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Asset management and the future of digital railways

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In an ideal world, railway operators would know the health of their rolling stock and infrastructure in order to optimise maintenance, avoid failures and improve reliability. Asset monitoring systems are becoming more widely available, and railways are investing in stand-alone systems such as measuring trains, on-board systems to report the health and status of components or entire vehicles, and devices to monitor the health of fixed assets such as switches. Such equipment generates huge amounts of data, but is the data being consolidated, analysed, and applied correctly – for example to examine the correlation between rates of inspection, failures, and the criticality of the asset?

In a white paper by Paul Barnes of Western Route Network Rail, published by ABB, the author examines the future of digital railways.

Railway operators are struggling to improve asset management, in part, because the systems that generate and store data are not connected – even though the capability exists.  According to Steven Hagner, Enterprise Software product group within ABB, railway operators already have many different systems generating and storing data: from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, to inspection documentation systems, to problem reporting and work order management systems, but they struggle to leverage all that data to improve both strategic and operational decision making.  He added that part of the reason for this is that these different systems have not been connected, even though capability to do this is becoming increasingly available, and that increasingly railway operators are starting to evaluate their options. Some have recognised that the best solution will be to acquire off-the-shelf software systems to support asset performance management (APM). The market for such solutions is evolving quickly, leveraging lessons learned in other industries.

In order to get a better understanding of where railway operators are in terms of developing asset management strategies, and whether convergence between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) is progressing in today’s digital world, ABB and Microsoft conducted a survey in February 2016 of senior railway managers and engineers, and railway equipment suppliers around the world.

70% of responses came from North America and Europe, with another 21% from Asia, reflecting the three main regions of railway activity. Around 200 people took part in this rail industry survey. Survey participants came from a wide range of disciplines. Around 15% each were engineers and operators, while planners and IT professionals accounted for roughly 12% each. Executives made up almost 10% of respondents, followed by maintenance and customer service personnel (around 5% each).

Asset management is growing in importance

When asked how important asset management is to their organizations compared with other business efforts, 55% indicated that it is a high priority and one-third a moderate priority, which means 88% of respondents believe it to be important. While only 2% regard asset management as unimportant. When operators consider predictive asset management as a priority, they start to realize improvements in reliability, enhanced stakeholder satisfaction.

An interesting outcome of the survey is that respondents had difficulty ranking the importance of key performance indicators such as improved safety, increased reliability, better use of capital, more efficient operations and maintenance, increased staff productivity, better visibility across the organisation, and improved long-term planning as benefits of IT-OT integration in relation to asset management. They also found it difficult to decide which factors would have the most impact in preventing such integration.

Transit operators (bus, metro, light rail and commuter rail) all have public safety as one of the main tenets of their organisational mission statements. This can be demonstrated by the recent one-day complete shutdown of the Washington DC Metro system so that fire hazard inspections could be conducted in every metro station.

So, does the future of digital railways hinge on the rise of asset management?

Bottom line

The survey was conducted to get a better understanding of where railway operators are in terms of developing asset management strategies, and whether convergence between IT and OT is progressing. In both of these areas, the responses showed that railway operators recognise the need to improve, but they struggle to find the best way to move forward.

Asset management continues to increase in importance and is impacting almost all parts of the operator. Cooperation between these organisations, however, needs to improve.

Identifying a common asset management strategy and sharing data between these organisations will be critical for railway operators as they enhance their asset management strategies and capabilities. The convergence of IT and OT, as well as many other technology approaches are known, but there is too little experience with them. Railway operators should work with experienced enterprise asset management partners to help understand both the high-level strategy as well as the details  of implementation of systems to be prepared for the next  wave of railway asset management.

Based on some of the trends that have been observed in the survey, Hagner has some ideas:

  • Get an asset management strategy in place – and make sure it’s based on the best practices of ISO 55000.
  • Survey the information that you can obtain from your systems and understand what insight you have already; from here rail information professionals can truly understand the opportunities for plugging in assets for deeper levels of analysis.
  • Identify what information your executives need in order to make better decisions. Understanding what might be impacting the agility or performance of the network will provide a route that teams can use quickly to chart new and successful courses.
  • Embrace technology, think about the opportunities that the cloud, mobility and the IoTSP can offer to complement innovative and future-looking strategies

Read the full article and outcome of the survey here:

Contact Paul Louw, ABB South Africa, Tel 010 202-5916,


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