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How IoT proves its worth to rail industry in times of crisis

14 April 2020

That vital processes depend upon human hands becomes clear during the current corona pandemic. It would be good to learn from this now and so make more use of technology. Internet of Thing (IoT) helps the rail industry in times of crisis. “If there were sensors across the whole network, more railway staff could work from home.”

At the moment, people in the Netherlands are working from home as much as possible, to minimise the risk of infection. However, for many tasks and jobs in the rail sector it is still necessary to be in the field. Technology is not the problem, explains Dual Inventive Director Lex van der Poel:

“Most solutions are available. However, until now it has taken longer than necessary for them to be fully implemented. It would be great if we could approach this crisis caused by the corona virus in a positive way to stimulate innovation in the sector. Technology has always been a critical factor, but now it is no longer. Technology has become increasingly reliable in recent years. By utilising technology you can limit the human factor, which immediately makes the rail network more robust.”

More work with fewer people

IoT eases remote working. Sensors and equipment can be connected via the internet or other means of communication and can be managed and controlled remotely. IoT also makes it possible to get more work done with fewer people. Research shows that there will be an increasing shortage of suitable employees in the future due to an ageing population. Right now they are temporarily unavailable due to illness or precautionary measures. In the coming years the shortages will be structural. UK infrastructure manager Network Rail beliefs that these shortages can partly be overcome by technology. The average age of the organisation’s 60,000 employees is relatively high. That is why they have chosen to quickly innovate with digital systems. Van der Poel:

“In the UK even more work is done manually than in the Netherlands. There, the surface on which the track is laid is of poorer quality, and the climate is harsh. That’s why many inspectors are sent out every day to manually measure track temperatures and vibrations across the network. Consequently, the benefits of remote monitoring are enormous.

In the Netherlands the tracks are in better shape, which means that the implementation of IoT innovations is somewhat slower here. Contractors and ProRail are pointing the finger at each other and wait for the other to take the first step. I would expect ProRail to take the lead in the coming period and proceed to implementation with the market. In Germany, DB Netze is already focusing a lot on the IoT. They are very aware that technology is the only way to deal with the drop in staff numbers. Indeed, at their own symposium last year, they asserted: “When we think about the future. Then technology is the answer.”

Applications of IoT in rail

A good example of how IoT helps the railways in times of crisis is the monitoring of infrastructure and equipment by means of sensors, cameras and lasers. With this there is no need to close a line to let an engineer check if anything is wrong, followed by another engineer to see what the problem is, and a third to actually resolve the problem. Similarly for rolling stock: it needs to go back to the workshop for periodic maintenance and inspection much less frequently. With the help of IoT, the infrastructure can be monitored from behind a desk and can be inspected remotely for any abnormalities. Engineers only need to enter the track for actual repairs or maintenance.

Another example is the Digital Safety Passport (Digitale veiligheidspaspoort, or DVP), which track engineers can log into via their own mobile phone. As a result, paper forms and physical contact with others are no longer necessary.

Much of the above is already applied sparingly, but can be used much more widely. Until now it has often been about experiments to see what is possible. Quick and extensive roll-outs have not been necessary yet. Maybe they are now, so the railway will be fully digital and ‘connected’ the next time it faces staff shortages.

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