Opportunities in rail technology

The rapid speed of technological change in the rail industry is having a huge impact on the management of assets, with real-time monitoring, AI, machine learning, predictive maintenance and a huge amount of data all available to improve performance and network capacity.

The opportunities around data and technology in the rail industry was a key topic of conversation among panellists in the rail stream of the Asset Management for Critical Infrastructure 2018 Conference, which ran from 12–13 September in Sydney.

Some of the biggest challenges facing the rail industry discussed by the panel revolved around capacity issues, the speed of technological change and cyber security. Panellists included Andrew Meier, Executive Director/Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Centre for Rail Innovation; Lucio Favotto, A/Director Infrastructure Management at Transport for NSW; Bonnie Ryan, Senior Manager at GS1 Australia; and Dale Smith, Principal Engineer at Lycopodium Infrastructure.

The discussion was moderated by Helen Carroll, Manager Asset Management, Public Works Advisory, Department of Finance, Services and Innovation.

The panel talked about one of the biggest challenges of the industry being resources and providing access to the networks, especially as customers have lower tolerability for service disruptions on rail networks than roads as they can’t visualise the problem.

If a customer’s trip driving down a highway takes 40 minutes longer, they can accept that if they can visualize the works occurring, whereas in a signalling upgrade for example, all the customer can see is that they are being disrupted, but the station may look the same from the outside.

Lucio Favotto, A/Director Infrastructure Management at Transport for NSW thinks communication is one of the most important factors when temporarily disrupting customers in order to improve services.

“One of the things that we have done in the past when we looked at significant track upgrades is we’ve actually gone out to do meet-the-customer type arrangements at stations. We actually sat down and explained to the customer in the next six to seven months we’re going to knock you around in travel. This is what you’re going to get out of it.”

Industry standards are also significant when looking at how the rail sector moves forward and embraces new opportunities. On standards, Bonnie Ryan, Senior Manager at GS1 Australia, said standards exist where there’s no gain from doing the same thing in a different way.

“In terms of data standards, where practical, they enable resources to be focused; rather than reinventing the wheel, they actually lift the opportunity for innovation because they release time, effort and resources into focusing on outcomes that are value-adding,” Ms Ryan said.

“The focus should be on how to use data, rather than on how to get data. From a technology perspective, data standards will release resources and have the opportunity to redirect those in more productive ways.”

Significant opportunities in technology

Ms Ryan said that, like other industries, digitalisation in rail will mean the assets themselves are going to be a part of the solution to current challenges.  

“They’re going to give you feedback and they’re going to tell you when they’re potentially going to break. Looking ahead, you’re going to get that sort of feedback loop directly from the assets as we start to look at things like the Internet of Things, machine learning, etc.

“Trains will have all sorts of sensors embedded in all of the components, and it will be incumbent on the rail industry to effectively manage the amount of data that will be coming through from these new technologies.

“I think one of the trends is really going to be looking at the workforce, and the sorts of skills that are going to be required in the future to make sense of the data and technologies that are going to be utilised.”

Dale Smith, Principal Engineer at Lycopodium Infrastructure, agreed and said there is a lot of potential in things like big data and the Internet of Things.

“I think things like real-time monitoring, having information on hand to assess the asset, how it’s actually behaving out there, is important. To understand if it’s on a downward trend, or it’s at a plateau will become valuable tools in decision-making around what we do for our assets,” Mr Smith said.

Rail’s future is predictive and integrated

Ms Ryan said that one of the best ways to use this data is from a proactive standpoint, for asset managers to be able to predict when an asset might fail rather than a reactive approach to fix on failure.

“You want to be able to be a bit more intelligent about it, maybe a component or asset doesn’t need to be maintained every six months, we can do it every 12. But you need good analytics, good data and intelligence to make those proactive decisions.”

Mr Favotto said there are massive opportunities in technology, but it’s all about being smart with the data and knowing what to do with it.

“So we’re acquiring the data, we’ve just got to make sure how it works for us to make the right decisions at the right time.

“It comes down to what we’re going to do with that data. It’s got to drive the change in the standards,” Mr Favotto said.

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