Rail Industry Focus

07.07.17

Rail Live: Leading the way in railway innovation

RTM’s Josh Mines reports from this year’s instalment of Rail Live, organised by the Rail Alliance.

Held in the heart of Warwickshire’s countryside at Long Marston, Rail Live 2017 showcased an enormous range of track, rolling stock and signalling innovations. In the baking heat of the June sun, a range of businesses came together to show off their work in making the rail industry more efficient and safe, and what efforts were taking place to bring trackside technology into the modern era. 

But one of the most exciting innovations at the event also happened to be the main transport into the site of Rail Live. Fresh off the back of mainline testing, Vivarail’s D-Train ran a shuttle service that took delegates back and forth between Honeybourne station and Long Marston, where the show was held.  

It was a fitting way of travelling to Rail Live, as Vivarail is leading the way in terms of innovative rolling stock. A battery-powered hybrid, the Class 230 was certainly a smooth ride, and quiet enough to not intrude on the peaceful countryside.

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t’s no surprise, then, that an engineer on the train told RTM that the rolling stock would be ideal for country routes, as well as airport transfers. Although the units are not yet ready for commercial use, we were told that a number of operators have already shown interest in buying the trains when they come to market – including a company on the Isle of Wight who expressed a desire to bring the D-Train to the island.

The interior felt slick and roomy, closer to the design of the trams passengers might find in Sheffield or Manchester than in other trains that are commonly used on local routes. Whilst the company’s green and white colour scheme that decorates the train was an obvious choice, it also sends a clear message to passengers about the D-Train’s principles: efficient, clean and sustainable. 

Technology to keep the engineer off the track 

A whole host of companies, from Torrent Trackside to ABB, and Balfour Beatty to Unipart Rail, attended Rail Live to exhibit an eclectic range of products. A key ambition for many centred around safety; in particular, innovations that keep engineers off the track and make regular, everyday maintenance easier for workers.

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Network Rail had a particularly eye-catching idea for making the job of signalling engineers more efficient and less dangerous. David Shipman, head of the infrastructure owner’s signalling innovations group, explained that his team are leading the way in using data mapping and virtual reality (VR) technology to survey routes when new signals have to be installed. 

“A lot of the tools that we have are designed to capture survey data, and we use it to automate processes and keep engineers off the track,” he said. “We have a camera that is a rapid deployment way of capturing video footage on the network from service trains, and then we have tools that can process this information. 

“We can then automatically do things like gauging calculations and check clearances, so we can do a lot of the design process work without setting foot on the tracks. It’s a massive safety improvement and it saves money and time as well.”

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The infrastructure owner also showed delegates another way VR technology is being applied to put in new signals. Using the route data that is mapped from Network Rail’s high-quality cameras strapped to the front of trains, engineers can recreate how a route would look from the driver’s perspective, and then, using the headset, can place a virtual signal on the track and use the VR tech to look around and check for any problems with visibility that might occur with the placement of the new signal. 

Knowledge is numbers 

Another technology that is supporting Network Rail in its drive towards safer and cheaper engineering is being developed by DATUM, a company specialising in track monitoring technology. 

Quoting mathematician William Thomson, Rory O’Rourke, the chief executive of the company, told RTM that “knowledge without numbers is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind”. This quote succinctly describes the principle behind the firm’s tech, which has helped Network Rail with monitoring track temperature, voiding beneath the track, slope stability and structural integrity amongst a number of other issues.

“In the past, they would have done this manually by taking measurements and so on, but now access to the track is limited,” said O’Rourke. “To carry out monitoring work, Network Rail has to do things with line blockages – which is expensive and involves more people and more travelling, so technology these days has lent itself to the availability of data very quickly.” 

In terms of innovation for track maintenance technology, there were plenty of other developments which couldn’t be fitted into one short feature. Drone technology, for example, was being exhibited by Carillion amongst a number of other companies. Its use in monitoring, surveying and checking track is obvious, and just like many other innovations it’s another simple way that crucial work can be made safer by taking workers away from the trackside.

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The question that remains is how far this technology will be expanded and improved going into the future. But with the speed of development already gathering pace, it’s likely that even by next year’s Rail Live  there could be any number of new and improved technologies leading the way towards a safer, modern and more reliable railway.

(Images: c. Eli Rees-King/Rail Alliance)

W: www.raillive.events

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