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 continues to play a leading role in building a sustainable green economy. In fact, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has signaled that urban and high-speed rail promises to generate substantial environmental benefits, including lower levels of carbon emissions, congestion and air pollution.

Mark Thomas is responsible for UK rail operations at Fugro

In the UK, Network Rail is committed to an ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions. For the industry to accelerate this shift towards decarbonization, accurate large-scale data and analysis on asset performance will be needed.

Sustainable solutions thanks to geo-data

By leveraging approaches such as big data analytics, Internet of Things (IoT), and remote state monitoring, the rail industry can make strides towards a long-term sustainable future. For example, with the help of IoT, infrastructure is now increasingly being monitored remotely, meaning engineers only have to go to the runways to investigate where exceedances are detected. . This method is not only safer and more efficient, but also helps to reduce the environmental impact, as it requires much 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 can reuse and connect geodata models to support the ongoing digital transformation and rail decarbonization strategy. For example, in Scotland, lidar point cloud data acquired for structural gauging of existing assets is reused to support the design of new electrification programs with the ultimate goal of phasing out diesel trains. Accurate 3D geographic data also improves maintenance and renewal activities at all levels, with less disruption to passengers and processes becoming much more streamlined – encouraging even more passengers to switch from road to rail.

Improved data collection

Along with the application of data and data analysis, it is also important to consider the sustainability of current modes of data entry. At Fugro, when developing a rail infrastructure measurement and analysis system, our priority was to design a way to make track and rail corridor readings safer, faster and with less environmental impact than dedicated survey trains or traditional ground survey methods, without compromising on accuracy.

This has led to the development of new approaches such as the train mounted RILA system, a system that provides the accuracy and information of competing solutions while allowing revenue trains to run at regular speed without impacting network capacity. RILA is the only track measuring system capable of connecting to any passenger train and measuring at line speed without affecting normal train operating performance and without additional fuel consumption. Using this type of technology on a 100 km track corridor saves approximately 1,200 hours of conventional surveying time and results in a reduction in carbon emissions of approximately 50% compared to the number of trips in pickup truck needed to support a conventional survey, not to mention the savings in exposure hours for track workers.

In addition, the speed of railway surveys compared to traditional ground surveys means that the network can be inspected more regularly and cost effectively, improving the efficiency and speed of railway maintenance, thus 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 modeled and predicted calculated end of life. From an environmental standpoint, compared to routine replacement, predictive maintenance extracts the entire lifespan of an asset and therefore reduces the volume of incorporated carbon needed to support the grid.

The future is rail

Continuous innovation, whether through new technologies or new applications of existing technologies, is essential to the successful implementation of long-term sustainable practices in the rail industry. By effectively leveraging technology, remote condition monitoring, and geographic data insights, the industry can position itself as a cleaner, greener, and more sustainable form of transportation. Ultimately, supporting a safer and more livable world.

* Mark Thomas is responsible for UK rail operations at Fugro

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