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Remote Condition Monitoring of Rail Assets - Driving intelligent and efficient rail operations

Railway operations are highly dependent on the health of assets as well as real time information on events occurring during operations. However, current manual methods for monitoring rail assets are expensive and these practices adopt a find-and-fix rather than predict-and prevent approach.

Although there are some automated methods for asset and operations data collection and management, manual inspections are still the norm at most railway companies. These methods suffer from several limitations:

  • Asset inspections are carried out as per pre-defined schedules, intermittently, rather than on a continuous basis
  • The asset condition is not known until the next scheduled inspection and abrupt disruptions are often undetected - making it difficult to predict possible failures
  • The reasons for operating disturbances can often not be assigned (for example, in cases of rolling stock or tracks)
  • The process of manual inspection often makes the asset temporarily unavailable for revenue generation

This Point of View by Dr. Raju articulates several applications of Remote Conditioning Monitoring (RCM) data and the potential benefits that can be gained when RCM sensor data is integrated with other business applications and functionalities driving intelligent and efficient rail operations.

Adopting RCM technologies is imperative in order to cover all aspects of rail asset management and safety systems, including on-board and wayside sensors, telemetry for railways and communications, data acquisition and data analysis and systems design and integration. Using various types of sensors, it is possible to conduct non-intrusive and automated measurements to report faults and asset condition, allowing preventive rail infrastructure maintenance and automated self-correction.

The Game Changers - What More is in Store?
The railways of the future will have smart or intelligent railway infrastructure with inter-connected assets and transparent interdepartmental communication, enabling contextual, cognitive, and intelligent self-governed decisions. Some of the major innovations on the technological front that will influence railways of the future include:

  • Sensor technologies, such as, mobile, closed-circuit television (CCTV), and radio-frequency identification (RFID)
  • Mobile applications that work in a seamless manner with other supporting applications
  • Cloud computing technologies
  • The Internet of Things (IoT)
  • Big Data and analytics, including in-memory and real time analytics
  • Complex event processing

When the whole range of systems - such as trackside sensors, on-board sensors, signaling systems, level crossings and interlocking systems, operations control stations and customer facing applications—communicate seamlessly, the implications on railways will be immense. For instance, several derailments can be avoided, when on-board and wayside monitoring sensor systems report possible asset failures through predictions based on the current and past condition of assets.

Pattern matching and advanced smart vision analytic tools - enabled by cloud computing and conventional CCTV technology along with inputs from several other sensors and devices - will play a key role in the surveillance of rail assets. There needs to be more focus on optimizers and algorithms to make the railway infrastructure intelligent and to facilitate automated decision-making though RCM data, in synthesis with other relevant data from operation control systems.

A holistic approach to RCM, which seamlessly integrates RCM data with the IT landscape and existing ecosystem, is needed to derive the best returns from such initiatives.

Remote Condition Monitoring can go a long way in improving rail operations. Rail organizations need to move away from traditional fix-on-fail strategies to more proactive and preventive strategies using RCM. With the assistance of existing technology that offers actionable insights to different stakeholders through data analysis and the capabilities of RCM technology, it is time for railroad companies to embark on their journey towards intelligent and efficient infrastructure.

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