Rail Industry Focus


Alstom’s ‘star trek’ scanner that transformed virgin fleet maintenance

Source: RTM Apr/May 16

A new laser scanner, developed by Alstom, has the potential to transform rolling stock fleet management by detecting maintenance problems in trains automatically. Rosemary Collins reports.

Alstom’s Barcelona research and development team and design team in Madrid developed the TrainScanner for Virgin West Coast’s fleet of Pendolinos, which is based on the principle of predictive maintenance. 

During a site visit to Alstom’s traincare depot at Longsight, RTM, and a small group of Alstom and railway representatives, were given a demonstration of the TrainScanner’s capabilities. In simple terms, the technology allows technicians to receive a measurement and prognosis of potential problems, which allows them to maximise the amount of trains available for the network while minimising the risk of breakdown and the staff and resources needed to fix problems. This is opposed to the traditional corrective maintenance stance where technicians had to wait until a problem occurred to fix it. 

Zero in-service breakdowns 

“The final objective is zero in-service breakdowns for operation,” said Vicente Fuerte, service technical director at Alstom. 

The company originally signed the contract to build and maintain the Pendolinos for Virgin in 1999, and in 2012 it was extended to 2022. TrainScanner has been trialled at the Longsight depot on the outskirts of Manchester since 2015. 

Alstom has also developed similar predictive maintenance tools, including the Traintracer, which has been used on the West Coast since 2006, as well as on city tram networks including Citadis in Toulouse and Dublin. 

Longsight itself is an historic 174-year-old facility. It was originally built to accommodate a Victorian rail fleet which has grown immeasurably since then and is set to expand still further. For instance, the latest Rail Delivery Group long-term passenger rolling stock strategy predicts that Britain’s rail fleet could increase from 12,986 to as many as 25,521 by 2045. 

Since expanding existing depots like Longsight isn’t an option, a better solution is to make maintenance faster and more automated, thus reducing the number of trains that need to be in the depot at any one time. 

Thanks to the TrainScanner, Alstom is able to keep 50 out of Virgin’s 56 Pendolinos in operation at any one time, and has just increased the number to 51, with each train running for 18 to 20 hours. 

Alstom also co-maintains a West Coast office with Virgin, in order to ensure the two companies can work together every day to plan rotas and day-to-day maintenance. 

Fuerte added that the scanner can also improve staffing levels, by reducing the number of Alstom’s 800 West Coast workers needed in the depots, freeing others to be deployed elsewhere, and making their jobs safer. 

The TrainScanner process 

“We need to have it because we have a lot of trains to inspect,” he said. “We have a lot of people going under trains, taking risks.” All the Pendolinos undergo a maintenance inspection every day, and pass through Longsight every five days. 

The rolling stock goes through the TrainScanner after they are washed, to ensure that all trains are scanned. The scanner also has an ID reader that identifies the train and will only let the laser shutters open if it detects a Pendolino. It then runs a scanner to measure all the components of the train. 

The laser is visible only as a thin red beam that looks like a photocopier, but it is capable of incredibly complex automatic assessments of the train. It takes in the measurement and trending of the wheel profile and dimensions, the brake pad thickness and the pantograph carbons profile, including factors such as the geographic location of the track the train has crossed and the weather conditions. 

The TrainScanner can predict the remaining useful life of the components and sets off an automatic alarm if there is any damage to components. This gives Alstom a better insight than ever into any potential problems, while removing the waste of removing healthy components on automatic repair systems. It then completes an integrity check to ensure that components specified by the user are correctly attached, in the correct orientation, and in the closed position, and to detect missing elements.

Before the train leaves the depot, the scanner runs a final confidence check on the body and shell. It converts all the data into an ergonomic user-friendly interface, including 2D and 3D images, which staff can easily understand. 

“When I try to explain it to people I say it’s like Star Trek,” said Will Roberts, Alstom’s UK communications director. “When someone’s sick, they run something over them and make them better.” 


Increasing maintenance intervals 

Sean Ring, Alstom’s chief engineer, added that by doing this work the team “can extend the wear rate and increase the safety factor” of the rolling stock. Regular inspections by the scanner have allowed a 25% increase in maintenance intervals, a 15% increase in material utilisation and increased the typical distance a Pendolino travels before needing repairs from 20,000km to 25,000km. Alstom’s goal is to extend this further to 28,000 and then 30,000. 

Shortly after the demonstration, Alstom announced it would be installing the TrainScanner at its Oxley depot in Wolverhampton. This forms part of a programme of introducing it to the whole of the West Coast Main Line and other companies it holds contracts with, including the American Amtrak and the Italian NTV. It also wants to introduce similar scanners to be used on tracks, canteneries and signalling. 

“We are improving and adding new products on a day-to-day basis,” Fuerte said. Alstom is already using remote monitoring based on asset data on more than 700 trains, 10,000km of infrastructure and 500 point machines. 

As the railway industry becomes increasingly digitised, Alstom engineers predict that remote real-time monitoring will be rolled out for every railway asset in the world, with automatic workload balancing in depots and dynamic maintenance schedules based on the predicted condition of every individual component. 

The company says this could deliver 20% savings on maintenance, maximise fleet availability and ensure there are no in-service breakdowns, all thanks to the ability of new technology to carry out complex maintenance checks in the blink of an eye.

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