TRAIN maintenance depots have, until recently, been bastions of heavy engineering, full of grease and grime and as far removed from the high-tech revolution as one could imagine. Yet the move away from diesel on many rail networks, towards cleaner and more environmentally-friendly traction power, coupled with increasingly modular design and just-in-time delivery of train components, is already changing the look and feel of these workplaces.

This year Hitachi Rail announced plans to take changes in how trains are maintained a step further, by offering operators Digital Transformation as a Service (DXaaS). It is, according to Hitachi, the first time that as a Service (see panel below) is being applied to train maintenance and, at first glance, might seem an odd service for a train manufacturer to provide.

But, for Hitachi, it is an entirely logical progression from its own experience of digitalising rolling stock manufacturing, another area of heavy engineering that has gone through its own process of change.

Over the last few years, the manufacturer has radically changed many of the processes at its global train production plant at Kasado in Japan. And it believes many of the new processes are equally applicable to train maintenance.

Hitachi points out that it is able to call on technical expertise within the wider Hitachi group of companies, where as a Service is already offered to international clients, such as Raffeisen Bank International.

By applying the synergies between digital technology, operational technology and train components, Hitachi believes it is possible to accelerate maintenance schedules, maximise value for operators and also avoid many common failures, based on the company’s extensive experience of trial and error.

The new digital train maintenance service, TM DXaaS, comprises two key platforms: team building, that is based around human factors, and design and maintenance that manages physical maintenance procedures.

The team-building platform fosters teamwork by visualising the safety of train maintenance workers and motivating them to perform better. Historically, many maintenance procedures have been carried out by experienced staff passing on their knowledge verbally to newer members of the team.

This analogue process is unable to capture all the individual steps required to complete a given maintenance task, or to quantify all the individual steps that a maintenance worker is required to complete as part of their job.

Hitachi describes the process of capturing all of this information in digital form as visualisation. The data produced by visualisation can then be analysed to reduce inefficiencies and improve staff safety and, in turn, staff morale. Part of this process includes introducing a work check-in system which quantifies the working hours of each process and employee. This can reveal instances of high workload and, conversely, times when staff are underemployed while they wait for other work processes to be completed, that cannot be detected by conventional analogue systems.

Visualisation also enables productive discussions to take place within maintenance teams about how processes and task allocation can be improved. For example, workflows in many train maintenance depots are currently dictated by master schedules which, by their nature, are inflexible and not detailed, and handover between teams is often conducted verbally. This can lead to errors and inefficiencies which are most visible (and frustrating) to frontline workers. Visualising workflows can reduce or eliminate these errors and inefficiencies. They also enable maintenance teams to respond quickly and effectively when scheduled procedures are unexpectedly delayed or there are sudden changes in workforce availability, for example due to illness.

The design and maintenance platform is a way of digitising and sharing all information required by a train maintenance depot relating to the design and installation of individual components.

Specifications and images that were previously only available on paper or in 2D can be turned into 3D models that are easier for train maintenance teams to understand. The platform, which is optimised for each depot, also allows a depot to share expertise, advice, and component information with others.

An exciting development of this platform is the creation of a vehicle metaverse using 3D data that will allow operators to manage everything relating to their rolling stock in three dimensions. Hitachi says that the vehicle metaverse is currently at the demonstration stage, and more details will be revealed in due course.

For now, Hitachi is focusing on offering TM DXaaS to all operators in Japan, including those whose fleets were partially or wholly built by other manufacturers, although it admits that some features are only available for Hitachi-built trains. It says that operating costs for operators, particularly workforce and equipment operating costs, could be significantly reduced, although the company is coy about quantifying these. It points out that indirect savings are also expected in CO₂ emissions and energy consumption.

Hitachi has not revealed if any operators have yet signed up for the service, which is only currently available in Japan.

However, it says it will consider requests from operators outside Japan whose trains were built in Kasado. Britain’s Southeastern, which operates class 395 Javelin high-speed trains, is one such example.

Hitachi is also yet to provide estimates of the capital expenditure required on new electronic equipment, including LED screens and tablets, or indicate what it will charge its train maintenance customers.

However, Hitachi suggests it is hard to quantify some of the benefits of adopting the new system, such as creating a climate in which all members of the workforce are motivated to suggest improvements to further refine working processes.