Australia’s railway network is large and complex, which creates a number of efficiency, cost, safety and logistics problems.
However, innovation in railway engineering technologies, materials and strategies can help operators drive productivity and save money by modernising a number of processes across the industry.
In June 2014, the government’s CRC for Rail Innovation (Rail CRC) came to end. The seven-year initiative was a collaborative venture between leading organisations in the Australian rail industry and some of the top universities in the country.
Over $100 million was invested in an effort to find solutions to benefit the sector across six key themes: safety and security, climate change and the environment, urban rail access, smart technologies, workforce development, and performance.
Here are five rail innovations that resulted from the venture, including solutions that are currently on the market and products still in the R&D phase.
Low-maintenance wheel steels
Rail CRC estimates there are approximately 500,000 wagon and locomotive steel sets in use across the country. These cost a staggering $100 million a year to maintain due to wear and tear.
Researchers were able to develop a new technique that heat treated a specific type of low-carbon steel alloy that was more resistant to stress and fatigue. Wheel sets made from the material are less prone to cracks and are easier to monitor for defects and damage.
According to Rail CRC, the innovation helps to reduce the money spent on wheel set maintenance by as much as AU$40 million a year.
Energy-saving driver advisory systems
Energy-efficient technologies are becoming more popular across many industries and the rail sector is no different. A key area where savings can be made is drivers’ advisory systems, which allow rail operators to track and manage energy output.
One of these platforms, Energymiser, can reduce power consumption by up to 20 per cent and is easily retrofitted to any kind of train. Using 10 per cent less fuel across 20 vehicles can deliver approximately $2 million worth of savings for Australian rail organisations, according to Rail CRC.
The system is currently used in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. More than 200 Australian trains are fitted with the technology, while 450 are installed abroad.
Rail noise and wear assessment system
For many operators, a large percentage of maintenance costs are generated through wear at the juncture between the train wheel and the track. However, Rail CRC helped develop a software that provides on-board noise monitoring for spotting areas of track that need repair.
Various sounds created through the contact between the wheel set and the railway line can offer an accurate representation of the track quality. The software recognises wheel squeal, flanging, corrugations and impact noises. RailCorp tested the technology, and the firm’s environmental engineer, David Anderson, described it as extremely innovative.
“For complex issues like wheel squeal, you need 2 to 4 weeks of continuous monitoring at any one location to effectively gauge noise problems and review effectiveness of mitigation for communities located near rail corridors,” he said. “Instead of costing hundreds of thousands of dollars to monitor wheel squeal for extended periods, it can now be done for just a few thousand,” he explained.
Electronically controlled pneumatic brakes
Rail freight is a growing industry in Australia, with a tendency towards larger, heavier loads. Unfortunately, the country’s current rolling stock is ageing, which creates problems for traditional braking systems.
Electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes offer a versatile, flexible solution to this issue. An electric signal in the brake communication system enables all of the train’s brakes to activate at the same time. This used to happen mechanically and progressively through each coach, one at a time.
The Australian government claims this could save up to 11 per cent on fuel expenses, as well as improving safety and train durability. While these systems can be retrofitted to existing stock, the primary focus is on introducing ECP brakes to new trains.
Train Health Advisory System
One of the world’s first on-board train monitoring technologies for multi-coach purposes, the Train Health Advisory System – or THAS – is aimed at improving the safety and reliability of rail vehicles.
Initially designed to detect potential derailments, the system now covers dangerous load warnings, flat wheels and general ride quality. A database stores historic records, helping to deliver reports to track owners and rolling stock manufacturers.
Central Queensland University, which developed THAS, estimated that the cost of fitting the system to Australia’s entire fleet would be $4.3 million. However, the technology would save organisations $5.6 million a year.
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