How technology is moving the UK rail industry towards a sustainable future

Posted on 20 October 2021

Right on track: How technology is moving the UK rail industry towards a sustainable future

Already one of the cleanest forms of transport, the rail industry is continuing to play a leading role in helping to build a sustainable green economy. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that urban and high-speed rail hold major promise to unlock substantial environmental benefits, including lower levels of carbon emissions, congestion and air pollution.

Mark Thomas is UK rail business manager at Fugro

In the UK, Network Rail has set out to achieve an ambitious carbon reduction plan. In order for the industry to accelerate this move towards decarbonisation, large-scale accurate data and analysis on asset performance will be needed.

Sustainable solutions through geo-data

By leveraging approaches such as big data analysis, the Internet of Things (IoT) and remote condition monitoring, the rail industry can make strides towards a long-term sustainable future. For example, with the help of the IoT, infrastructure is now being increasingly monitored remotely, meaning engineers only need to go out onto the tracks to investigate where exceedances are detected. This method is not only safer and more efficient but also helps to drive down the environmental impact, as it requires far less travel.

By harnessing the power of data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence, network operators and their supply chain are finding ways to turn data into valuable asset information so they can reuse and connect geo-data models to support rail’s ongoing digital transformation and decarbonisation strategy. For example, in Scotland, lidar point cloud data acquired for structure gauging of existing assets is being repurposed to support the design of new electrification schemes with the eventual aim of phasing out diesel trains. Accurate 3D geo-data is also improving maintenance and renewal activities across the board, with fewer disruptions for passengers and processes becoming far more streamlined – encouraging even more passengers to make the switch from road travel to rail.

Improved data collection

Alongside the application of data and data analytics, it is also important to consider how sustainable current modes of data capture are. At Fugro, when developing a system for measuring and analysing rail infrastructure, our priority was to design a way of performing surveys of the track and rail corridor safer, faster and with a lower environmental impact than dedicated survey trains or traditional ground survey methods, without compromising on accuracy.

This led to the development of new approaches such as the train-mounted RILA system, a system that provides the accuracy and insights of competing solutions while allowing fee earning trains to run at regular speed with no impact on the network capacity. RILA is the only track measurement system able to connect to any passenger train and measure at line speed without affecting the train’s normal operating performance with no additional fuel consumption. Utilising this kind of technology over a 100km track corridor saves in the region of 1,200 hours conventional surveying time and results in a carbon emission reduction of approximately 50% when compared to the number of van journeys needed to support a conventional survey, not to mention the savings in exposure hours for track workers.

What’s more, the speed of train-borne versus traditional ground surveys means that the network can be surveyed more regularly and cost-effectively, improving the effectiveness and timeliness of rail maintenance, therefore saving time and resources. This diligent approach to asset management means that the condition of each asset can be regularly tracked allowing deterioration to be modelled and predicted end of life calculated. Environmentally, when compared to routine replacement, predictive maintenance extracts the full life out of an asset and therefore reduces the volume of embodied carbon needed to sustain the network.

The Future is Rail

Continued innovation, whether through new technologies or new applications of existing technology, is vital to the successful implementation of long-term sustainable practices across the rail industry. By leveraging technology, remote condition monitoring and Geo-data insights efficiently, the industry can position itself as a cleaner, greener and more sustainable form of transport. Ultimately supporting a safer and more liveable world.

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