RFID is the answer to defective wheels on Britain’s railways

Flat spots, hot boxes, and host of other problems could be tackled by the technology originally developed to keep retail goods safe from light-fingered shop lifters. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is set to be rolled on more than 15,000 of freight locomotives and wagons in the UK, to help maintenance engineers keep on top of common issues that sometimes lead to major problems. 

The fitting of electronic tags on wagons could put an end to the problem of defective wheels running unchecked on trains, causing damage to rolling stock and infrastructure. The new safety scheme is part of Network Rail’s Condition of Freight Vehicles on the Network (CFVN) programme, and will enable the condition of wheelsets to be monitored in real-time, and to link measurement data to specific wheels.

Defective or worn wheelsets can cause broken rails and damage to wagons if left untreated and can lead to safety issues and delays on the railway for both passenger and freight trains. The scheme could also be a major boost to safety on the railway at large, preventing accidents caused by faulty wheels.

Industry leaders came together at Magram in South Wales earlier in May to launch the Network Rail programme (NR)

The two-year project, part of the Network Rail backed Freight Safety Improvement Portfolio (FSIP) 22 million pound (26.1 million euro) fund, will see 30,000 radio frequency identification (RFID) tags being fitted to both sides of freight locomotives and wagons. When a tagged train passes a reader on the side of the track – at one of 22 sites across the rail network in Great Britain – information regarding each axle is captured. This is then sent instantly to monitoring engineers, who can assess the need for any immediate maintenance.

Data sharing for safety

Monitoring of rolling stock in operation is nothing new. Common techniques – such as hot box detectors – are frequently used to identify problems. However, RFID technology steps up the immediacy of the vigilance. “This is a prime example of how the rail freight industry works together to continue to innovate and put safety first using technology”, said Steve Rhymes, head of network management at Network Rail. “Each freight operator is fitting them to each side of their wagons and locomotives, which means we are harvesting data every time a train or vehicle operates.”

Much of monitoring information has not been visible before. Network Rail say it is a collaborative effort which delivers joint benefit. “We are introducing improved systems and processes for data sharing with freight operators and freight customers”, says Rhymes. “[This is] to provide a cohesive approach to wagon maintenance leading to even further safety for our railway and ultimately less disruption and delays to passengers and freight trains.”

Safety critical tasks to reduce risk

Data analysis by Network Rail, freight operators and the Rail Safety and Standards Board (RSSB) has shown that most delays on the freight network are due to wagon defects, including various brake faults, wheel faults, decoupling and door faults. If undetected, these defects have the potential to cause delays and safety risks to rail traffic.

Critical maintenance issues can be identified earlier and defective components bought into the workshop earlier, avoiding delays and possible safety concerns (Freightliner)

The Condition of Freight Vehicles on the Network (CFVN) programme – funded by Network Rail’s Freight Safety Improvement Portfolio (FSIP) – has developed processes for train preparation, wagon maintenance and the important role human factors play in performing safety critical tasks to reduce risk and improve performance across the network.

Pinpointing defects

The scheme has been welcomed by freight operating companies and freight customers. Freightliner Group, for example, has already fitted 73 per cent of the tags, funded by FSIP, to locomotives and wagons. “This scheme has already made a positive difference to the whole industry by helping us to accurately pinpoint and identify defects to individual wheelsets at the earliest opportunity”, said Deanne Haseltine, the Freightliner head of engineering compliance. “Having the ability to identify faults and plan repairs to wheelsets in advance means we can safely remove a wagon from service if needed and avoid unnecessary disruption on the network and to our customers.”

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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