On Track for a Sustainable Future: Advancements in the UK Rail Industry Lead the Way

Posted on 20 October 2021

The rail industry has long been recognised as one of the cleanest and most environmentally friendly modes of transportation. Its role in building a sustainable green economy cannot be overstated. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has emphasised the significant potential of urban and high-speed rail in unlocking environmental benefits, including the reduction of carbon emissions, congestion, and air pollution.

In the United Kingdom, Network Rail has taken on an ambitious mission to achieve substantial carbon reduction targets. However, to accelerate the industry's transition towards decarbonization, there is a pressing need for comprehensive and accurate data analysis of asset performance. This is where sustainable solutions driven by geo-data come into play, laying the foundation for a long-term and sustainable future for the rail industry.

Technological advancements offer immense opportunities for the rail industry to make significant progress. By harnessing the power of technologies such as big data analysis, the Internet of Things (IoT), and remote condition monitoring, the industry can revolutionize its operations. For example, with the help of IoT, rail infrastructure can be remotely monitored, reducing the need for engineers to physically inspect unless anomalies are detected. This not only enhances safety and efficiency but also minimizes the environmental impact by reducing unnecessary travel.

Data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence play critical roles in converting raw data into valuable asset information. Network operators and their supply chains are embracing these technologies to connect and leverage geo-data models, enabling a seamless digital transformation and decarbonization strategy in the rail industry. Scotland serves as a prime example, where lidar point cloud data originally collected for structure gauging is now being repurposed to support the design of new electrification schemes. The ultimate goal is to phase out diesel trains and replace them with more sustainable alternatives. Additionally, accurate 3D geo-data is driving improvements in maintenance and renewal activities, resulting in fewer disruptions for passengers and streamlined processes. This, in turn, encourages a greater number of people to shift from road travel to rail, further contributing to sustainability efforts.

In addition to harnessing data and analytics, it is crucial to consider the sustainability of current data collection methods. Fugro, for instance, has prioritized the development of a system for measuring and analysing rail infrastructure that is not only accurate but also safer, faster, and more environmentally friendly than traditional approaches. As a result, the train-mounted RILA system was created. This innovative solution offers the same level of accuracy and insights as other systems while allowing fee-earning trains to operate at regular speeds without impacting network capacity. The RILA system can connect to any passenger train and measure track conditions without consuming additional fuel. Implementing this technology along a 100km track corridor can save approximately 1,200 hours of conventional surveying time and reduce carbon emissions by around 50% compared to conventional surveys that require multiple van journeys. Moreover, it significantly reduces exposure hours for track workers, improving safety standards.

Train-borne surveys offer enhanced speed and efficiency compared to traditional ground surveys. This enables more frequent and cost-effective assessments of the rail network, leading to improved maintenance practices and significant time and resource savings. The diligent asset management approach facilitated by these surveys allows for regular tracking of asset conditions, enabling the modelling of deterioration and accurate predictions of an asset's end-of-life. From an environmental standpoint, predictive maintenance extends the lifespan of assets, thereby reducing the volume of embodied carbon required to sustain the rail network, when compared to routine replacements.

The Future is Rail, and ongoing innovation is paramount to the successful implementation of sustainable practices in the rail industry. Whether through the development of new technologies or the application of existing ones in novel ways, continuous progress is necessary. By leveraging technology, embracing remote condition monitoring, and harnessing geo-data insights effectively, the rail industry can position itself as a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable mode of transport. Ultimately, these collective efforts contribute to creating a safer and more liveable world for generations to come.

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