How IoT is Helping Keep Railways Running Smoothly

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Learn how connecting railways to the Internet of Things enhances the overall efficiency, safety, and sustainability of railway systems, contributing to a more connected and intelligent transportation infrastructure and enhancing the customer experience.

As the global demand for efficient and optimal transportation intensifies, the railway industry is looking for technology solutions to keep up with the market’s needs.

However, that’s easier said than done because of the tough environments, poor connectivity for field workers, and reliance on legacy systems that make it difficult to integrate with the latest technology, says Mike McMahon, President, Getac North America, a computer hardware manufacturer.

Enter the Internet of Things (IoT).

“IoT can help mitigate these challenges by [enabling railway operations] to deploy a solution that combines rugged mobile devices with the latest connectivity and network technology with configured software that addresses specific needs of railway management,” he says.

This allows railway professionals to respond rapidly to requests and incidents, and it enables them to have more control over the activities of their employees via such applications as alerts, time tracking, and planned maintenance, according to McMahon.

“The technology and enhanced connectivity also ensure access to data and core systems in real-time, providing crucial visibility across a rail network,” he says.

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McMahon offers an example from Rail IQ, a company that provides a full lifecycle management system for rail-owned repair shops and depots that are scattered across tens of thousands of miles of track throughout North America.

“When coupled with rugged technology and devices, Rail IQ allows repair technicians to quickly scan automatic equipment identification tags and load specific freight car data — local and industrywide — that helps keep railroads working efficiently and safely,” he says.

Predictive Maintenance Keeps Trains Running on Time

To plan out their maintenance schedules and uncover any potential issues that could cause delays or even derailments, IoT-powered railway companies can deploy sensors on tracks and trains to monitor key metrics, such as temperature, vibration levels, wear and tear, speed, etc., says Ian Itz, director of the global IoT line of business at Iridium Communications, a satellite communication company.

“Coupling that with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), railway companies can be extremely accurate with their predictive maintenance and ensure that their fleets are operating at peak efficiency wherever they may be going,” he says.

Norfolk Southern has deployed modern technology and infrastructure that integrates IoT devices, artificial intelligence, and deep learning capabilities to build a safe, resilient, customer-centric, and operations-driven service organization, says Mabby Amouie, assistant vice-president, enterprise data and analytics at Norfolk Southern.

Norfolk Southern locomotives transmit more than 350 diagnostic elements from IoT devices in real-time, and this data is stored in the data lake for real-time and historical reporting, he says.

“Utilizing this data, [Norfolk Southern] has developed AI-based predictive models capable of detecting mission-critical breakdown events on average a week in advance with a high degree of confidence,” Amouie says.

“This provides mechanical crews and locomotive shops full visibility to locomotive health, while giving them enough lead time to address any issues and prevent them before they adversely impact the operations.”

Digitizing and Connecting Switches to IoT

The rail industry is embracing IoT with open arms and on multiple fronts, says Giuseppe Incitti, CEO, Sitetracker, a global software platform. The good news for railways, shippers, and passengers is that this revolution in rail is just getting started.

“Railways are digitizing switches and connecting them to the Internet of Things, enabling railways to boost their reliability and capacity and operate more cost efficiently,” Incitti says.

Railways connect switches to the Internet for a number of reasons. For example, IoT-enabled systems can constantly monitor the condition of switches, signals, and tracks to ensure they’re operating properly. If there are any issues, the system alerts railway operators in real-time so they can react quickly, preventing delays or accidents.

In addition, IoT connectivity allows railways to collect data from switches and other equipment and analyze that data so they can operate more efficiently, improve train schedules, and boost system performance.

Increasingly, railway companies worldwide are embracing deployment operations management to increase installation times and improve the maintenance of their IoT and AI-driven switches, Incitti adds.

Implementing deployment operations management software helps railways do away with numerous heterogeneous tracking tools and mobile apps so they can more easily roll out, manage, and implement thousands of IoT-connected rail switches, Incitti explains.

“Deployment operations management aids the IoT rollout,” he says. “You can have the greatest IoT rail systems in the world, but you’ve still got to efficiently roll them out by the thousands and then maintain the devices in the field if they’re going to help you deliver better, safer, more efficient rail service at a lower cost.”

Dynamic Route Scheduling

Railways also use IoT for dynamic route scheduling, which enables them to optimize train operations, enhance safety, and offer more punctual and reliable service to freight customers and commuters, Itz says.

One of the most popular approaches is to deploy wireless monitoring systems that can send data to railway operations centers in real-time.

Railways can use this data to monitor the flow of commuters who are waiting at stations, for example, as well as the times when the flow of passengers is highest. This data can help railways efficiently schedule trains to meet the behaviors of passengers.

“This allows for real-time adjustments in terms of traffic and having connectivity all the time, either using terrestrial-based systems or satellite networks,” Itz says.

This enables the trains to arrive at their destinations on time, avoiding costly delays resulting from detours or unscheduled stops and ensuring safe interactions between trains, he adds.

“The trains can autonomously provide their whereabouts to a central system, which can provide updates to passengers,” Itz says.

“This enhances the customer experience and makes travel a little more enjoyable. And if there are any problems, freight trains can offload their cargo at different sites and then load that cargo onto different trains.”

Monitoring Air Quality

IoT also plays a significant role in monitoring air quality on railways. By deploying IoT-based air quality monitoring systems on railway equipment, operators can gain better insights into environmental conditions, ensure passenger safety, and contribute to sustainable and eco-friendly transportation practices.

“For example, you could have air quality sensors next to the tracks measuring the emissions of the trains as they go by,” Itz says.

“The sensors would pass that information, either over the terrestrial or satellite network, which is then distributed back down to the environmental agency monitoring air quality or the train operators as part of their reporting and analysis of the impact on the environment.”

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Linda Rosencrance
Technology journalist
Linda Rosencrance
Technology journalist

Linda Rosencrance is a freelance writer and editor based in the Boston area, with expertise ranging from AI and machine learning to cybersecurity and DevOps. She has been covering IT topics since 1999 as an investigative reporter working for several newspapers in the Boston metro area. Before joining Techopedia in 2022, her articles have appeared in TechTarget, MSDynamicsworld.com, TechBeacon, IoT World Today, Computerworld, CIO magazine, and many other publications. She also writes white papers, case studies, ebooks, and blog posts for many corporate clients, interviewing key players, including CIOs, CISOs, and other C-suite execs.