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It is widely accepted that track inspections need to be speeded up. Steve Turner reports on how one contractor is developing the technology to do just that.

Balfour Beatty is just about ready to introduce the latest 'Big Brother' track inspection technology, the Asset Inspection 2000 system.

AI2000 consists of five cameras linked to five video recorders, all mounted on a coach capable of travelling at 160km/h. On completion of the monitoring journey the tapes are taken to a control centre, where they are correlated to track geometry recordings made with technology that has been available for some time.

Balfour Beatty engineering project manager Malcolm Pearce explains: ' The benefit of this system is not the actual pictures, but the distance-linked correlation established between the pictures and the geometry recordings.'

On their own, geometry readings can only show that one of the track characteristics is outside its allowable parameters.

No indication is given to the operator as to how to evaluate or prioritise the problem.

With the new system the operator, who sits in front of a bank of TV screens, can be alerted to a problem by one of the geometry traces and then instantly view the location of the problem from one of five angles. The cameras, which take 25 frames a second, are set to look where an experienced inspector would look if manually evaluating the track.

The system was developed following rail privatisation because many experienced personnel left the industry.

With train speeds and numbers rising, the amount of meaningful time inspectors can spend on the track is decreasing, making manual inspections more difficult. The new system also takes away the human factor: in practice, inspectors sometimes gave different interpretations of a problem, especially in difficult locations like tunnels or during bad weather.

Two 1,500W floodlights help the new inspection coach cope with the darkness of tunnels.

The coach is also unaffected by cold and damp.

AI2000 links in with two other systems in use at Balfour Beatty, the minicom infrastructure management system, (MIMS), and the ECOTRACK system.

AI2000 locates any problems and prioritises them. The information is then fed into MIMS, which collects data from other areas of the company and produces a work schedule. ECOTRACK then analyses the data and, from the trends produced, tells Balfour Beatty where to concentrate resources.

Pearce goes on: 'The three systems combined now allow us to make an objective rather than a subjective decision. The system analyses data on a level playing field, rather than relying on a number of people's competence.'

Video recording with a distance correlation breakthrough was a joint venture between Balfour Beatty and Serco. What Pearce describes as a 'great deal of money' has been invested by both companies and Railtrack.

Savings will be realised over the next 18 months but as Pearce goes on to explain: 'The priority is not financial, but to maintain quality standards.'

Inspection vehicles in use at present are used by both Railtrack and maintenance contractors. With the recent announcements that it is preferred bidder on a number of contracts Balfour Beatty is now looking to hire similar vehicles exclusively for its own use.

On the spot

Full name: Malcolm Pearce Age: 60 Qualifications: IEng AMICE Company: Balfour Beatty Rail Current job: Engineering project manager, strategic development group.

Best thing about the job: The opportunity to be able to develop innovative methodology, plant and equipment for permanent way maintenance and renewal work and actually see the innovation implemented.

Worst thing about the job: The competitive nature of the railway industry in the UK does not encourage joint development of innovation by contractors.

Most useful lesson learnt as an engineer: Be open to comment and suggestion from everyone involved, so that they feel part of the overall decision making process - their contribution matters if the project is to be successful.

Advice to young engineers just starting out: Take time to recognise personal strengths and attributes before committing to a specialist discipline.

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