Improving railway maintenance for more reliable trains
If railways could ensure maintenance didn't disrupt rail services, trains could be the main arteries of Europe's transportation infrastructure. The EU-funded OPTIRAIL project has developed a new framework to better maintain railways - it could even unify rail networks across Europe, making the continent a more competitive global force.
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Existing rail networks are straining under the load of an increasing volume of goods and passengers. This increase shows no signs of slowing down, placing rail companies under pressure to maintain pace. To deliver better services and become more competitive, railway administrators realise that more advanced maintenance of technical systems is key to progress.
“Not only do malfunctions or breakdowns of railway tracks or trains inconvenience commuters but they also cause rail companies expensive financial losses,” explains the leader of phase 1 of OPTIRAIL, Manuel Menéndez Muñiz. He adds, “Optimal maintenance ensures safety as well as trains that run to maximum capacity.”
Driving rail efficiencies through automation
Muñiz explains that automation and decision-making based on accurate real-time information are critical to improving service and safety, while reducing cost. This is the basis of OPTIRAIL’s new railway maintenance system a comprehensive framework based on advances in a range of technologies: artificial intelligence, fuzzy logic and computational intelligence. “Using integrated technology,” Muñiz explains, “OPTIRAIL manages elements and information related to the tracks to predict future maintenance decisions.”
The OPTIRAIL framework has three layers. At the physical layer, OPTIRAIL obtains data about the condition and performance of tracks. At the logical layer, OPTIRAIL acquires and stores this data using data warehousing and processing software. At the business layer, OPTIRAIL then processes and interprets the data, which is presented as options in a decision support system.
For example, the user interface of the decision support system would show the administrator the cost and implications of restoring the geometrical conditions of track layouts or installing new tracks. It can also indicate the implications of running just one track or reducing the speed of trains on a particular track. The administrator would make maintenance decisions based on this information.
Unifying Europe’s rail systems
The OPTIRAIL solution is not limited to one rail system; the OPTIRAIL system could be applied to all railways in Europe. This system would enable better interoperability within and between national railway infrastructures. If national railways could improve their service and work more effectively together, rail transport could then help to ensure the future prosperity of Europe.
But there are several barriers to achieving this goal. The rail industry is a traditional sector that has not always embraced transformation, although this is changing as pressure to compete intensifies. In addition, some countries and rail companies have new tracks while others rely on old ones. Rail administrators also employ different methods and systems to gather and store data and to maintain their tracks. For example, they use different data templates, performance measures and data warehousing tools.
Even in the OPTIRAIL pilot studies in Spain and Sweden, rail administrators had to alter how they stored data before implementing the tool. “These changes were worthwhile because OPTIRAIL improved safety, reliability and profitability for both rail services,” explains Muñiz
Before rail networks become more integrated across Europe, the EU will need to standardise data and data storage within rail administration. OPTIRAIL has made this possible by developing several quality qualifiers (such as a safety index, degradation index and an OPTIRAIL index). These qualifiers could be used as standard measures to monitor conditions across railway networks. This, in turn, would strengthen railway corridors across Europe.