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The DRS Alliance

the open ecosystem for shaping the future of rail together


Luc Vansteenkiste,
Consultant, Luanconsult

Asset management in the railway environment is historically a process which is carried out manually and often in what is termed the “artisanal way”.

Until a decade ago, it was not even recognised as a process which could add value to the railway network either by improving its reliability or by improving its lifetime.

When I was asked to assume responsibility of the global infrastructure department in 2011 at Infrabel (Belgian railway transportation support services company), it was obvious that we had to introduce digital technologies to really benefit the company and, in effect, the whole industry. The budget was made available for maintaining the network with digital technologies. These technologies could help us not only by reducing costs but also by improving the safety, reliability, and availability of the assets of the railway network.

In this context, Infrabel introduced digital asset management using ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) applications. It also introduced and launched the following:

  • Tablets, digital procedures, and checklists for maintenance that reduced the need for manual maintenance by over 25 %
  • Assets with embedded intelligence (typically signalling assets and other assets which make extensive use of PLC technology or intelligent sensors)
  • Dumb assets (usually linear assets) which have to be monitored by measuring trains, in track measuring devices, and through sensors and drones

It proved to be a very successful project with the following results:

  • The cost of maintenance fell by more than 15 % while eliminating human intervention.
  • Safety, reliability, and availability improved.
  • Control of the lifecycle costs of the assets improved thanks to better maintenance and higher data quality concerning the real time of the asset. Therefore, the asset could be replaced at the right moment.
  • The capacity of the network increased because fewer train paths were lost to maintenance (for inspection, preventive as well as corrective maintenance).

Ultimately, we transitioned towards a world of predictive maintenance and smart asset management.

Future outlook

DRS Alliance (Digital Railway Solutions Alliance) is an initiative which is fully in line with the vision and the ambition I have had since I started as Director-General Asset Management at Infrabel back in 2011.

The future of mobility will heavily rely on railways and existing infrastructure. The European Commission (EC) expressed its commitment to doubling freight traffic by rail by 2050 and to tripling high-speed rail traffic. By implementing this strategy, the EC will create an irreversible shift to zero-emission mobility while making the rail transport system more efficient and resilient.

Digitalisation of and innovation in the railway sector should lead towards increased safety and improved capacity with a more efficient use of the existing infrastructure. More and more suppliers are now developing and delivering digitally enabled products and services. In turn, this poses the unique challenge of how to streamline these offerings.

DRS Alliance

The DRS Alliance is an alliance that aims to elevate and coordinate the development of cross-compatible end-to-end (E2E) solutions needed by the rail industry to meet these challenge targets. This includes optimising the capacity of the existing infrastructure through predictive maintenance, robotisation, and increased safety. The DRS Alliance approach is important because no entity today can deliver on its own the solutions needed by the rail industry to fulfil those objectives. The DRS Alliance is an ecosystem that brings top expertise together for the different domains needed to deliver these E2E services, and it will ensure the necessary interconnectivity of solutions, drive a joint vision forward, and support the rail industry in the transformation process using digital solutions. The transition in an open ecosystem for all current and upcoming players will actively contribute to the future of digitalised rail systems and will enable all partners to develop future-ready solutions for the global railway sector.

The global railway sector is evolving rapidly in order to fulfil its role as the sustainable mobility solution of the future. Many initiatives are currently being taken – all of which are supported by large digitalisation programmes. The introduction of the European Train Control System (ETCS) and Automatic Train Operation (ATO) will make transport by rail much safer than it already is and improve its efficiency. Europe is currently running a project under the lead of RailNetEurope (RNE): the Timetable Redesign project (TTR) aims to transform the process of capacity allocation into a process which is more market oriented and wastes less capacity because of train paths which are not used. The cost of the project is estimated at €700 million, but it will benefit the sector immensely. It is estimated that this TTR project will entail a gain in capacity of 4 % and, in doing this, will prevent €16 billion in avoided investments in a new physical capacity.

The challenge for the DRS Alliance is to present a similar business case and to make sure that at least another 4 % of capacity can be gained by avoiding a loss of capacity needed for measurement and maintenance or malfunctioning of the infrastructure. All of these factors lead to unavailability.

The ultimate goal of digitalisation should be to bring a tangible and measurable benefit to the global railway sector by increasing the availability and safety of the infrastructure.

The DRS Alliance is an initiative which is fully in line with the vision and the ambition I have had since I started as Director-General Asset Management at Infrabel back in 2011. I strongly believe that the DRS Alliance is the right way to achieve these objectives and to contribute to railways that can fulfil their crucial role as the mobility solution of the future.

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