The manager of much of the UK’s rail network is taking a big-picture view of the tracks it polices, using specially-commissioned helicopters to check for faults from up in the sky. Using super high-definition thermal and visual imaging equipment, Network Rail’s aerial operations team are being deployed to inspect around 140 miles of track between London Waterloo and Weymouth on the south coast.
As a result of being so high up, Network Rail said that it can check the track’s condition in around three hours, a big improvement on what’s possible at ground level. Carried out on a four week-basis, the approach also reduces the reliance on workers having to survey the tracks at ground level that offers obvious safety benefits. The detection method has already located two faulty hook switches that isolate power to the conductor rail.
The helicopter is equipped with a full high-definition camera system that provides a gyro-stabilised image with embedded location data in the digital video. A ‘fault spotter’ on the flight reviews the live footage and can feed information back to maintenance teams on the ground, who can respond within minutes to inspect and repair the infrastructure.
The thermal cameras are used to detect and pinpoint damage caused by electrical lineside equipment, a fault that will in most cases produce an unusual level of heat that’s picked up by the helicopter-mounted units. The hugely powerful optical cameras, which are equipped with a laser range finder, can detect the area that it’s focused to an accuracy of around five feet.
Jason Bridges, chief operating officer for Network Rail, said it was using all the tools at its disposal to improve performance across the south western rail network. “Using this technique we can identify and fix potential issues before they affect train services, complete thorough inspections of our infrastructure in a short space of time and improve safety for our people,” said Bridges.
The operations and safety director for the South Western Railway operator that runs on the line welcomed the new initiative. “Anything that can prevent disruption to our network can only be of benefit to our customers,” said Jacqui Dey, who was interviewed by SmartRail World last year.
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