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Technology | Transport & Logistics

Prolonging the life of a rail turnout

16 Feb 2024, by Amy Sarcevic

Bearing enormous tonnage, and withstanding extremes of weather and temperature, life as a rail turnout is often tough in Australia.

However, as John Smith of voestalpine Railway Systems points out, a turnout can maintain good health and reach an impressive life span if cared for appropriately.

He says advances in sensors and data-based applications now lend themselves to progressive asset maintenance strategies, and is pleased to see historical methods, like cyclic maintenance, gradually being refined or phased out.

“With cyclic maintenance, the majority of inspections are based on routine visual checks, and costs can escalate very quickly when more thorough work is performed. So, by their nature, they are often quite superficial. That means turnouts often require added interventions or incur more operational downtime” he said.

Thankfully, for many years the Australian rail sector has been embracing the use of data to enhance the maintenance of infrastructure assets, and this is now being adopted for turnout maintenance, in line with the ISO5501 standard for asset management.

However, John says there is still a huge amount of untapped potential, with new use cases for data and technology yet to be deployed throughout the sector.

His company is currently manufacturing sensors that fit directly on the turnout and give accurate information about the condition of the asset.

“We have created a really robust sensor technology that can be fitted directly on the turnout and crossing infrastructure and withstand the extreme operational and environmental conditions. It can take a real hammering, with massive axle loads going over it every hour,” he said.

“The sensors can gather and process information that’s really beneficial to the customer. It helps them build up a picture remotely of how that asset is performing. It’s a huge step up from cyclic maintenance that relies on previous experience with the asset to determine when an inspection should take place.”

The technology also trumps other asset maintenance strategies which use data, but to a lesser degree.

“Lots of companies are using points or switch conditioning monitoring. That’s great, but it only acquires data when the point machine is operated and the further away from the point machine you get (e.g. at the crossing itself), the less insightful the data is.”

While information from voestalpine’s sensors may highlight the need for more frequent inspections than what is the norm under a cyclic maintenance framework, John says these maintenance costs pale in comparison to those of turnout failures.

“The sensors can pre-empt any type of failure long before it results in an outright disruption to the network, or an early death of the asset.

“It’s akin to taking good care of our physical health. Clearly there are advantages of keeping a close eye on your skin, for example, and responding to any mark or freckle that starts to look unusual. You’ll be in much better health and live longer than if you blindly saw a doctor every so often and discovered something that’s already caused quite a bit of damage.”

The sensors have occupational health and safety benefits, too, given that they require less worker intervention.

“Often turnouts are serviced in emergency situations where the asset has failed. People are deployed to site and working under pressure. Even with safe work systems, its generating risk that doesn’t have to be there,” John said.

Alongside the sensors, voestalpine has put equal effort into perfecting the software needed to interpret their data.

“This is as important as the measurement. If you just have the data, then so what? You need to make sense of those numbers. You’ve got to make sure you’re teasing out right information from the data in a way will be of genuine use to your organisation.”

When perfecting the software, a key priority for voestalpine is that the interface is easy to use, John said.

“The idea is that you won’t need someone with a PhD in mathematics to make sense of it. It needs to be accessible to all and give meaningful, actionable insights – not just graphs and figures.

“This is something we are continually working on, because it’s such an important part of asset management. If a customer really understands how their infrastructure works and where its critical or weak points are, they can target their efforts better.

“Not all turnouts needs to be equipped at the highest level – but if you understand where the critical or golden assets are you can make wise decisions that deliver the greatest impact.”

Thankfully, voestalpine has several advantages in helping customers reach this point. Perhaps most importantly, it has a specialist division dedicated to data analysis, which fully supports its broader turnout manufacturing business.

“Having data expertise is one thing, but it’s the combination of data and rail infrastructure expertise that helps give that complete picture and deliver something of genuine value to rail workers.”

Hear more about voestalpine’s pioneering use of railway data and how operators can use it to refine their asset management strategies 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 voestalpine

voestalpine Railway Systems, a subsidiary company of voestalpine AG, is the global leader for railway infrastructure system solutions, offering outstanding products, logistics and services for rails, turnouts, signaling and monitoring applications.

As the global track technology company and full-range supplier, voestalpine offers customers throughout the world fully integrated railway solutions for all types of rail traffic. Creating maximum customer benefit is the driving force behind all its activities.

About John Smith

John Smith joined voestalpine in 2018. Prior to that he spent nine years at Network Rail (UK) where he was responsible for delivering the Intelligent Infrastructure programme, one of the industry’s most extensive applications of remote condition monitoring.

John graduated in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Birmingham and spent the first half of his career in the automotive industry with Jaguar Cars and Ford Motor Company.

As an Engineer, he is passionate about the global transformation of railways through the safe, reliable and innovative application of digital technologies.


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