Via implementation of IoT technology, many improvements can be achieved.
Via implementation of IoT technology, many improvements can be achieved.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pixabay)

INTELLIGENT APPLICATIONS Using the Internet of Things to transform railways

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

It’s been promised that the “Internet of Things” will advance society in ways that we cannot yet imagine, but change is already being brought to the rail industry via the intelligent application of IoT technology. ProRail, for example, can optimize the usage of existing infrastructure beyond expenditures on anything new.

In rail networks, IoT technology is sourcing data from both enterprise systems (resource planning, decision support, and customer resource management) and operations systems (the monitoring and managing of field equipment, manufacturing processes, and production). Via implementation of IoT technology, improvements can be made as far as:

  • Greater transport safety and reliability: Rail equipment has no shortage of components for which maintenance is critical. IoT sensors can send alerts on the conditions of important operating parts such as locomotive engines, wheelsets, and brakes. IoT sensors can also monitor conditions of tracks for failures and faults.
  • Fewer delays and less downtime: Using IoT technology, rail operators can experience less downtime and fewer schedule delays caused by maintenance. Very simply, small problems can be addressed before they mushroom into larger issues.
  • Optimized train schedules: IoT technologies can track both trains and passengers, allowing operators to optimize train schedules, improving both efficiency and profitability.
  • More personalized travel experiences: Tracking and analyzing ridership patterns, service usage, and seating can permit rail operators to better personalize travel experiences and tailor passenger journeys and equipment utilization based on rider frequency of use, preferences for seating, usage of services, etc.
  • More suitable and preferred equipment: Current manufacturing efforts produce a lag between production and feedback from riders as far as locomotive and train coach needs and desires. Real-time feedback via IoT would allow rail operators to make rapid manufacturing adjustments using customer input, instead of waiting months or years for new requirements definition documents to be drafted.

An example of IoT in action: the Dutch rail network

The Dutch rail system is the busiest train network in the European Union, supporting more than 1.1 million journeys each day. It’s operated by the state-owned enterprise Nederlandse Spoorwegen and maintained by government agency ProRail.

Beyond its present usage, ridership on the network is projected to grow by an additional 40 % over the next decade. At the same time, infrastructure of the network is aging, presenting significant obstacles to maintenance organization ProRail. Simply adding new tracks won’t resolve all the challenges—and may not even be possible in particularly dense regions, such as Randstad, which encompasses the clustered cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and The Hague.

Via IoT sensors and equipment, ProRail can optimize the usage of existing infrastructure beyond expenditures on anything new. “We have to invest in infrastructure,” says ProRail CEO Pier Eringa. “Not only more infrastructure, but using the existing system better.” This translates to additional harnessing of IoT hardware and software.

Data drives improved efficiency

As of 2017, the number of individual transport units connected to the Internet in the European Union stood at 2.6 million; that figure is expected to rise to 3.7 million by 2025. The data from these connected units allows analysis and produces new insights that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) have been realized via manual efforts previously. Such data can suggest that either more trains be run—or less, if any dangers are detected. As a result, operating and maintenance schedules can be optimized.

Security is another area where IoT data can better inform ProRail’s decision-making via the recording of equipment and track trespassing times and locations. By looking at past occurrences, predictions can be made about the type and frequency of future trespassing incidents.

Currently, ProRail gets much of its data from outside organizations, such as those that report the weather or operate helicopters and drones. But more IoT inputs would allow ProRail to gather its own data and build its own algorithms to use it.

“The goal is to get the data ourselves, and then we put it all into our own data lake,” says Thymo van den Brug, a manager of development and asset management information at ProRail. “We’re really driving to have our own data sets.”

ProRail’s IoT foresight will help it to meet the challenges of addressing increased ridership. Other rail companies will likely need to make strategy changes—including integrating IoT—to continue to be essential participants in a future that’s becoming increasingly digital-driven.