The 169km line was built in just four years, between 1898 and 1902. Teams of up to 5000 Norwegian navvies worked in extreme conditions, succeeding where a British-led project to build a railway to the now-abandoned town at Rombaksbotn failed a few years before.
The experience of the navvies provided food-for-thought for the railway men and women who gathered for the International Heavy Haul Association’s (IHHA) bi-annual conference in Narvik on June 10-14. Mr Michael Roney, long-time Canadian Pacific general manager and chief engineer and now an independent consultant, compared the experience of the navvies with the modern-day railway engineer.
The theme of this year’s conference “Heavy Haul 4.0 - achieving record-breaking performance levels” reflects the possible rewards of the digital railway.
“We are all navvies,” he said. “In the same way they had to develop a system that would suit their situation, we are doing the same as we navigate our way through the digital world.”
The theme of this year’s conference “Heavy Haul 4.0 - achieving record-breaking performance levels” reflects the possible rewards of the digital railway. For Roney, as well as offering opportunity, it emphasises the complexity of the 21st century heavy-haul system where “multiple layers” have been added.
While previously, the industry was immersed in tackling technical issues, now increasingly it is looking at understanding and benefiting from digital technologies - how data retrieved from sensors might inform predictive maintenance programmes, or how automated signalling might improve performance.
Mr Brian Monakali, outgoing chairman of IHHA, presented IHHA’s 2030 vision of how the heavy-haul industry might respond to future challenges.
Set to be published in a White Paper this month, by 2030 the strategy aims to “achieve a competitive, safe, responsible and intelligent heavy-haul logistics value chain that leverages cutting-edge technologies to create value for stakeholders.”
The strategy aims to improve customer experience and reduce logistics costs. Specific institutions have been assigned certain disciplines to identify the current challenges, objectives, and strategies as well as an implementation plan for the next 10 years. These include rolling stock and infrastructure maintenance, operations safety, execution, command and control, network planning and cyber security. “We must collaborate through the IHHA in order to develop our future and to identify the steps necessary to take us there,” Monakali said.
The conference itself presented insight into how the heavy-haul sector is, or is about to, benefit from future technologies and ultimately deliver this vision.
Among the award-winning papers was research on the use of augmented reality to improve the efficiency of fault diagnostics and maintenance, and the use of big data to derive dynamic load impact factors. The conference also heard from Rio Tinto about its Autohaul automation programme, which is now fully operational, and according to Mr Shaun Robertson, Rio Tinto’s principal advisor - rail, is offering a velocity increase of 5-6% and time savings of around an hour per train. The interest in the presentation reflects the desire of other operators to unlock similar benefits.
The event also revealed many of the challenges facing the industry. In particular, balancing existing systems with new technology.
The fundamental concept of rail transport - steel wheel on steel rail - is not changing. The need for expertise and understanding of the wheel-rail interface, track stresses and dynamics is as apparent now as it ever has been.
Where significant change is on the horizon is in how data retrieved from various sensors and other diagnostics systems can inform decision-making, and improve infrastructure and operational reliability and performance. Concepts such as Artificial Intelligence have the potential to support this process with early applications showing their potential.
Critically, AI could flip the foundations of the railway system - from “smart” infrastructure and “dumb” locomotives based on lineside or in-cab signalling systems, to “smart” locomotives, which use AI to autonomously recognise and respond to hazards.
Change is inevitable, particularly as new people familiar with these concepts enter the industry.
However, resistance to such a fundamental paradigm shift is likely, not least from the signalling suppliers, and railways seeking to protect their multi-million-dollar investments. But as Rio Tinto has shown with Autohaul, betting on technology can deliver benefits.
Change is inevitable, particularly as new people familiar with these concepts enter the industry. While technology is gradually taking people away from working processes, people will continue to make the key decisions based on evidence - if AI delivers a step-change in performance, rail will have little choice but to embrace it.
Where heavy-haul and the rail sector in general might struggle, however, is as industry veterans retire and take their knowledge and experience of the railway system with them. While it was encouraging to see IHHA recognise Emerging Rail Professionals and a smattering of young people in Narvik, the industry’s big guns remain its veterans, many of whom are consultants who get the call when something is not going quite right.
Passing on their knowledge is perhaps the biggest navigational challenge facing the industry. The heavy-haul railway, and rail transport in general, is on the verge of a major leap forward. It cannot afford for a knowledge gap to hold it back.