The digitization of the railways is fast becoming the new normal, and progress towards a smart railway system, once a daunting prospect, now seems unstoppable. It’s been a long time coming.
In previous decades, air and road transport technology sped ahead of rail in terms of modernization, but the railways have been catching up quickly, and finding innovative uses for the vast potential that data analytics can play in creating an efficient and robust rail system.
Smart railways require a natural convergence of three systems: cyber-physical systems, coupled with the internet of things (IoT) and cloud computing. Together, these systems have the ability to predict failures before they occur, make diagnoses as to where the problems lie and trigger actions that will speed up maintenance on all aspects of the system.
While the frameworks are in place to make this happen, the reality is that the operations are intensely data-heavy, in terms of access, quality of data and the multiple sources from which that data is required. Ansys Rail Product Specialist Wietz Joubert says, “I can definitely see a global trend where rail operators are starting to respond to digitalization and technology, although we’re very much in the investigative stage when it comes to using intelligent data (i.e. analytics) to improve rail operations.”
Many organizations can see the value in using data to drive decision-making in an organization but lack the capacity to invest in big data analytics. But the growth of Big Data as a Service (BDaaS) has meant that companies no longer have to develop their own Apache Spark or Hadoop resources, they can outsource to data-focussed organizations that are setup to process this kind of information.
So, in what aspects of the railway business can analytics make a big difference?
The explosion of big data and data analytics in the rail industry can make a huge impact on the timetabling of trains, as well as asset management of a fleet. With real-time data coming in and being interpreted instantly, there is great potential to reduce disruptions and improve reliability on any given day.
Data is generated via a number of sources to paint a compelling picture of a fleet:
- Maintenance logs
- GPS units
- Weather data
- Visual & Acoustic Sensors
- Handheld devices to record speed, arrival time, location and much more…
Augmented Reality (AR) & Virtual Reality (VR)
The use of augmented and virtual reality has been increasing in the rail industry for some time, particularly in the field of training. Preparing drivers for the railways is a costly and time-consuming business, but the use of VR makes it a more affordable and immersive experience.
In the foreseeable future, that technology will make its way into maintenance crews too.
AR displays could potentially aid crews, working on trains with up to 200 wagons, to pinpoint exactly which wheel needs attention in order to prevent a de-railing. That kind of data is invaluable to maintenance crews.
Keeping track of rail cars and other assets while in the yard is an often overlooked aspect of a railway company’s process. Data analytics play an invaluable role in keeping track of inventory, monitoring downtime of assets and tracking when railcars and trains enter and exit the yard.
One of the great challenges of operating a rail company is the effective management of crews over great distances. Cloud computing and analytics have made a big difference in a company’s ability to minimize downtime for employees, check availability, deploy the right skills at the right times, and use real-time insights to improve workforce performance and efficiency.
Where is all of this data innovation in railroads leading to?
Big data has the potential to transform the current state-of-the-art railway technology platforms into a network of collaborative communities seamlessly moving freight and passengers and delivering services in a planned way. The smart railways of the future are almost here, and will change how we manage railway systems and crew forever, thanks to the power of data analytics.