How the IoT is helping trains run on time

An Australian technology minnow is turning heads here and around the world with one of the first examples of internet of things (IoT) technology that can improve train travel efficiency and safety, writes Sam Murden.

The system, called the Pantograph Collision Detection System (PCDS), is designed to help network operators locate failures in overhead wiring systems rapidly and at lower cost that the current methods they use.

As a result, it could also vastly minimise service delays. Australian Rail Technology (ART), a rail industry supplier based in Sydney’s north, developed the GPS-based system with $15,000 grant from the NSW government. Inventor and ART principal Garry Lougher said that trials of the system on five trains with Sydney Trains had gone well, had been expanded interstate and that some interest was coming in from overseas rail operators.

“We’ve got them going onto Queensland trains, we’ve got them going onto Gold Coast light rail and we’ve also done a considerable amount of development post the prototype phase,” Lougher said.

The idea for the PCDS project was born from an equipment supply contract with Sydney Trains. It had been having trouble locating failures in its complex high-voltage overhead wiring networks, which damage the pantograph units that collect power for the trains. Finding them was generally expensive, difficult and had the potential to cause painful service disruptions.

“The reason that we look at the condition of this equipment is because in the event of failure, if it gets out of geometry or it breaks and cracks, and a piece falls off then consequences can be quite disastrous -at worst an overhead de-wiring occurring, which means that there are trains out of service for many, many hours and disruptions to the entire network,”  Lougher said.

These could happen once every couple of days and may be the work of vandals, Mr Lougher said. According to Lougher, train network operators had been using crude methods of pinpointing such faults by “smashing up rains” overhead pantographs until it became clear where they were.
ART came up with a technique which involved putting its detection system, fitted with GPS locators, on a smaller number of trains and other data collection equipment, cutting back the cost and time involved in spotting problems.

“They thought that was a good idea and that’s how we came up with the PCDS,”  Lougher explained. “So, now that we’re learning about the data and we’re comfortable with what we’re looking at, we’re also working on a web-based solution where the data is fired off to a server periodically to be collected and people can look at it on Google Maps, and we can send out text messages and emails to (operators) and offer a richer user experience,” Lougher said.

NSW Minister for Industry, Resources and Energy, Anthony Roberts, said the successful trials of the PCDS once again showed that NSW was on the right track in helping technology companies produce innovation that improves business safety and efficiency.

“This is a fantastic example of NSW innovation in action and it’s great to hear that this prototype technology — supported with NSW Government funding — is getting traction not just in NSW but in other markets,” Roberts said.

“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’ve had some interest from some train builders overseas and we’ve had interest from other authorities overseas in New Zealand and Hong Kong as well,” he said.

However, Lougher concedes that there could still be some challenges keeping the PCDS as low cost as originally envisaged, as it needs to be customised by type of train.

Also marketing challenges have proved to be more onerous than expected. Sydney Trains has been a  “difficult beast’ to deal with, he said, nervous about offering publicity assistance for fear of creating a perception that its public trains are facing a major safety issue.

“They thought it was just better to keep quiet,” he said.

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