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Big Data, IoT and rail infrastructure maintenance

Digitalisation is fast finding its way into rail infrastructure, track construction and maintenance. This makes it difficult to stay on top of things. Conferences, such as the event in Munich at the end of May, provide a forum for expert lectures and professional discussions.

Zeros and ones – that is the message. Nothing more. And it doesn’t need more. Zeros and ones can describe anything. It solely depends on their quantity and sequence. Zeros and ones are the digits of digitalisation. To a large extent, we communicate digitally already today. The language of machines is becoming digital. Just like real estate, equipment and other economic goods, many machines go online automatically to link up. So why should tracks and tamping machines not communicate directly, too? We are not quite there yet. But it is possible for track systems to report their status so that, ideally, the maintenance crew turns up shortly before problems arise and before damage results in additional costs or standstills. Tracks that continuously transmit all status messages, position information, train traffic data and information on the remaining useful life of certain components are no longer a vision. Incredibly large data flows make this possible. “Big Data” and the “Internet of Things” (IoT) are the generic terms for what is possible. Rail and infrastructure operators, maintenance companies and their suppliers must be able to deal with them, manage and interpret them correctly in order to stand their ground in the future.    

Internet of Things and Big Data in Rail 

“The Rise of IoT & Big Data in Rail” is a new series of events around the digitalisation of rail operations and infrastructures. The international conference at the end of May 2018 marked its launch. Around 250 experts from prominent companies from all European regions met in Munich. 24 speakers elaborated on the current state of affairs, and forums invited participants for discussions. Numerous renowned companies took part in the conference and the accompanying trade exhibition. Conducted all in English, the event was organised by Rotaia Media from Ashford, South East England. Event organiser Managing Director Ben Holliday said about his intention: “These are unprecedented times in the digital revolution of the rail sector.” He went on to say that the networking aspect was increasingly important to share your challenges and discuss solutions to help shape the future of a smart rail industry.

Applied digitalisation

Plasser & Theurer was present in Munich with several delegates and an information stand. P&T Connected, with its live recording and evaluation of the machine status through to predictive maintenance, has already positioned itself well. Long sequences of zeros and ones in its promotional video depict the extensive, continuous flow of data. PlasserSmartMaintenance deals with the communication of individual machines, fleet management and infrastructures. It is fascinating how “Big Data” also changes work processes. One example: Sensors detect the distance between sleepers, this information is displayed to the machine operator in the Tamping Express and recommendations for action are given. These are practical applications of what is possible with progressive digitalisation: Data must be turned into information and information must be turned into knowledge. 

Knowledge for practical use

Autonomous tamping is possible. This was one of Plasser & Theurer’s key messages at the Big Data Conference. It is possible, but not yet in use. For the time being, the well qualified specialist in the control cab decides how tamping progresses. However, man gets increasingly more digital support. Krzysztof Wilczek, Head of Track Analytics at Plasser & Theurer in Vienna, demonstrated an example in Munich. Bernhard Maier, Head of the young start-up P&T Connected (Hagenberg, Austria), illustrated how the subjects of predictive maintenance, data security in process automation and new cloud-based solutions can be put into practice. After years of research, the time has come to put the results into working practice. In line with “Best Practice”, the huge digitalisation efforts will improve quality, increase availability and, ultimately, lower costs.