Before man learned to fly and even after he did so, trains did not lose their ubiquity. In fact, the steam engine is still considered to be the icon and forbearer of the first Industrial Revolution back in the early 1800’s. The quest for efficient fuels was also started as the locomotives industry transitioned from coal to diesel and then electricity, solar or possibly nuclear in the years to come. Thus, would it be an overstatement to say that it was for the ‘locomotives’ that the world was ‘Modern’ized? Even if you agree to disagree, you just cannot ‘miss the train’ with the world at the anvil of ‘4th Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0’. Leveraging new age technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), Alternative energy, Virtual Reality(VR), Autonomous driving, drones and even re-engineering steel, the railway tracks are here to stay, even if Man moves to Mars.

What’s transforming the ‘Train of Thought’?

Surprisingly enough, 54% of the world’s population is currently living in cities. The United Nations estimates this figure to reach 66% by 2050. Moreover, with the compounding quandaries of global warming and the ever-emergent middle class’ need for mobility, the railway’s sector is replete with new-age technology use-cases for infrastructure optimization and resource utilization.

The Train with a Brain – Unlike the ‘Gold Rush’ of driverless cars, there are only handful of Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) such as GE Transportation, augmenting the ‘Futuristic Locomotive’. As the variety, ubiquity, and hi-speed yet secure streaming ability of locomotive sensors upsurge, the chances of ‘Transportational Singularity’ also increase exponentially. Machine Learning (ML) based Analytical Applications interpret sensor sourced Big Data (ranging from engine/cabin temperature to freight load distribution/door health, and even the driver’s attentiveness) into actionable insights for resource or asset optimization. Starting from route optimization software powered by Big Data Analytics to automating freight train hauling and also enhancing train running schedules, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is recoding the history of trains, one bogey at a time.

The Internet of Trains – “The Railroad industry gains $2.5 billion in value for every 1 mph rise in velocity. They save $2.2 billion for every 1 percent improvement in terminal dwell for railcars.” is what was pointed out by Wes Mukai, CTO, GE Transportation Digital Solutions. However, to achieve such savings, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) needs to be supplemented with Operational and Situational Intelligence sourced from sensor data at Spatial, Temporal and Nodal levels. Condition Based Maintenance (CBM) and Predictive Maintenance (PM) capabilities are being augmented with Asset Performance Monitors (APM) from GE Digital. For CBM, the LOCOTROL Distributed Power System facilitates simultaneous deceleration and friction power allocation within the master and slave engines to shorten braking time and distance while approaching precarious turns or uneven stretches of the rail track. For PM, the LocoVISION system integrate.

 Six Power over Ethernet (PoE) cameras that monitor locomotive safety in real-time. To further reduce service interruptions from faulty rail infrastructure, the Rail Integrity Monitor (RIM) uses innovative technology with sensors mounted under the locomotive that monitor rail track integrity in real-time.

The Novel Realities – The emergence of Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) has opened up newer vistas for the railway sector. With railway maintenance personnel donning AR glasses developed by AMA XPertEye for a guided, efficient and timely repair job – the future is not just near, but already here. Even incumbent OEMs like Bombardier have upped the ante by leveraging VR to pioneer ‘Virtual Manufacturing’ technology that facilitates the creation of a 3D projectable model and is also capable of virtually computing performance testing and product optimization of any product prototype (formerly limited to only 2D Digital mockups or scientific drawings). Such innovations are also doubling up as the testing grounds for future drivers, service engineers and many other railway support staff undergoing training.

Boarding the Train to the Future?

Apart from aiding the patron sector, railway innovations in the field of alternative energy are all set to repay the society as much it has drawn from it over the ages. Siemens has pioneered the ‘Static Frequency Converter‘ in 20 locations across Germany which transforms the electrical energy generated from locomotives braking into a steady source of electricity that could be supplied back into the grid to light up homes or run factories. The Russian Railways are striving to create Nuclear Fission engines that could be zipped through the existing railway tracks to light up remote towns or serve as massive backup generators for emergency grid outages caused by natural disasters.

With additives such as Titanium and Graphene, the building block of locomotives – steel, is being innovated to drastically lose weight, yet boosting its structural integrity. Such developments are not only optimizing manufacturing cost and the energy efficiency of modern locomotives like Monorails, but also opening up futuristic options of train propulsion like MagLev, capable of competing with air travel over short hauls in mid-size airplanes.

Conclusion

Indebted to such steady yet transformative innovations, the bulging columns of smoke & steam have been substituted by the electric locomotives into clouds of future hope for a cleaner, greener yet adequately mobile human civilization. With QuEST Global’s Rail-transport clients like GE, Bombardier, Siemens and more – we are collaboratively
re-engineering the dream for a dynamic world, where electric locomotives are safe, comfortable, trustworthy and sometimes reach even before their scheduled time. To read more about our QuEST, click here.

By QuEST Global
By QuEST Global
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