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When train tracks talk, rail operators listen

What if a railroad switch could tell you when it needs maintenance or repair?


This scenario is already ‘on track’ to revolutionise railroad infrastructure maintenance, boosting system reliability for better service, safety and cost.

We are moving from ‘find and fix’ to ‘predict and prevent'. To take just one example, a few tiny sensors on a railway switch today can detect changes such as temperature, pressure and torque. Through the Internet of Things, it sends information to our Digital Platform for Big Data Analytics that tells rail operators when maintenance is needed.

Alain Le Marchand, Thales’ Transport Division Technical Director.

In Europe alone, rail operators spend between 15 and 25 billion euros every year on maintenance and required renovation of their infrastructure. Alain Le Marchand asks, “Can you imagine the impact to their bottom line if we could save just one per cent---between 150 million and 250 million euros—on these costs?”

The cost of maintenance can be reduced by cutting in half the time needed for on-site inspections and reducing operational downtime. This can translate into a return of investment of up to five times as well as reducing the risk to railway maintenance crews.

This digital transition is happening, first by better analysis of information that is being collected by traditional means, and, second ,by linking more and more sensors on railway equipment to Thales’ Digital Platform.

It can be as simple a matter of detecting a change in the power consumption of equipment. When Big Data recognises a pattern of performance data that has been a source of trouble in past situations, analytics based on this experience will issue a predictive alert.

Alain Le Marchand

Thales is already monitoring more than 40,000 assets for Network Rail in the UK, and it is working on similar capabilities with France’s SNCF Open Lab Initiative.

With equipment becoming smarter, the insights will become more valuable.

For example, with Thales’ new fibre-optic axle counter, trains are not only detected when they pass by, but also analysed for weight so that the number of passengers in each carriage can be calculated.

Of course, security of increasing information flows is a critical success factor as well.

As Alain Le Marchand puts it, “Using the Internet of Things to monitor rail assets across the network also means protecting more and more data. That is where our Cybersecured by Design approach is so important”.

Thales’ recognised experience in railways signalling, combined with its expertise in the key technologies of the digital transformation, make it a major driver in this revolution of railway maintenance. And that  improves  reliability and safety even as it reduces costs.