As the group of components that generates power for a locomotive, the powertrain which includes the transmission, drive shafts, and differentials is the motor of the railways. It needs to be watched and maintained carefully to ensure every aspect is safe and in proper working order. But this is a tough task: there are few diagnostic tools available to check the reliability of powertrains, so maintenance is either done after a component fails (with all the associated risks to the service), or through a systematic yet indiscriminate replacement of key parts.
© Fotolia, 2013
With Europe's rail sector forecast to surge over the coming decade, alternative maintenance methods are needed, says Laurent Nicod, the Traction Marketing and Innovation Manager at Alstom Transport, the world's top supplier of rail products. With this in mind, Nicod sought a grant six years ago from Marie Curie Actions (MCAs), the European Union (EU)'s programme of support for the mobility of researchers.
The aim was to set up a network researching a more predictive system that cuts maintenance costs without jeopardizing safety and service. "We worked to align the ideas of researchers with the ideas of engineers to tackle these problems," he says "In the end, both parties were able to bring new solutions to improve railway competitiveness."
The result was Premaid, a three-year Marie Curie project, which helped 15 experienced researchers come together from different parts of Europe to examine the issue with Alstom Transport. Backed by a €773,144 grant from the European Commission, Premaid gathered academics from Spain's University of Oviedo, Portugal's University of Coimbra, Italy's University of Bologna and Poland's Gdansk University of Technology.
Premaid sought breakthrough innovations in diagnostic tools and maintenance methodologies, looking in particular at materials, fault diagnosis and data transfer systems. Most of the researchers were seconded to Alstom Transport's research centre in Tarbes in the French Pyrenees for periods of between two months and two years. At the same time, Alstom Transport's own researchers carried out complementary work with the academics. "Using the best European labs helped us work with the most advanced researchers on a very specific technical environment on traction equipments and systems for electric trains," Nicod says.
The results, Nicod says, were impressive and included detailed studies and new insights into transformers, inverters, traction motors and gearboxes.
One key result of the project was the capability to detect transmission problems with numerical analysis through a dedicated software code, a method that means inspectors no longer have to dismount to visually inspect the traction bogie. "This new approach led to early detection of failures, cut costs of maintenance for operators and indirectly reduced the impact on environment as parts are replaced only when they are very close to a failure," Nicod says.
Nicod says Premaid was an exciting adventure, giving Alstom Transport new perspectives on scientific and theoretical approaches to the aging of parts and sub-systems. "A better understanding of the aging of components in their working conditions is the first step towards predictive maintenance," he says.
And for the researchers collaborating on the project, it was an opportunity to discover real industrial problems and challenges. They were able to use the experience as a springboard for their academic and industry careers, with one Portuguese student now a researcher at the Instituto de Telecomunicações in Coimbra, and another, from Gdansk University, hired by Alstom in Tarbes.
"Thanks to this collaboration, we were able to align needs and potential solutions to railway traction systems, "he says. "But without the Marie Curie programme, it would not have been possible."