Embracing new rail technologies

by Andrew Meier, Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer, Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation

In launching the National Innovation and Science Agenda in 2015, Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said, “We cannot future-proof ourselves from change, nor should we seek to do so”. What was sought was the “agility to identify opportunities and embrace risk”. Fully embracing risk may feel like a bold step for most, but understanding that advances in technology bring great opportunity, as well as disruption, need not be.

The Transport and Infrastructure Council (TIC), which functions under the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to progress nationally significant reforms, aims to capitalise on the opportunities afforded by new and emerging technologies, and support adaptable and resilient infrastructure and transport systems.

Access to knowledge is a key component of this. Initially the Federal Government aided industry by setting up the Rail Cooperative Research Centre (Rail CRC), which ran for two iterations before winding up in 2014. Private and state government entities supported a continuation of cooperative rail research and the not-for-profit Australasian Centre for Rail Innovation (ACRI) was established.

Its aim is to facilitate independent research and analysis, to provide innovative solutions tailored to rail industry needs. It is overseen by a board representative of both industry and government, and operates on a shared intellectual property model with research findings disseminated across all participants.

ACRI’s program of research is agreed cooperatively by funding participants within heavy haul, passenger and freight rail, and level crossing focus areas. Now in its fourth year of operation and second research funding tranche, there are presently 25 research initiatives in delivery or development, having completed more than 20 projects since its inception.

The impact of technological change

Activities to advance the health monitoring of infrastructure include readying industry for the implementation of new technologies in broken rail detection, through the independent evaluation of a commercially developed locomotive-mounted broken rail detection device, in a variety of Australian weather and rail stress conditions.

Technology also aids the understanding of the human interaction with rail infrastructure. Current initiatives utilising eye tracking include evaluating level crossing visual warning devices for pedestrians, and furthering knowledge on slips, trips and falls within rail station environments in order to aid design improvements.

Such research initiatives address currently tangible challenges for rail, but the industry must also be ready and open to those that are emerging. Presently two frameworks are being developed to address the impact of technological change within rail organisations, one aimed at all aspects of rail operations and the other with a specific focus on track worker safety and competencies. These holistic tools aim to mitigate the challenges of introducing new technology, and improve industry competitiveness by identifying, in advance, the training and management adjustments that may be required.  

The speed with which rail can identify and adapt innovation from outside the industry will also have a significant impact on industry competitiveness. This may require some facilitation as those researching emerging technologies do not necessarily have applications in transport and infrastructure foremost in mind. ACRI is presently evaluating the suitability of a technology originally from the naval operations sector for locomotive-mounted rail condition monitoring which has been developed and tested to its current state within New Zealand.

Collaboration to increase competitiveness

Also important for rail industry advancement and competitiveness are activities in cooperation, linking operations with academia and linking Australasia with international developments.

Initiatives like the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Training Centre for Advanced Technologies in Rail Track Infrastructure (ITTC-Rail), which will combine higher degree civil rail engineering research with significant periods of industry placement, aim to not only deliver industry-relevant research but also importantly industry-ready post graduates.

Internationally ACRI has fostered formal relationships with entities in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, and with the International Union of Railways (UIC), providing channels for currently international knowledge to inform Australasian rail infrastructure practices.

For example, the largest ever Australian freight rail infrastructure project, the 1,700km Inland Rail line connecting Melbourne and Brisbane is now underway, with ACRI participant the Australian Rail Track Corporation (ARTC) managing delivery over the next decade.

By lowering freight supply chain costs, providing regional connectivity to ports, reducing road congestion and allowing the opportunity for increased passenger rail services on the Sydney network, Inland Rail will strongly impact on industry efficiency, sustainability and competitiveness. Importantly it presents a major opportunity for rail innovation as it is easier to apply new technology to new projects than retrofit it to existing infrastructure.  

Innovation can bring challenge or significant opportunity, with the outcome influenced by informed decision making and planning. Through knowledge advancing entities like ACRI, the Australasian rail industry is well positioned to take advantage of the opportunities ahead.

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