Intelligent Trains become Data Hoovers

| Information and Communication Technology

Northern Rail equips trains with sensors to gather data on the railway infrastructure as part of routine services

Northern Trains will collect essential data during normal service runs for infrastructure maintenance

Train operator, Northern is planning to extend the monitoring and sensing equipment it uses in up to forty of its trains, which will enable them to become “data hoovers” to help transform the way the rail network is maintained.

The special trains, which would still operate public services, would travel the network and feed information about the track and surrounding infrastructure to Network Rail.

Horizon-scanning LIDAR cameras, thermal imaging software and HD CCTV footage would all be used to record infrastructure defects, environmental factors and maintenance issues.

Every night, the train would perform a “digital handshake” to transfer the data that’s been acquired so that it can be downloaded and analysed by engineers.

The scheme is part of Northern’s Intelligent Trains programme, which was first introduced and partially implemented in 2022 and is a collaboration with Network Rail designed to help make journeys by rail safer, more reliable and efficient.

Rob Warnes, strategic development director at Northern says that the move is part of the company’s plan to do things smarter, safer and more efficiently.

Each of Northern’s trains travels, on average, 100,000 Km around the North of England every year and that presents a huge opportunity for data capture.

According to Warnes, only 40 out of the company’s fleet of 335 trains would need to be fitted with the technology to regularly sweep the entire network, which spans 3,000 Km of track.

“Those trains could provide engineers with data from the same section of track over many days, weeks and months – enabling maintenance issues to be identified and repairs scheduled whilst they are within operational safety standards,” he explains.

The approach is expected to come to fruition once funding has been secured for the programme from Network Rail, which it estimates would save tens of thousands of delay minutes caused by urgent, unscheduled maintenance each year.

Data Acquisition Technology

One of the key items of technology that Northern is planning to use is light detection and radar (LIDAR) scanning devices that have already been installed during the initial phase of the project.

Chief among the application of LIDAR technology are horizon-scanning cameras that can detect infrastructure defects, environmental threats and maintenance issues.

The train-mounted cameras use the same light detection and radar (LIDAR) process as used by meteorologists to measure clouds and pollution and which is also used as detection technology in the automotive industry for autonomous vehicles.

Alongside LiDAR, the train operator is also planning to use thermal imaging systems to monitor passenger load factors.

Using all the sensing and data acquisition technology together, the company expects that trains will be able to detect bumps on the line as they pass over them and automatically send GPS co-ordinates to maintenance teams responsible for repairs.

External mounted cameras can scan the roof of tunnels for loose bricks so they can be flagged with infrastructure safety teams before they become a danger and sensors can spot energy saving opportunities, such as station lighting being left on during the daytime, as trains travel through platforms.

The roll-out of the new technology began during 2022 with the full implementation of the “data hoover” trains being expected once funding has been secured.

Speaking at the start of the company’s roll-out, Nick Donovan, managing director of Northern, said: “This is the beginning of what we’re calling Intelligent Trains. With these modifications, our fleet won’t just travel the network, they will actively monitor and report back on issues that could have an impact on our operation.”

The result will be greater efficiencies in terms of resource allocation, faster responses in terms of maintenance programmes and an overall smarter and safer way of working.

“We are sharing details of this new software with other train operators so that passengers the length and breadth of the country can benefit from the approach we have pioneered in the North of England,” concluded Donovan.

AI at Network Rail

In addition, Artificial intelligence is now being used by Network Rail to find and remove forgotten scrap materials from the side of the railway more quickly.

A trial is currently taking place where AI technology is being used to locate old railway materials that can either be re-used or recycled. The technology captures high-definition train’s-eye-view video – known as Automated Intelligent Video Review (AIVR) – from across the rail network, with the footage instantly accessible in the cloud.

The footage is then analysed by AI to find scrap rail, sleepers and bags of ballast and map their locations using GPS, enabling maintenance teams to plan how and when to remove the items.

According to Wayne Cherry, Network Rail senior innovations engineer, technology such as AIVR provides Network Rail with a brilliant opportunity to improve how efficient it is.

“Not only is scrap on the side of the railway unsightly, but it can also become an obstacle during planned engineering work, block safe walkways or delay our teams accessing part of the railway infrastructure to make repairs during disruption,” he says.

The project is currently being trialled on the Wessex route, which is one of the busiest on the rail network, before looking to roll it out more widely.

In addition to helping improve efficiency, the new technology also has safety and financial advantages. On Network Rail’s Wessex route, “slips, trips and falls” are the largest causes of injury and scrap on the side of the track is a significant hazard, particularly as most work happens during darkness.

Martyn Shaftoe, Network Rail’s Wessex route health and safety advisor, believes this technology will play an important role in helping keep rail workers safe and help to become more efficient in locating and removing scrap as well as improving the overall condition of the railway.

“Unfortunately, the railway has become somewhat of a dumping ground for discarded sleepers, scrap rail, ballast bags and many other assets. The challenge we face is there is no definitive list of where these materials or assets are,” he says.

The prospect of accurately locating scrap material using high-definition video footage and AI without the need for workers to walk along the railway is a huge improvement.

Financially, not only can some of the scrap material be recycled and any money accrued used to support running the railway, but some of the leftover materials are also reusable. For example, Bomac concrete sleepers are no longer manufactured, but there is still a demand for them as replacements on sidings and on some stretches of track. Thanks to this technology, 40 of these sleepers have been identified on a site between Yeovil and Weymouth where they can be recovered and stored for future use across the business, preventing the need to buy costly new equivalents.

“To be able to help the industry potentially save money by reusing or recycling this treasure-trove of scrap materials is a brilliant prospect and we look forward to hopefully rolling it out more widely across the business later in the year,” Shaftoe concludes.

Jonathan Newell
Latest posts by Jonathan Newell (see all)

Related news

Read More News From Unspecified Company: