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Is rail sustainability running out of steam?

Posted by Expert View on Sep 30, 2019

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Rail represents one of the cleanest ways to travel, second only to walking or cycling. Across EU countries, less than one per cent of all transport gas emissions come from railways. Yet UK rail operators still face a serious challenge; last year, the Government challenged them to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040, and while the sector has boarded its sustainability journey, the service is likely to be delayed.

The sector has taken major steps to decarbonise and improve efficiency on its lines, but more needs to be done. To cut emissions and deliver power efficiency and reliability, operators need intelligent solutions to monitor, control, and optimise electrical assets on the network. At the same time, efficiency does not have to be costly. Intelligent solutions that deliver consistent monitoring will also allow operators to identify efficiencies, optimise repairs and maintenance – which will save considerable costs in the long run.

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Be smart, be sustainable

The electrification of the country’s railways goes hand in hand with efforts to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions. Operators have made great strides in upgrading rolling stock and major parts of the line, yet only 40% of the network is electrified compared to Europe's average of 60%. Operating companies may still be too reliant on diesel-guzzling rolling stock, but electrified railways are better for the environment and generate 60% fewer emissions compared to diesel trains, while producing zero pollutants at the point of use.

Yet electrification of the trains alone won’t be enough. Rail industry emissions are not generated solely by rolling stock, but also other crucial infrastructure including train stations. Indeed, any part of the rail network that takes electrical power to run – from signalling systems to depots – is contributing to the industry’s carbon footprint. Just because pollutants aren’t being emitted from a train’s exhaust does not mean damage isn’t being done.

If we are to achieve a truly sustainable rail network over the next few decades, there is an urgent need to reduce the industry’s energy consumption as a whole. This can be done by reducing energy waste and improving the efficiency of electrical assets embedded in the infrastructure. What’s more, it’s possible to do this without jeopardising the quality of rail services – between 2000 and 2016, rail energy consumption fell by 23 per cent thanks to greater energy intensity and utilisation, all without impacting service levels or passenger numbers.

In a train station for example, a facility management system collecting and analysing data from the lighting, heating, cooling, and ventilation functions can provide a detailed breakdown of energy usage. The station manager can use this insight to identify areas where energy is being wasted - such as during off-peak times when the station isn’t at full capacity - and the manager then has the insight to intervene positively, putting certain functions into a low-power state to cut down on energy waste.

To create a more efficient and sustainable rail network, operators need insight. They must have unprecedented visibility across services, and the power to intervene to cut waste and optimise operations. The Internet of Things (IoT) can share a great deal of this information through connected sensors, but operators will also need analytics tools and software to turn it into actionable insight.

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Digitisation pays for itself

One refrain against further electrification and digitisation of British railways is cost. Indeed, the recent failure of the Great Western Electrification Programme to stay within budget has put future electrification initiatives in question. However, purely focusing on upfront investment doesn’t tell the full story -- it’s far better to keep in mind the considerable cost savings and returns digitisation can grant.

Connected maintenance is particularly fertile ground for cost savings. A signal failure can easily ruin a passenger’s day, but the knock-on effects to the rest of the network are even more severe. An interruption to the power supply can cause signalling systems to break down and train services to be disrupted. Customer satisfaction is impacted, but so is reputation and profitability as the operator and train company often has to pay compensation for ruined journeys.

A reliable and efficient power supply is critical for success, but it isn’t possible without smart technology. IoT-connected sensors can communicate invaluable field data to operators, letting them plan ahead or respond immediately when maintenance becomes necessary.

Whereas traditional maintenance practice mandates scheduled check-ups and costly emergency repairs when equipment fails, the IoT enables automatic status monitoring and preempting early signs of failure. Intelligent circuit breakers and insulation monitoring devices give an accurate picture of equipment and circuit health. Connected monitoring tools can collect and track equipment status data and alert supervisors to detected faults before they snowball into larger breakdowns and potential crises. Ultimately, following an insight-driven, predictive maintenance strategy means fewer failures, less downtime, and greater profits.

Peter Selway_Schneider Electric(2)As the railway network continues to grow, it’s crucial operators stay committed to new technologies and innovative practices. Digitisation and automated processes will provide faster, safer and more efficient services for users while reducing both the costs and carbon debt of the industry. Sustainability is a win-win for rail.


Peter Selway is the Rail Segment Marketing Manager at Schneider Electric. If you're interested in meeting brilliant speakers and companies and learning more about sustainability and other relevant industry topics, book your ticket now and join us at SmartTransit LA, on October 28-30th, or SmartMetro Madrid on November 25-27th.

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Topics: SRW Featured, Sustainability, Expert View

Expert View

Written by Expert View

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