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On track for success – how the IHHA sees the future of heavy haul rail maintenance

31 Jan 2024, by Amy Sarcevic

With many tracks built more than 100 years ago, the railway systems of developed countries around the world were not meant to bear the heavy haul trains of today.

Initially supporting 16 tonnes per axel, the networks now hold trains with up to 45 – almost three times the weight of their original cargo.

For this reason, problems relating to track drainage, stiffness variation, and support capacity, are rife – particularly in areas where the tracks are shared, and where higher speeds are required to match those of passenger trains.

More to do

For the past four decades, the sector has pioneered various innovations to improve its safety and efficiency profile, in light of faster, heavier trains.

Distributed power, ECP braking, train authorisation, and management of the wheel-rail interface are among the industry’s successes to date.

However, as Antonio Merheb, Chairman of the International Heavy Haul Association (IHHA), points out, the modern railway is facing a pivotal moment of reappraisal.

Now, more than ever, there is pressure to build a safer, greener, more efficient and customer-focussed service, fit for the digital age, he says.

“Clearly, today’s environmental challenges can only be addressed with rail transport as the backbone of a sustainable and seamlessly connected mobility system.

“Railway is the fastest and most cost-effective way to decarbonize both daily passenger mobility and logistical chains – so it’s a central pillar for transformative climate action in transportation.

“All this puts rail in the spotlight in terms of its safety and efficiency profile,” he told Informa.

So, how should the industry move forward?

Forward thinking

Mr Merheb believes data is the single, most compelling way to future-proof centenary tracks.

He says the majority of track maintenance activities are still corrective, and wants to see an increase in dynamic track maintenance planning, based on real-time objective condition data.

“Ideally, maintenance advisory systems should be adopted more broadly across the sector. These can predict failures long before they happen, giving the advance time needed to integrate maintenance plans with train schedule plans.

“So, too, should sensors and automated inspection systems. These can be interconnected to create smart infrastructure and, with the use of smart systems, can analyse data in real-time to schedule predictive maintenance,” he said.

Extending the use of data

While many operators already use data-driven technologies to predict maintenance issues, far fewer are using data to refine their broader asset management strategies, he says.

“Data should be used to support track renewal projects, suggesting the best method and the most cost-effective approach – not just predicting failures before they happen.

“It should also be used to help channel resources in areas which deliver the best outcomes, in terms of reducing failures and costs.”

Embracing new tech

Along with new uses for data, Mr Merheb predicts a major breakthrough of new technologies for the intelligent construction of infrastructure, and says these should be fully embraced.

“We will see new assembly-type structural systems, intelligent digital manufacturing technologies and automated installation technologies.

“We’ll also see advances in precision measurement and structural safety dynamic monitoring sensors integrated into information management technologies will enable post-construction performance monitoring.

“It’s important we use these technologies to our full advantage,” he said.

The IHHA’s broader vision

Under its Heavy Haul Vision 2030, the IHHA has created a formula for achieving the industry’s milestones over two-year, five-year and 10-year horizons. Unpacking the latest trends, the vision lays out objectives and techniques across seven focus areas:

– Customer experience
– Safety
– Operations
– Rolling stock and infrastructure maintenance
– Energy and environment
– Information
– Skills

“The strategy provides a clear steer for our future direction. It will be particularly valuable for suppliers, research institutions, customers, railway professionals and industry associations. Our hope is that it will inspire the industry to collaborate more effectively to deliver its future,” Mr Merheb said.

Talking more about the vision, Antonio Merheb will address the upcoming Heavy Haul Rail Conference, held 13-14 March, hosted by Informa Connect.

This year’s event is co-located with the Rail Turnouts Workshop, held 12 March at the Crown Perth.

Learn more and register your place here.

About Antonio Merheb

Antonio Merheb is Chairman of the International Heavy Haul Association. He is currently working as a Consultant at MRS Logistics, a Heavy Haul railroad operator located in southeast Brazil. He has a PhD in Transportation Infrastructure at the Polytechnic School, University of São Paulo and graduated as a civil engineer with a concentration in geotechnics.

Antonio is responsible for strategy and planning of the track components, a position he has held for the past ten years. His mainly works on the development and innovation of materials and railway systems and his primary focus is optimising track design and maintenance, and assisting in the adoption of technologies to minimise costs and improve reliability.

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