Increased investment in rail over the past decade has seen exciting developments in technology and innovation with construction, condition monitoring and maintenance processes becoming safer and more efficient than ever before. Infrastructure recently spoke with Thomas Kerr, President of the Rail Track Association Australia (RTAA), about some of these advancements in rail equipment, and what opportunities we might expect in the future.
It’s no secret there has been a considerable boom in Australia’s need and want for more rail infrastructure over the last decade, following on the heels of an urban infrastructure boom in the early 2000s.
This project growth in the rail and transport sector has coincided with major advancements in digital technologies that are now having positive effects for those in the sector.
Mr Kerr said the industry has undergone a digital revolution, and one of the biggest changes is how new technology is improving the way maintenance is undertaken, making it far safer and more cost-efficient.
“We’ve had this sort of digital revolution over the last few years, and that’s really changed the way we undertake maintenance in the rail industry.
According to Mr Kerr, maintenance is not allocated a great portion of a project’s budget, especially with clients and company executives consistently pushing to reduce costs in many different areas.
“Ultimately, some of your largest costs are around labour and ad hoc maintenance. Obviously there’s a need to reduce costs, because maintenance can be very expensive. Rail, in general, is very expensive.”
“There’s a lot of opportunity for these efficiency improvements,” Mr Kerr said. “The use of this technology in condition monitoring and predictive maintenance will reduce the headcount in maintenance depots, and prevent the ad hoc maintenance by better planning.”
Mr Kerr cites drones as a key example of a technology taking off in the rail industry. “It’s really reducing the labour required that’s traditional in the undertaking of maintenance tasks,” he said.
While condition monitoring equipment and technology are nothing new, new advancements are enabling better and more efficient preventative maintenance processes. “The technology we’ve got these days can allow the predictive failure of assets more readily, so we can better plan when we need to renew or repair an asset,” Mr Kerr said. “Obviously that would also reduce the unexpected failures that would cause network disruption.”
In a similar way, technological developments in track recording equipment are allowing for smoother and more accurate maintenance.
“Track recording equipment has been around for a number of years, but it’s becoming more efficient and more mainstream in all networks,” said Mr Kerr. “The technology of track recording equipment is really built into the maintenance regime to enable better identification of defects, and better planning of maintenance activities by analysing big data and looking at trends.”
Whereas in the past these processes were more manual and required more analysis from personnel and engineers, it is now faster and easier with the use of technology and software for those maintenance and management tasks.
Condition monitoring and preventative maintenance are not the only areas positively impacted by recent technological developments. Mr Kerr said he witnessed a hybrid track resurfacing machine in Austria. This vehicle can operate using onboard diesel generators outside of urban areas or by utilising overhead traction systems in electrified networks closer to sensitive receptors. This is just one example of enhancements in environmental noise reduction on construction sites.
“There’s a lot of these technologies that our suppliers are now introducing,” he said. “Manufacturers are creating hand tools, equipment and vehicles that are investing more in reducing the environmental impact, the noise or waste in a lot of different areas. This is in addition to investing in the development of safety improvements with more ergonomic equipment or by eliminating the need to manual labour all together through equipment such as high output rail fastening clipping machines that are operated by an excavator.”
He called to mind another piece of technology that excavators and mobile plants are taking onboard: devices that make exclusion zones more visible. “For example, there is a piece of equipment that is basically like a light that draws a circle around the safe zone, or the safe limits around an excavator,” Mr Kerr said. “In the past it’s been a big challenge as a procedural and cultural thing to prevent people from entering that unsafe zone, whereas these days, there is development to improve this and prevent workplace injuries with this type of technology.” For Mr Kerr, this is one great example of technology’s ability to provide simple, elegant solutions to keep workers safer whilst simultaneously increasing efficiency.
Mr Kerr also said “The RTAA actually hold one of the largest outdoor rail exhibitions in the southern hemisphere, co-hosted with Sydney Trains. This event allows our corporate members to showcase their latest wares and technology in the rail industry such as these and is free to attend.”
More investments need more skilled workers
Alongside its encouraging technological and economic developments, however, the boom in rail infrastructure also poses considerable challenges for the industry. More projects being funded, means that there has been a corresponding skills shortage.
Mr Kerr said the Australasian Rail Association (ARA) are one of the organisations doing great work in highlighting this issue, and have recently undertaken an extensive study on the skills shortages in Australia. “They’re lobbying the Commonwealth Government to address these issues of the workforce and skills shortages. Certainly, the RTAA are supporting them on that front, and supporting the development of young rail professionals into the industry.” Mr Kerr said the key to combating this shortage is to inspire university students to choose a career in rail as well as encouraging young rail professionals to stay in the industry.
Alongside this advocacy from peak industry bodies, new initiatives are emerging to help young rail professionals enter and navigate the industry. In the track space, Mr Kerr has been involved as a facilitator and tutor in a new course developed by Engineering Education Australia, sponsored by Transport for New South Wales.
This track engineering course, which is still in development, aims to bridge the skills gap between the technical understanding of track and the interfacing stakeholders and assets. “There’s quite a shortage of track skills and track engineers, so this is one way of addressing that issue,” Mr Kerr said.
However, Mr Kerr cautioned that the skills shortage issue is broader than just ensuring clear routes through the rail industry. Alongside an increased demand, the other catalyst for the shortage is the industry’s aging workforce. “You’re going to see a lot of baby boomers retiring. So there’s a lot of work being done to pass that knowledge onto the younger generation. That’s certainly another one of RTAA’s priorities, to facilitate and enable that through initiatives such as mentoring and networking programs.”
Moreover, the project-based nature of rail construction can also result in unstable employment. “After a project is complete there’s a massive workforce there that needs to find another job. You can’t just keep these people employed if there’s no other work.”
Mr Kerr said the influx of new projects is indicative of the Federal Government’s commitment to supporting the workforce. Ensuring there is funding available for a ‘project after project’ construction schedule results in a more stable workforce and allows workers to continue developing their skills in relevant areas. The corresponding challenge, then, will be sustaining this funding for rail infrastructure in the decades to come.
Yet despite the challenges ahead for the rail industry, Mr Kerr said the technological advancements and getting more young and diverse people involved in rail represent encouraging signs of progress.
“With a bit of investment and support,” he said, “anything’s possible.”