth of information now at their disposal.
Thin is important because railways almost everywhere are facing pressure to reduce maintenace costs and increase safety. And, according to an achowledged expert in infrastrucure measurement,if you ask many railways what the cost of maintenance is and how much of this is attributable to diagnostics, the answer is simple: "We don't know".
Yet many railways could cut maintenance costs by only replacing materials when their condition dictates
it rather than at periodic intervals - similar to the predictive strategies used in aviation and increasingly by train operators. Why don't more railways look through their maintenance and asset condition records to make a precise decision on when to conduct infrastructure maintenance work? The thorough assessment which today's technology allows could quite feasibly suggest longer itervals for some types of maintenance, saving staff and machinery costs, and reducing interruptions to services.
A further consideration is that while the technology is unquestionably sophisticated, it is not infallible.
Eliminating erroneous data and ensuring the condition of the infrastructure is appropriate to the traffic which uses it all make a crucial difference. A further point that needs considering, particularly when secondary and heavy-haul freight lines are being measured, is that the measuring train may not be representative of the loads (particularly axleloads) imposed on the track.
Taking measurements with comparable loads will help ensure the infrastructure e is fit for purpose.
Then there's the hue of interpreting, validation and analysing the data, and correlating it with other existing and historical measurements to assess only the condition of infrastructure but also how its condition is changing. The organization of many railways and infrastructure managers hinders this becam expertise is
often concentrated in the hands of a selected group of experts,often thanks to their passion and willingness to embrace new technology rather than a specific vision of an infrastructure manager. It cannot help either that many railway organizations are divided between engineering, diagnostics, assett management, finance, and IT function. The ability to take a holistic view of asset condition and the cost and value of maintenance and repairs is therefore fragmented across the organization.
To get best out of the information provided by intrducing measuring trains, railways need to consider the possibilities very carefully. There are fundamental implication for maintenance strategy, human resources, supply chain, information technology, and even the infrastructure manager's entire orgdsation that must be considered and evaluated. The changes could be far-reaching and difficult to implement - and may well be considerable internal resistance -but if the benefits of introducing a predictive maintenance strategy are to be maximised, decisive changes must be made and followed through.
The information is available now to allow infrastructure managers to make a step- change in maintenance efficency - but there seems little cross-industry consensus on the best way of managing this. Few infrastructure managers in Euroe agree on what constitutes 'safe' track parameters- what is considered 'safe' for one might be 'unsafe' for another and require maintenance intervention sooner.
Resolving these corrondrums could play a big part in increasing rail's market share in the wider transport
market by ensuring safety while guaranteeing a fair and competitive price for track access, and allowing infrastructure managers to cut maintenance costs and provide transparent and fair access to train operators from different countries.
International organisations, such as the Union of Railways (UIC) and the Association of the European Rail Industry (Unife), must play key part in communicating best practice, while infrastructure managers and governements must support investment in condition monitoring, diagnostics and asset managemet.
With huge efforts being made to roll-out the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS) to harmonise signalling systems, it is surely just as important to fix pan-European safety standards for infrastructure (and associated maintenance practices).
There is no question the latest generation of infrastructure measuring equipment offers a great prize in the form of vastly improved maintenance efficiency - but infrastructure managers must work closely togheter is they are to win the jackpot.