The heavy haul rail sector is rapidly evolving with new technology – from train automation, to interconnected and wireless devices, to communication-based train control.
The speed of disruption is impressive and indicates a promising future for the sector: one which effectively balances cost, risk and performance.
But amid the excitement associated with next generation systems, comes a heightened need for vigilance, highlights National Rail Safety Regulator, Sue McCarrey ahead of the ARA Heavy Haul Conference.
“As the adoption of advanced systems becomes more widespread, the need to monitor and maintain safety critical rail assets is ever-important.
“Particularly in the heavy haul rail sector, which has to accommodate high axle loads and achieve efficient throughput of freight,” says Ms. McCarrey.
“Obviously new technologies are a good thing and they will continue to reduce safety risks for the industry. But inevitably, any new asset will create some new risks.
“The industry will need to keep a close eye on these in order to satisfy the regulator.”
Revolutionising asset management
In this regard, a good asset management (AM) strategy is the cornerstone of safety management in rail, says McCarrey.
Hence why it is a major focus for the ONRSR and the subject of guidelines released by the regulator earlier this year.
In the last decade, the industry has seen a variety of new approaches to AM – plus new AM technologies – widely adopted across the sector.
Last year, the Australasian Railway Association (ARA) launched Project i-Trace – an industry-wide initiative, creating the foundation for a universal tagging and barcoding system for rail equipment – in a bid to obsolete paper-based practices to inventory management.
Meanwhile, data analytics and drone-based technologies have been helping operators work “smarter” instead of harder, when it comes to predicting and responding to asset failures.
Projects like Downer’s TrainDNA, for example, are helping operators predict future equipment failures with confidence levels as high as 80 percent or more – by identifying correlations between factors like valve pressure and subsequent HVAC system failure.
Ms. McCarrey welcomes these new approaches and sees them as a necessary step towards making the industry safer.
Traditional practices are still relevant
But although the environment and approaches to AM may be changing considerably, the questions the regulator needs answers for haven’t – and won’t – change greatly, adds McCarrey.
“Monitoring and maintenance will always be about preventing an asset failure of some kind, that could lead to potential harm. To this end, we will continue to ask the same sorts of questions,” she says.
“For example, have you identified the risk; how are you monitoring and maintaining assets to mitigate that risk; and are they being managed so far as is reasonably practicable?
“When new technologies in asset management are being introduced, what risks do these reduce and are there any new risks created as a result?
“How does the new technology interface with other systems and infrastructure; is there a ‘knock on’ effect; and how are these interfaces being managed?
“What human factors may impact? What about cyber security where new technologies have an Internet based platform?
“Are any of the rail operator’s assets at risk from a security breach of any type; and how is this risk being managed?”
In addition, even against the most modern of advances, the need for traditional human attentiveness will never become obsolete, she adds.
“The use of data analytics and drone technologies may be transforming AM. But sometimes, even a good, old-fashioned walk down the track can be an integral part of risk mitigation,” she says.
“We must never fully rely on machines. The best safety and asset management strategies, in my opinion, are ones which have the precision of technology, but which are underpinned by human care and empathy.”
Hear more from Sue McCarrey at the upcoming ARA Heavy Haul Rail Conference in Newcastle – 29-30 October 2019.