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Railway industry automation languishes

A pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, the railway industry now languishes behind many other sectors.

Track Maintenance & Construction: Still in Search of It’s Place in the 4.0 World

On the 17th September 2018 the World Economic Forum made the prediction that “Machines will do more tasks than Humans by 2025…”. According to this report, within the next 6 years, 52% of all working hours will be done by robots. As a result, productivity in the affected industries has the potential to increase significantly.

Robotics in Track Maintenance

First laboratory tests of a track construction robot in the newly established Robel Technology Center in Freilassing, Germany © ROBEL Bahnbaumaschinen GmbH

Despite the predictions, little of this revolution can be detected in the railway sector. A pioneer of the Industrial Revolution, the railway industry now languishes behind many other sectors. There are applications of robotics in the field of bogie manufacture and wagon frame welding and initial experiments in the assembly of train components. In the maintenance of trains, attempts are under way to mechanise the process of waste water drainage with robots and also automate paint removal and cleaning processes. It is only in the field of train traffic control and operations that there has there been any serious and coordinated research and development into automated solutions.

Compared to the automotive industry, where robots have been in use for many years, to handle, drill, weld, cut and fasten, in the processes of construction, the railway sector has considerable catching up to do.

In track construction and infrastructure maintenance, virtually no robots are used. There are initial attempts in Japan to automate the cleaning of train stations. There are also larger track construction systems that are mechanised and digitised, although they still require a high level of manual set up, intervention and control. But in regards to spot track maintenance, work process are still almost entirely undertaken with hand guided machines.

The Challenge: Manpower Shortage and Reduction in Track Access Time

The industry faces two major challenges in the next decade. Firstly, a demographic change, especially in Europe and Japan, is starting to lead to a significant workforce shortage. Network operators predict that up to 50% of track maintenance staff will retire over the next eight years. Recruitment is proving increasingly difficult: Fewer and fewer people want to work on the railway infrastructure, in potentially dangerous conditions, all hours of the day and night, in all weathers and at unsocial times over a weekend and at public holidays.

The second factor is one of diminishing track access time to do maintenance work. With greater demand to run more passenger and freight services the inevitable result is shorter possession times. The challenge therefore is to deliver fast, efficient and reliable maintenance work with as little manual intervention as possible.

With thanks, Railway News.

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