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Technology | Transport & Logistics

Monitoring track assets in their natural state – how Vossloh is changing the game for rail maintenance

28 Feb 2024, by Amy Sarcevic

Intricate track components, like switches and point machines, can be a challenge to monitor under actual operating conditions.

Allow maintenance crews on the ballast while trains are running, and there are often unacceptable safety risks.

Don’t allow them, and it becomes hard to assess the true condition of the asset under its real load.

With governments increasingly turning to rail to fulfil their rapid transit objectives, how can operators improve asset monitoring and ensure the safety and efficiency of their tracks?

Ahead of the Rail Turnouts Conference, we spoke with Pierre-Henri Bougeant from Vossloh to find out.

Real-time insight into asset performance

“Traditionally, monitoring critical components under actual operating conditions has been a significant challenge,” said Mr Bougeant.

“Railway operators tend to avoid having maintenance crews on the ballast while trains are running, which stops them from getting a genuine picture of how their asset is performing.

“However, with advanced technologies such as IoT, edge computing, and AI, you can get a window into the behaviour of an asset under its actual load – a scenario that is rarely achieved in conventional railway operations.”

As one example, Vossloh can install monitoring devices that measure vibration at the crossing and give 24/7 insight into how track assets respond when trains are passing by at full speed.

“This is a game-changer,” Mr Bougeant said. “It helps operators understand the natural behaviour of their assets and fills the gap between what a maintainer might see and what happens when tracks are being used as intended.”

“We have seen cases where an operator believed they had a good quality asset and were surprised to realise it was actually in poor health.”

This real-time monitoring capability can help operators make better-informed maintenance decisions and enhance their operation.

“First and foremost, it improves safety, as potential failures can be flagged and addressed before they materialise. The operator in question was able to take immediate action before any damage was done.

“Secondly, there are efficiency gains to be made. The system can pinpoint precisely when and where maintenance is required, reducing operational downtime and the associated costs,” Mr Bougeant said.

At the crux of the technology’s success, is a finely-tuned algorithm, he added.

“Train tracks are complex beasts and understanding the root cause of a problem isn’t always simple.

“Plenty of companies are trained to crack the case, but there are so many parameters to consider. Is it the rainfall causing problems, or water in the subsoil, for example? It’s hard to make sense of data with intuition alone. That’s where the AI can really step in and provide insight.”

Support from design to maintenance

Alongside new technologies, interpersonal support is crucial for railway operators who wish to develop a more sophisticated maintenance strategy.

As a company that designs and manufactures track assets, alongside real time monitoring capabilities, Vossloh says it is uniquely positioned to provide this.

“We have a pretty deep understanding of what might be causing failures, how to predict them, and their impact on asset lifespan. We can generally anticipate and mitigate before significant problems arise.

“Knowing how the turnout is designed, we can help customers find the weakest links in the chain – for example, the turnouts which generate the most vertical displacements – so they can decide which to maintain first. This helps them avoid metal fatigue which leads quantifiable lifespan reduction and increased safety risks”

Similarly, with experience in designing point machines, Vossloh can monitor power consumption and identify what can or will fail in a motor through the power signature.

“We’ve recently anticipated and pinpointed friction and switch blade locking issues for our customers, helping them to predict when a failure will occur.

“In turn they’ve potentially extended the life of their asset, avoided operational downtime and increased maintenance efficiency by bringing the right tools and spares for repair.”

With its design capabilities, Vossloh can also equip real size test benches and simulate failures to train up its AI, where failures and non-desirables tend to be rare in track. These give us the right training conditions, while we are waiting for similar failures on track.

“It’s critical support for any operator looking to optimise the performance and longevity of their infrastructure.”

Further insight

Talking more about how new technologies can optimise asset monitoring, Mr Bougeant will present at the upcoming Rail Turnouts Conference – 12 March at the Crown Perth.

This year’s event will be co-located with the Heavy Haul Rail Conference – 13-14 March.

Learn more and register your tickets here.

About Vossloh

Vossloh is a global leader in rail infrastructure. It serves its customers with innovative and sustainable solutions, excelling in leading-edge technology, quality, and reliability. Its deep understanding of the rail track as a system and uniquely broad portfolio are rooted on more than 140 years of experience.

About Pierre Henri Bougeant

Pierre Henri is currently the head of digitalization at Vossloh Group. He is in charge of a team of around 120 people, supporting the development of digital solutions for various business units of Vossloh. His work harnesses the latest technologies (IoT, AI, 5G…) to create transformative value for end customers.

Pierre Henri held various leadership roles in transformation and supply chain management across various industries, including ten years in the railway industry. He also has significant experience in steel, automotive and aerospace. He has led major transformation projects, focusing on customer centricity, profitability, sustainability, strategy, and culture.

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