The future of rail is digital – but how do we get there?

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For centuries, the rail industry has been fundamental to the operation of our world and societies. We rely on rail for trade and the transport of goods, as well as carrying us from our homes to work and back again each day. It’s rail that keeps our economies functioning and communities connected.

Today, the demands on rail have never been greater. Now, more than ever, rail asset owners need to have their finger on the pulse in terms of financials, performance, maintenance and risk.

These ever-growing expectations increase pressure on operators and many are looking to technology to transform the way their networks are managed.

However, with new technology comes complexity and as new systems enter the market each day and millions of new connected devices come online, the challenge for owners and operators can be overwhelming.

Lack of data is not the problem

There’s a plethora of data that rail operators and managers are required to manage; from timetabling and rolling stock inventories through to weather alerts and track conditions.

However, much of this information exists in separate systems creating siloed digital information – a major pain point for operators. Willow Product Manager, Jack Chivers explains further: “It is not unusual for most rail operators to be dealing with up to 10 separate enterprise-grade software systems or servers. Each system has its own interface, and each user has their own speciality in terms of what systems they interact with.

Chivers has seen how this has led to operators creating their own data storage, servers or end solutions in an attempt to bring the different systems together. However, there are still issues around the transfer of information from one system to another, which can result in major complications and lost time. Additionally, information is often lost when team members move or leave organisations. Loss of IP about systems and processes can leave operations and maintenance teams without the information they need to fix faults quickly and efficiently.

A problem of accuracy and timelines

Another common problem experienced by rail operators in the management of their networks is a lack of accurate, real-time information on rail assets. Operators are often having to rely on out of date and inaccurate information on asset condition and maintenance specifications, leading to longer maintenance times and higher maintenance costs.

To highlight the problems of inaccurate asset information, consider the experiences of Australian heavy haul operators. Given the vast distances across which their rail networks operate, inaccurate and outdated asset information can lead to maintenance workers driving hours to resolve a network issue, only to find the asset location or condition isn’t reflective of what was recorded in the paperwork.

Relying on outdated systems

The Willow team has seen instances where the inaccuracies in rail asset information have occurred due to the use of paper-based maintenance records. In an industry where the smallest interruption can lead to serious social and financial implications, relying on paper-based records such as asset registers, fault reports or maintenance instructions is no longer adequate. The digitalisation of maintenance records is the first step in moving towards condition-based and predictive maintenance.

Connecting rail asset data and information will continue to evolve as new technologies and solutions enter the picture. Developments in IoT, Cloud Computing and the Intelligent Edge have given rise to an abundance of technology players entering the rail market. These technological developments are providing valuable improvements to rail maintenance and operational processes, however connecting these individual systems is the key to ensuring we don’t create further siloes in the industry.

Passengers are also demanding more

The need to tap into real-time and accurate data is not limited to the maintenance of rail networks. Passengers are increasingly demanding more from rail networks, wanting real-time insight into the status of their train and expecting the same level of connectivity as that of other services.

Furthermore, increased health and safety regulation for passengers during COVID-19 has demonstrated a need for greater visibility of rail patronage and passenger movements.

Understanding these real-time passenger interactions with the train can provide forecasting and scenario planning for services timetabling and rolling stock changes. This enables efficient and responsive changes to meet the health and safety needs of passengers.

The digitialisation of the rail industry

As the data demand on rail networks continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly clear that owners and operators are moving with the times and using technology to make informed decisions. Whilst the wide array of emerging technologies offers a substantial opportunity to leverage data and transform operations, management and maintenance; owners and operators need to move beyond point solutions and towards an integrated approach.

WillowRail is meeting these challenges head on. It provides rail networks with the single source of truth, integrating essential data, information and systems.

The platform combines existing systems, operational data and asset management information into a simple and intuitive software solution. Rail owners and operators are empowered through advanced technology to maintain the highest availability standards across light, heavy and commuter rail networks. With the integration of data from existing systems and unprecedented domain knowledge, WillowRail creates an environment to predict faults before they occur, optimising capacity, improving maintenance processes and increasing availability.

WillowRail is a world-first rail asset management solution that integrates disparate rail systems into one data-driven solution for owners, operators, and maintenance staff. More information: www.willowrail.com.

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