All images: Max Bögl


Why technology is essential for a reliable railway

Peter Selway, rail marketing manager at Schneider Electric UK and Ireland, explains how adopting new technologies is crucial for railways if they want to continue to improve on service.

The modern railway is changing. From short urban routes to long-distance travel, they play a vital role for the public, providing reliable transportation that gets passengers to their destination safely and on time. 

Rail passenger numbers are continuing to bounce back, with the latest figures from the Department of Transport finding national rail passenger numbers reached 80% of pre-pandemic levels, which is the highest since the same period two years before.  

With rapidly increasing passenger traffic, a single delay – such as a maintenance problem – can quickly escalate into lengthy secondary delays that affect other trains’ operations. The result can be monumental consequences for the busy train systems responsible for moving millions of people a day. 

Digitisation is getting railways back on track, creating modernised, future-ready networks that improve reliability and minimise delays.

From the adoption of advanced software, sensors, and digitised power systems to remote monitoring and data analytics, technology allows railway operators to make informed decisions and define new operational and maintenance strategies.

SkedGo CEO John Nuutinen. Credit: Skedgo

MOTIONTAG managing director Fabien Sauthier. Credit: MOTIONTAG

Automation signals a path to reliability 

Railway systems are complex but managing them doesn’t have to be. Automation is one of the significant breakthroughs to simplify railway operations, ensure a stable power system, eliminate time-consuming activities for staff, and monitor assets remotely. 

Digitising signalling systems is one-way railways are putting this technology to use. In 2021, nearly 60% of train cancellations were attributed to infrastructure and network management issues, such as track and signalling, and there has been little progress on this in the past few years.  

To meet this challenge, operators are digitising their electrical assets across the rail network to monitor, control, and optimise signalling. This enhances reliability and performance in contrast to outdated signalling systems that may not be able to gather even basic information, such as the precise location of a train, which can lead to delays and safety issues. 

To allow these digitised signalling systems to be implemented, secure power must be guaranteed across the entire rail network. For instance, Network Rail recently rolled out compact principal supply points, an innovative way to provide secure power to all signalling equipment.

This allows them to operate safe and efficient signalling whilst offering the benefits of reduced size and the opportunity to access the system remotely, without the high cost of a large-scale principal supply points.  

Furthermore, a reliable signalling system will be crucial in persuading people to use trains more, helping to bounce back passenger numbers for railways. 

With millions of people relying on train and subway systems, even the smallest delay or issue caused by a power outage can quickly lead to chaos.

mobility as a service railways

Credit: SkedGo | MOTIONTAG

High-quality power fuels a higher quality service 

Power distribution goes further than signalling. Using digital systems for control and power network analysis ensures a reliable power distribution network from the substation to overhead equipment and auxiliary systems, and to the station itself. 

The quality of the electricity is crucial for dependable operations, but it is a complex issue heavily influenced by supply infrastructure and different electrical loads. Digitally enabled medium or low-voltage electrical distribution equipment energises the entire passenger station, with availability secured by design. 

To minimise downtime caused by power quality events, the challenge is often to identify the source of the power quality problem and corroborate these sources over the entire electrical system.  

Suppose that five locations are experiencing transient voltage disturbances at nearly the same time or with a similar signature. In that case, there is a good chance the power quality problems have a common source.

A comprehensive, digitised power management system will supply the information needed to identify these sources so that the power quality issue can be addressed rapidly and the impact on passengers is minimised. 

Reliability through better maintenance 

Keeping equipment in working order while optimising operational expenditure is one of the biggest reliability challenges. By accessing advanced data analytics and remote monitoring capabilities, operators can use real-time information to quickly react to equipment problems, prevent potential asset failures, and extend their lifespan. 

Improved maintenance capabilities feed reliability, with diagnostic tools able to verify the health and performance of electrical components and equipment.

This condition-based maintenance approach conducts diagnostics by collecting health and performance data from digital sensors and then processing this in analytics to identify and understand any performance anomalies. 

National Rail’s new measurement train is an excellent example of this intelligent maintenance in action. A unique machine equipped with high-tech measurement systems, track scanners, and a high-resolution camera that monitors and records track condition information at speeds up to 125mph. Remote experts review the results and make highly informed maintenance recommendations based on high quality, real-time data. 

Today’s subway and railway systems are more high-tech than ever. As these critical transportation systems expand and modernise, new technologies equate to faster service, safer travel, more robust security, and fewer unforeseen problems.

With UK travel restrictions lifted and more people travelling by public transport again, investing in digitalisation and automation will be vital in delivering reliable railways. 

All images: Max Bögl