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Rise of the Machines? Rail plant technology and the future of engineering works

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Picture the railway of tomorrow and dozens of ideas and innovations come to mind: driverless trains, digital tickets, predictive maintenance, passenger crowd control technology and railways that not only operate at higher speeds but at a higher capacity.

But try and picture what future engineering works will look like and it is not so easy to visualise.

Remote control

Technological advances have seen some exciting developments in rail plant; the excavators, dozers, rail grinders and tampers which perform jobs that previously required significant manpower.

Take remote compactors, for example. Manual handling was once the only option for operating ballast compacting machines but, thanks to infrared technology, that has changed and users can now operate the machine remotely.

Prolonged manual use of compactors can lead to hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS), which can cause bone, muscle, joint and sensory nerve problems. There are also risks related to the dust and loud noise generated through compacting. All of these are reduced by remote-controlled operation.

There is also the Rail Robot from QTS Group, which is capable of carrying up to 15 tonnes of track when operated in tandem. These heavy lifters reduce labour requirements and are operated either through hard wire or remote control, once more reducing the associated health and safety risks.

These remote-controlled machines not only minimise the risk present through manual labour but they put a greater distance between the operator and the operational railway, reducing their exposure to its dangers.

QTS Group's 'Rail Robot'
QTS Group’s ‘Rail Robot’

Bolt-on tech

But, as VolkerRail plant director Mark Jackson explains, the sight of robots performing engineering works semi-autonomously or by remote control is not yet commonplace on our railways.

“We’ve all grown up expecting to see futuristic changes, to see the machines of the future looking differently, to see that they’ve physically, hydraulically and mechanically evolved,” says Mark, who joined the company’s plant division in 2008. “What I’m learning is that our machines still don’t actually look very different on the surface; the advancement has really come through more subtle electronic changes, mirroring the evolution we’ve seen with our cars.”

While there has been a shift from a heavy civil and labour intensive environment to one which is increasingly mechanised and automated, a lot of this is down to what can be described as ‘bolt-on’ systems, which either operate around or are installed on plant, equipment and machinery to increase safety or capability.

Electronic and mechanical movement limiting devices (MLD) are one example. This technology is fitted to mobile plant and sets safe parameters – almost like invisible barriers – around equipment, which it is unable to pass through.

HAV watches are another. Worn by machine operatives, they have saved time by removing the need for workers to write down every machine they have used and calculate how much harm they have been exposed to.

“With the largest machinery, noticeable change can seem quite slow and a lot of that is down to the fact the investment cycle is long,” said Mark. “It’s not like a car which is in its prime for four years. Some of the big plant will still perform well throughout a 20-year life, so with these we are innovating in 20-year replacement cycles. Big changes take a while.

“At a smaller scale, automated data collection is quite a revolution for us; using vibration, speed, time and other logged data streams to reduce the risks to our staff, inform people and change behaviours. As an industry, we’ve perhaps not been great at writing everything down and learning from data, seeing the patterns in the information. I think that’s an area where automation can make a big, tangible difference.”

It’s not just the cost of plant and the long return on investment which is an obstacle, cyber security, and the need to ensure systems are safe and can fail safe, is another.


Two Network Rail engineers that live and breathe new plant technology are Femi Okeya, principal plant, traction and rolling stock engineer, and Ian Morgan, principal engineer in plant engineering.

Femi said that a programme for retrofitting MLDs has taken place over the past five years. He added that while some of the manual handled equipment has been semi-automated, the need for it to be transported and the necessary level of skill to use it present a challenge to advancing it further.

With increasing demands for network capacity, the pair are working to a 25-year road map supported with challenge statements to see even more innovation introduced to rail plant. In Control Period 6 (2019-2024), Network Rail is looking for technological solutions that reduce the risk of plant strikes – when plant collides with plant, people or infrastructure – specifically through reducing or eliminating the risk of human error.

Not only are plant strikes costly in terms of time and financial loss, they also impact passengers and cause harmful reputational damage, which has led to Network Rail identifying it as a specific business obstacle. To raise industry awareness of the issue and promote research and development into new ideas and technologies to tackle them, Network Rail has issued a challenge statement specifically on plant strikes.

Femi said: “We have a duty to make sure that we understand areas that we can improve and innovate. We also need to keep up with innovation outside of our sphere because there may be opportunities to introduce ideas to improve efficiency.”

Ultimately, Network Rail’s goal is to enable and support the cost-effective and quick introduction of adjustable bolt-on systems that can be fitted to any item of plant to automatically detect and control a machine’s movements. It also wants to encourage the development of remote control systems to remove operators from machine cabs and reduce risk where possible.

Ian said that with the introduction of any new technology there may be initial resistance, but that “once the benefits are realised, that whole challenge of implementing it becomes easier.”

Robots at work

Nick Ground is the founder of GKD Technologies, which has provided systems designed to safeguard people and plant in the rail industry since 2004. He says that it is difficult to introduce automation and robots to railway plant operations because of the number of variables, as well as safety, that has to be considered. He does, however, believe that one day that time will come, but not anytime soon.

He added: “If you are in a factory and you send a robot out to collect something, that item is going to be exactly where you expect it to be, it is going to be absolutely accessible whether it is by a robot stacker or an autonomous device that runs around the factory floor.

“In the rail industry, you are dealing with so many uncontrolled variables. A robot turns up to drop a pallet off but finds that a tree has fallen, does it drop the pallet six feet to the left or abort? When the next robot comes along and the pallet is not where it is expected, what happens next? I’m a real techie and I would love to see it all coming, but it will take a bit of time and a lot of process change. We’re talking decades, at least.”

But not everyone agrees. Mark Jackson added: “I think ‘robots’ is a good analogy of what our future is not. If you think of a car factory, the manufacturers have literally replaced humans with robots. I think the way our industry is working is so much more about using the technology to assist, protect and educate people, not to replace them.”

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