January 16, 2017

Trains with brains: driving efficiency through digitisation

Written by  Jamie Miller
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WHEN it comes to a network business like rail, a small improvement in efficiency can have massive operational impacts. According to GE Transportation, the US rail freight industry experiences 500,000 delays a year and one in four trains suffer unplanned downtime. By increasing the average speed of each train by 1.6km/h, and reducing the amount of time trains are stationary by 1%, the savings to the industry could be as high as $US 4.7bn.

With numbers like this, it’s little wonder that railway CEOs talk with such enthusiasm about the potential impact of digitalisation, even though considerable uncertainty remains around how that evolution will happen.

GE Transportation president and CEO Mrs Jamie Miller believes strategic partnerships between systems integrators and rail operators are key to unlocking the potential of the digital technologies that are available now. “There is serious interest in digital in every market we operate in and I think most rail CEOs believe digital is the next big wave of development in this industry,” Miller explains. “We
co-create nearly all of our products through deep partnerships with customers, because they have a real understanding of the problems they want to address.”

JamieMillerLast year DB Cargo and GE launched a digital pilot using GE’s RailConnect 360 asset performance management system to monitor the condition of its locomotives and support a predictive maintenance regime for its fleet. GE is also collaborating with Amsted Rail to roll out Car Integrity Monitor, which provides the supplier with real-time notifications on the condition of freight wagon components, helping to prevent disruptive in-service failures. Amsted has installed telematics on 20,000 wagons, which gives the train crew information on the status of wagons in the consist.

All of this feeds into the concept of “self-aware” trains. At the InnoTrans exhibition in Berlin last September GE unveiled its “Superbrain” concept for locomotive management, which was developed in cooperation with Intel and is based on the GE’s GoLinc 8 terabyte onboard data centre. This provides processing, wireless communication, networking, video, and data storage, interfacing with the railway’s communications system. Miller says the open platform architecture of GoLinc means it can interface with both GE and third-party systems, and she expects customers to devise their own applications in time.

Bolt-ons for GoLinc include Trip Optimizer, an automated cruise control system, which monitors fuel usage and power output while analysing route characteristics against payload to determine the most efficient operating speed. Over the last seven years the system has been installed in more than 6000 locomotives (25% of them from other suppliers) and has saved more than 340 million litres of fuel, having covered more than 240 million-km in auto control mode.

“A decade from now, digital tools will take railway productivity and efficiency to new levels,” says GE Transportation’s chief digital officer Mr Seth Bodnar. “The whole network will light up like a brain.”

GE says it ultimately wants to connect all 21,000 of its locomotives currently in service in 50 countries around the world to its Predix cloud-based software platform for the industrial internet.

“The same economic and technological forces that made smartphones so affordable have turned locomotives into sophisticated communication devices,” says Miller. “This is enabling us to monitor not just the locomotive but the whole ecosystem.”

The notion of the self-aware train connects the locomotive, the train, the freight yard, and the infrastructure.
“It will be like flipping a switch,” says Miller. “In the future, increasing productivity could be as easy as pushing an update through a digital rail network. If we are willing to adapt, these advances have the power to push industry into the digital era on a global scale.”

GE says it has discovered a huge gap in terms of the health and performance of assets, and that closing this gap could significantly improve operational performance. For example, while rail flaw detection and wayside detector technologies have advanced significantly in recent years, there is little or no information on the state of infrastructure between inspection passes. Using GE’s Rail Integrity Monitor, locomotives will be able to monitor rails for fractures and other defects.

“The more understanding we have of the train, the more chance we have of getting it to its destination successfully,” Miller says. “This is the digital century and the opportunities for rail are almost limitless.”

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