How good asset management makes railways safer and more reliable
In the past two years, the transport sector has experienced something it was not accustomed to: high volatility and unpredictability, says digital solutions provider Hexagon. As rail travel becomes central for Europe, how can asset management help operators increase profitability, safety, and reliability?
Rail transport has had two eventful years, marked by changes in demand due to the pandemic and the move to remote work, skyrocketing energy prices, and overall economic instability. In the meantime, as European countries ramp up their sustainability and net-zero goals, rail seems designated to become the backbone of European transport – a status that requires maximum performance and reliability. So how can operators become beacons of predictability in an uncertain world?
Technology can help, says Paolo Amodeo, Manager PreSales HxGn EAM at the Hexagon Asset Lifecycle Division. HxGn EAM is a strategic enterprise asset management solution developed by Hexagon that aims to increase the efficiency of assets. Amodeo sees the focus moving from sensor data to elaborate AI methods to make predictions for specific equipment.
“As rail companies use more and more sensors, they find themselves with mountains of data available. However, the value does not lie in creating more data but in collating and analyzing granular data and turning it into actionable insights.”
To do so, Amodeo says, it is sometimes better to start with specific challenges than to try to improve everything at once: “maintenance in rail is moving to prescriptive maintenance, aimed at predicting future risks. However, artificial prediction sometimes fails because the scope is too wide”, he notes. “If you try to approach all maintenance aspects simultaneously, you are more likely to fail. That’s why it is better to start with specific elements, such as train doors or railway switches. Then, the scope is clearer and the results more precise”.
A great way to accelerate results is to obtain historical and industry data. Hexagon, for example, gets data from several railway operators and infrastructure owners. This creates a benchmark against which new data can automatically be compared. Any discrepancy can generate alerts and lead to inspections. This helps prevent possible breakdowns faster, makes maintenance more efficient, and builds a stronger railway system.
Data drives automation and better decisions
At a time when operators face increasing competition, better asset management practices play a crucial role in helping them maximize the value of their physical assets, such as rolling stock or vehicles. This allows them to achieve greater capacity without a commensurate increase in capital expenditures.
And data plays a key role in supporting that effort. HxGN EAM, for example, uses machine learning to help operators identify what decisions should be made based on their potential impact on asset performance or investments.
Over the past few years, Hexagon has invested significant resources into tracking the past performance of assets and using it to feed statistical models. This allows client organizations to predict the impact of different decisions and scenarios and adopt better investment strategies based on that input.
“In asset investment planning, it is imperative to have multiple projections to decide on the best course of action. Our system is more and more capable of making different scenarios of what could happen in the future and how they will impact safety”, says Amodeo.
For example, Asset Investment Planning can help determine whether it is better to repair a damaged asset, such as a vehicle or a section of the track, or replace them altogether. This ability to predict the effect of multiple scenarios and decisions is gradually integrated into Hexagon’s full range of solutions.
Towards zero-risk, zero-emission travel
But profitability and predictability are not the only pressures rail actors face – or the only areas where technology can help.
As rail cements its role as the backbone of Europe’s transportation system, Hexagon believes that operators will face growing pressure to drive the risk of accidents or significant delays down to zero. This will be no small feat, considering that many countries struggle with aging infrastructure and declining public investment.
And, for Amodeo, it all starts with the workers. “Safety is often primarily perceived through the lens of guidelines and regulations. But interactions between workers are also crucial. By capturing permits, Hexagon can help reduce the risk for workers in the railway sector.”
When it comes to equipment, he outlines two principles: act early, and get your data from multiple sources: “For the safety of passengers and drivers, vehicles are safer if they are maintained appropriately by predicting safety risks earlier. That’s why keeping track of the performance of assets reduces the risk of failures and therefore can increase safety on the rails.”
“And increasing safety can require thinking outside of the box. We get data from rail vibrations, weather conditions, but also what vegetation is found around the rails and what the deformation of the ground is,” says Amodeo. “This can help prevent risks by putting multiple data sources together and having appropriate algorithms that can predict safety issues for passengers. These are areas that could be explored more by railways”.
What seems inevitable is that operators will not meaningfully reduce risk by only relying on traditional methods, such as scheduled inspection and manual repairs. In 2023, a growing number of actors will experiment with drones, sensors, and AI-powered maintenance decisions. It’s only part of the difficult road to zero risk, zero emissions, and zero unpredictability. But technology can help – and, if they do it right, railway operators could even find that it adds a few zeroes to their bottom line.
This article is featured in the RailTech Year-End Special of 2022. Download the full magazine here.