Rail Industry Focus

29.03.19

It's the little things in rail

Source: RTM Feb/March 2019

Dan Lee-Bursnall, commercial director at Incremental Solutions, RIA member and transport solutions provider, asks: are smaller, innovative projects as important as large-scale infrastructure as we look to decrease carbon and reduce costs?

Over the last 12 months, there’s been an increasing focus on the part electrification of the UK rail network has to play in our efforts to mitigate climate change through decarbonising our economy. This focus was in large part precipitated by Jo Johnson stating in February 2018, while minister for transport, that he “would like to see us take all diesel-only trains off the track by 2040,” while noting that “total electrification of our tracks is unlikely to be the only or most cost-effective way to secure these vital environmental benefits.”

Mr Johnson’s statements have given impetus to efforts to look for the best solution to the challenges faced by the rail sector in the UK, and sparked intense debate about the comparative costs and benefits of electrification and other technologies.

Much of the ensuing debate – some of it played out across the pages of this August publication – has focussed on the cost of large-scale electrical traction infrastructure. Less consideration has been given to the degree to which smaller-scale initiatives can cumulatively improve performance and reduce the ongoing costs associated with existing and future infrastructure to make electrification more economically attractive, and reduce, directly and indirectly linked, the climate impacts of the sector. To echo Porterbrook’s Chandra Morbey at the RSSB Decarbonising Rail Event in October 2018, I feel that smaller projects are equally important in the scheme of things.

At Incremental Solutions, we have been working on one of these smaller changes. With Network Rail and GWR, we are prototyping an innovative overhead line equipment (OLE) continual monitoring solution that will identify emerging problems with pantograph contact with overhead power cables. The intention is to minimise delays on potentially affected services caused by irregularities or failures in the OLE. Reducing delays and the need for repairs will improve network carbon efficiency, reduce costs, and improve customers’ experience.

Our approach employs algorithms, created by Oxford University academics, that use optical recognition to measure the movement of the pantograph, allied with machine learning and analytics through our GPS monitoring system. The visual measurement uses specialist camera equipment and a processing and connectivity platform provided by Icomera, who complete the delivery team. The gathered data is being analysed to highlight trends and patterns for different trains, routes, and connecting overhead cables. This will allow operators to detect differences in the signature created, identify where they need to investigate and, if necessary, take remedial action before a failure occurs. If the trial on Network Rail’s western route is successful, the aim is to roll out nationally.

OLE systems provide the only traction option that meet the range and speed requirements of all of the future rolling stock categories. With electrification likely to play a larger part in the developing infrastructure traction mix, the performance improvements that this work will generate, if successful, will contribute to the economic and energy efficiency of electrical networks, while reducing the delays and disruption that play such a role in the public’s perception of rail travel.

Along with other initiatives that will also contribute incremental gains, such as JR Dynamics and Unipart Rail’s Innovate UK-supported Pantograph Carbon Strip Wear Detection System Project, this project will cumulatively contribute to improving the reliability and carbon efficiency of electrical traction in the future.

The international market is also likely to play a part in reducing future costs and increasing future reliability and efficiency. Much of the rest of the world, including most of Europe, has decided that electrical traction does provide the best solution for meeting the manifold challenges of the future. This means that those companies who are developing innovative products and services for electrical traction in the UK have significantly larger potential markets for their new technologies and solutions than those looking at mixed and alternative fuel-powered traction.

This international market is only going to grow and continue to offer companies in the UK sales opportunities globally, including for the OLE monitoring system. Additionally, the larger scale and growth of the international electrical traction market in comparison to other technologies generates a greater drive towards and larger investment in innovation. This in turn will increase reliability and efficiency, cost saving, and carbon reduction in the future, and will be available for whatever proportion of the UK’s traction infrastructure is electrical – which will further improve future outcomes.

Whether there is a proper consideration of how the global market will drive innovation to provide smaller, incremental and accumulative cost and reliability improvements in the options currently being discussed is also debatable.

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