This article first appeared in the Railway-News magazine, Issue 1 2023.
Boom!…followed by violent shaking.
On a hot July afternoon, a passenger train was travelling at full throttle with its passenger carriages nearly full. The engineer on the lead locomotive heard the explosion and saw the warning lights and gauges on his console flashing at the same time. He could smell the smoke as the train quickly slowed and stopped on the tracks. The radio call went into dispatch: “We have an emergency.” The engine had experienced a catastrophic failure on the line of road and all emergency protocols were put in place. A rescue locomotive was sent out, rail traffic on that line was suspended. In the aftermath, it would be discovered that the engine had suffered a complete failure with a large hole in the engine block. There had been no advance warning and the public agency operating the locomotive was forced to pay for a new engine. 4Atmos Technologies was contacted and sent only the previous 6 months’ oil sample sheets from the lab and was asked: “What do you see?”
Oil is a molecular flight data recorder. When sampled on a regular basis, it provides insight on the locomotive health as well as how the equipment was run operationally. Additionally, outside of the oil itself it can give indications of external factors (e.g. flat spots on wheels, lateral motion). How do we know?
For more than 10 years, 4Atmos Technologies has been analysing millions of oil samples. This analysis is performed on data received from the oil labs who processed the samples sent in. So what is different? Rather than looking at individual thresholds, we cluster the elements into groupings that are based on known failure modes (e.g. bearing wear, turbo, crankcase overpressure, fuel leaks, contamination). These failure modes allow us to look at the health of the engine in terms of its overall risk. Our experience has also shown us that most catastrophic failures happen well below critical threshold limits provided by the manufacturers… sometimes 50% lower. Oil is also the ‘blood’ in the engine system.
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