The Express Train to Condition-Based Maintenance

March 4, 2016

Keeping trains in an optimum is key to safety. Explore how effective asset management can help maintain trains and cut costs.

red train standing at a train station

Britain is now one of the leading countries in Europe when it comes to the operation of national rail networks. Use has more than doubled over the last two decades hitting a record 1.6 billion passengers a year, and there are no signs of growth stopping there. Passenger numbers are set to rise year on year and, because of this, rail operators are looking at ways of maximising capacity by putting existing stock and infrastructure to better use.

One way of achieving this involves streamlining asset monitoring and maintenance processes. If operators can improve the way safety checks and maintenance activities are carried out, they will see an increase in productivity and the number of passengers transported, because their trains will spend more time working and less time being worked on. The industry is no stranger to monitoring assets for wear and tear, but are companies taking full advantage of the more recent innovations that are available?

Keeping trains in optimum condition has traditionally required comprehensive visual checks, typically completed by an overnight workforce. This can cause delays, and is costly and open to human error. In contrast, asset monitoring is a straightforward way to pinpoint the optimum time to repair and replace parts, keeping costs down and services moving.

Nowadays, new rolling stock often comes to market with a number of built-in sensors ready to monitor components and notify operators of faults. However, as yet, no consensus has been reached by the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) on which particular sensors are the best to use. Also, a definitive method for maintaining these sensors is yet to be decided on, posing challenges around quality and safety levels. On-board sensors also present another difficulty when it comes to retro-fitting them to older stock. Installing these sensors on aging trains can prove to be expensive and an often short-term option; once the trains become more costly to fix than scrap, they'll be replaced.

So, is there a better alternative? Yes! Wayside sensors. If operators can accurately monitor the integrity of both old and new trains easily, without taking them off the track, the result is better stock management and increased stock availability. The Alstom TrainScannerTM is a system that offers such an approach. As trains pass through carefully positioned lasers and cameras, status measurements are taken and converted into readable data. This data then provides accurate and useable information on the hundreds of components trains contain, helping improve the strategies used by operators in dealing with the deterioration of stock. This raises safety levels, allowing for more cost-effective and efficient planning of maintenance activities.

It's fair to say that most TOCs would be keen to take advantage of such a system, so communicating how wayside sensors can be used for more than just reactive maintenance is key. The shift away from outdated, spreadsheet-based data management methods is already underway, but the question ‘is it happening fast enough?’ remains. Passenger numbers are increasing at record speeds and maintenance procedures must be switched to a faster, safer track if operators want their trains moving and not stuck at the platform.