Rail Industry Incorporates Data Science to Improve Maintenance Practices

Rail Industry Incorporates Data Science to Improve Maintenance Practices

In Rail & Mass Transit, Rail Lubrication, Technology by Eric Vantiegham

Rail is the latest industry to be transformed by big data, with many companies leveraging analytics to optimize their daily operations.

The rail industry continues to roll through the 21st century. Following a trend unfolding across practically all industries, many railroads have designed their own mobile apps that allow travelers to buy tickets, check timetables, hail a car from a ride-sharing service, and even report suspicious activity. Meanwhile, Virgin Trains has poured one million euros into its Birmingham, England hub, transforming it into a futuristic rail station with a walk-up “welcome desk” where guests can use touchscreen service pods to buy tickets, charge their phones, and use free Wi-Fi.

Now, passenger rail is turning its attention to big data. Seeing the trend towards more sophisticated data collection and analytics techniques in industries like finance and retail, the railroad industry has developed its own data infrastructure and processes over the past several years and begun to more closely monitor field operations. Many of these companies have also hired scores of data scientists to continually process and interpret the reams of data they’re now collecting.

The Future of Rail

Railroad companies are hoping for “better analysis of current assets, and a better ability to plan repairs and predict failure,” said J. Shane Rice, an assistant chief engineer for the Norfolk Southern Railway. “This will help us become safer, more service-minded, and more productive and efficient.” 

Eventually, the industry hopes to apply algorithms to data sets to predict maintenance issues before they happen, Progressive Railroading reports. Leo Kreisel, Director of Track Testing at Class I, believes that big data initiatives can to lead safer and higher quality inspections, as rail companies come to rely on a greater quantity of objective information. According to Kreisel, automation can also reduce the time needed to complete inspections, making repairs more efficient.

The GE Superbrain represents another major step the industry has taken towards a more quantitative, 21st-century approach to a centuries-old mode of transit. Partnering with Intel, GE has introduced a “superbrain” platform solution for locomotives that would transform each train into a mobile data center. Trains would be able to record everything from track conditions to crew morale in real-time. The system is also equipped with advanced video analytics, which allow it to archive a litany of different incidents. All of this data is uploaded to Predix, GE’s industrial cloud-based software platform, for the company to freely access and analyze.

Collecting data can be simple, but proper analysis of it presents some challenges. As Lisa Stabler of the research organization TTCI warned in a keynote address, “It’s very important that we discuss the [data] inputs, that we understand both statistical significance and practical significance. Without the technical understanding, spurious associations can be made.”

Midwest Is Here to Help

As these companies try to stay ahead of the curve in rail operations and maintenance, Midwest Industrial Supply, Inc. will be there to help. Over our 40 years of business in switch lubrication, we’ve developed the patented technology that will keep your switches and other transportation equipment operational. That means you can spend less time worrying about routine maintenance and more time focusing on the implementation of the latest innovations in data science and information gathering.

Eric Vantiegham is Midwest’s Rail & Transit Specialist. Skilled in product development, new business development, and strategic planning, he enjoys playing ice hockey and coaching his boys' youth teams.