The power of digitization in the maintenance of track equipment

Digital monitoring of track equipment allows maintenance to be performed before a fault causes traffic disruption.

There is growing interest in the possibility of condition monitoring to support the management and maintenance of railroad assets.

Finnish railway maintenance company VR FleetCare, in collaboration with technical experts, data scientists and technology partners, has developed the latest solutions for the digitization of infrastructure maintenance. Initially focused on monitoring the digital status of rolling stock, development work has now yielded proven results in the field of track equipment such as track circuits and switches.

Digitization in the maintenance of track equipment

Digital status monitoring saves response time and reduces traffic inconvenience

© VR FleetCare

Defects in track equipment usually cause traffic restrictions, interruptions, and delays. Each traffic disruption increases costs and damages the reputation of stakeholders. Sami Salohaimo, Senior Condition Monitoring Specialist at VR FleetCare, explains that, traditionally, defects were not discovered until after they began causing traffic disruptions.

Of course, it is impossible to predict the future of complex electronics with measurements, but monitoring systems can detect faults more effectively than people or general traffic control systems.

Saloheimo says:

“What is key is the ability to respond to disturbances before train speeds need to be restricted or traffic diverted to another route. The later the disturbance is addressed, the often higher the costs.”

In digital state monitoring, the tracking equipment is monitored using current transformers. For example, when a train passes a track circuit, it creates a current disturbance that causes the device to operate to create a measurement event. The data from these events is then collected and processed by smart railway gates and sent to the cloud. Based on the analysis of the data, a notification of a possible defect can then be generated and sent to the maintenance company.

Notice of railway interruption 24 hours before traffic disturbance

Since the summer of 2021, VR FleetCare has been monitoring the digital status of track circuits for the Finnish Transport Infrastructure Agency (FTIA), which is responsible for the maintenance and development of the Finnish railway network. More than one million measurement events have already been recorded from about 200 track circuits. The measurements provided useful information about the operation of the track circuits. For example, a sign of a broken rail could have been detected as early as 24 hours before the first traffic disturbance.

Saloheimo says:

“Digital status monitoring provides response time and reduces traffic disturbance. When a lane circuit deviation is detected, additional inspection can be performed or the necessary maintenance team directed to the site. Early detection provides time for off-peak maintenance.”

Saloheimo also emphasizes rapid recovery from disorders as an important advantage. The better the understanding of the data and its associations with potential flaws, the better it will be to target and fix those flaws.

Saloheimo says:

“In one case, a fault in the track circuit caused traffic disruptions for several days. Since the cause of the outage could not be found, it was resolved by increasing the voltage in the circuit. However, this did not solve the fault but merely bypassed it by lowering circuit sensitivity.

“Looking at the measurement results, we saw that the first indication of this defect was already visible one week before the first traffic disruption. This would have given us several days to take preventive maintenance measures.”

Saloheimo notes that digitization offers new ways to control predictive maintenance of track equipment.

Digitization in the maintenance of track equipment

The data collected from the measurements is a useful tool for making investment decisions

© VR FleetCare

Data to support investment decisions

In the railway sector, maintenance activities were previously based on best practices and statistical methods. Systematic digital condition monitoring is challenged with accurate and detailed information on the actual condition of tracking equipment.

Saloheimo says:

“Large amounts of traffic inevitably lead to equipment failure at some point during its life cycle. Digital status monitoring provides unprecedented transparency to every device, enabling smarter maintenance and smarter investments.”

Intelligent solutions and cutting-edge technologies are not a substitute for professional skills in the industry, but support existing competency. In order to succeed in the digital competition, service providers need to know how data-driven maintenance can be developed, thus creating value for customers.

Saloheimo says:

“We have been able to leverage our background in rolling stock maintenance and related operations through very close collaboration with our infrastructure owner (FTIA) and our track maintenance partner (GRK). All this, combined with Finnish excellence in sensor technology and telecommunications, It has created an excellent platform for developing effective state monitoring systems for the railway industry.”

The latest developments have shown that monitoring the digital state of railway infrastructure can be done efficiently, profitably and in a way that truly benefits the customer.

Perspectives on digital maintenance of railway infrastructure

Marko Lehtosaari, railroad maintenance specialist, FTIA says:

“From the perspective of a rail infrastructure owner, development work has focused on long-term operations rather than technology. Digital status monitoring and the real-time monitoring with which it is enabled has a lot of potential. These pilots, in collaboration with VR FleetCare, showed us that the systems Very simple provides useful information. Monitoring the digital status of railway infrastructure and track equipment is not difficult, as long as you have skilled partners and enough courage.”

Jukka Vänttinen, Foreman, Safety Equipment, GRK Rail says:

“Maintenance is generally thought of as fixing faults. In my opinion, the job of maintenance is to prevent malfunctions so they do not need to be repaired. Digital status monitoring of track equipment provides new information about equipment operation: we are able to determine the time, location and, in some cases, even the cause of disturbances.

“In the future, we will see new condition monitoring solutions to help the maintenance company prevent and deliver service defects to better track equipment. However, good condition monitoring also requires qualified maintenance experts to analyze information and events. Our collaboration with VR FleetCare has been seamless. We seem to share the same vision. We have a common goal in the evolution of maintenance.”

This article was originally published by VR FleetCare.

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