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Network Rail has unveiled its new test train that it hopes will revolutionise track inspections and lead to a step change in safety of its workforce. NCE reports

Network rail monitoring equipment

Computerised: The new system allows staff to concentrate on fixing rather than finding faults

What if it was possible to survey long stretches of railway using technology so railway staff could spend more time fixing faults than finding them?

Well, now it is: with Plain Line Pattern Recognition (PLPR), a new service ready to be offered to Network Rail’s routes in the coming year.

PLPR will be rolled out across the network on four of its 12 test trains during 2013. When fully operational, they will cover 24,000km of rail every fortnight
and allow Network Rail’s track inspection teams to concentrate on fixing faults, instead of looking for them.

Using the system also means that the time staff have to spend on the live railway is reduced, with a benefit to safety.

Currently fitted to the new measurement train, and being fitted to four other trains, the system uses seven linescan cameras, four 3D cameras and two thermal imaging cameras to scan the track as it passes beneath the train.

national rail cameras

Cameras: Fitted under the train

The cameras record raw images at up to 70kHz - a significant technical achievement in itself - allowing it to capture images every 0.8mm at speeds of up to 125mph. That equates to 70,000 pictures a second .

Each camera stores the information on its own hard drive, which is then downloaded to an on-board computer. Theimages are then processed using machine vision software developed by Omnicom Engineering, synchronised with real-time positioning system and geometry data, and then analysed by an on-train inspector.

“The train does not only record the information but it filters it, prioritises it and stops us from being overwhelmed by data,” says Network Rail infrastructure
maintenance director Mac Andrade.

Reports are dispatched to the teams on the ground helping them accurately locate faults.

“What we want to do is bring our railway into the 21st Century and reduce the exposure of our people to the danger of working on the live railway”

Mac Andrade,Network Rail


The roll-out of the new technology will have a big impact on safety. Staff will no longer have to walk along the railway lines and can focus on fixing problems.

The new train was unveiled last month at London’s St Pancras station.

“St Pancras was opened in 1869 and we haven’t changed the way we do track inspection since then,” says Andrade.

“What we want to do is bring our railway into the 21st century and reduce the exposure of our people to the danger of working on the live railway.”

It will also save money. Targeted maintenance means only assets that need replacing are dealt with, rather than blanket renewals.

“Plain line pattern recognition is part of a wider strategy to use technology to improve the network and reduce our costs,” says Network Rail managing director of network operations Robin Gisby.

National rail monitoring equipment

Equppied: On board data storage

“By gaining greater knowledge about our infrastructure we will be able to free resources up to work on crucial parts of the network, such as the station throat at St Pancras, rather than rural branch lines that may not need it.

“It also means that when we do have to work on the branch line, we know what we are going to find.

“We can see issues emerging and go in and fix them before they become a problem.”

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