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UK railways struggling post-Covid could get cutting-edge tech boost

A £1.8m project is under way looking at how cutting-edge technology such as automated monitoring systems could boost the UK’s railways, which have been impacted severely by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Since the beginning of the lockdown in March, the number of rail passengers has dropped by over 90 per cent even in some of London’s busiest stations. In addition, the virus has also necessitated that railway staff maintain a safe distance from passengers.

The new three-year project from a team at the University of Huddersfield will assess the use of industrial automation; advanced condition monitoring and data analytics; automated maintenance planning and scheduling, and the use of augmented reality.

With the UK government urging a reduction in running costs for public railways, the prospect of cost-efficient maintenance has clear advantages in addition to the new threats posed by Covid-19.

In 2019, rail operators began phasing in 7,000 more trains onto the networks in a mix of new and refurbished vehicles in a programme that will last until the end of 2021.

The high cost of the new trains has led to significant pressure to improve the monetary efficiency of the railway industry and the train maintenance constitutes a significant proportion of their lifecycle cost.

The project will also help with the demands of a post-pandemic rail industry where revenues from passenger numbers are expected to fluctuate depending on rapidly changing circumstances.

Rolling stock maintenance is traditionally carried out on a scheduled, interval-led basis and is led by visual inspections. The researchers said there is significant opportunity to exploit the data from the advanced monitoring systems already being introduced on new trains that could be used for early interventions and a smarter approach to maintenance.

“We think there is a big scope to save money, make maintenance more reliable and make it safer for people who work in rail depots by using more industrial automation. That is a big focus of this project,” said Dr Gareth Tucker at the University's Institute of Railway Research (IRR). “Social distancing is hard for teams working under trains, so more automation is a way of reducing risk.”

“There is a demand that railways look to reduce costs, given the gap between fixed costs of running and the revenues that come in,” said Paul Allen, railway engineering professor at the IRR.

“There is a big push from the government, post-Covid, to reduce costs. That adds an extra dimension to this work. This facility supports that objective of reducing railway costs and the changing demands on the rail industry.”

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