This article first appeared in the Railway-News magazine Issue 5 2021.
The UK government report about the November 2020 Sheffield station freight train derailment makes for sober reading.
The accident, it said, had been caused by gauge widening after track screws had failed, “several weeks, or perhaps months, before the derailment, but the failures had not been identified.”
Thankfully, no one was injured in the incident. However, the derailment highlights the fact that rail track monitoring and maintenance still has a way to go as we enter the 2020s. Fortunately for the rail industry, it is now easier to deploy tools that could help to avoid accidents such as the one in Sheffield. And these tools are getting better all the time.
The combined wireless monitoring systems from Trimble and Worldsensing deliver almost continuous, real-time data on critical track measurements including cant, twist and vertical alignment, but also increasingly process data so engineers can react immediately when measurements surpass user-defined thresholds. The difference between today’s monitoring methods and those of a decade or so ago is significant. Historically, track inspections were carried out by technicians who took manual measurements and recorded the condition of tracks with photos and sketches.
This process was costly, time-consuming and prone to errors. And it meant rail operators only had an incomplete picture of track conditions, making it easy for potential failures to go unnoticed. In recent years, however, wireless equipment has changed the picture considerably. Trimble and Worldsensing have pioneered the development of robust rail monitoring solutions that can be installed almost anywhere, sending sensor readings up to every few minutes to remote systems for immediate integration into the analysis software.
The deployment of IoT systems in the rail industry has mainly been a result of the need to monitor tunnels, bridges and trackside structures during the construction and operational phases. These systems operate wirelessly, eliminating the danger of data loss through cable failure. And, when they implement low-power technology, the benefits are even stronger since they allow several years of uninterrupted operations without the need for new batteries.
Given the importance of cost-effectiveness in new railway projects, it no longer makes sense to rely on manual readings in most project environments. Digital railway systems are a must and wireless IoT technology can support this transformation. Such technology can be used to improve the efficiency in railway construction projects but also can be reused to improve the maintenance of its physical infrastructure. However, monitoring railway networks with wireless technology can deliver massive volumes of data, and if these are not processed in a timely fashion, there remains the potential for a fast-evolving fault to cause damage.
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