Telemanagement: Integrating remote monitoring and planning via a manufacturer-neutral software suite could improve the efficiency of both fleet maintenance and refurbishment.

By Nick Kingsley: It is hardly news to suggest that, in Europe at least, public-sector budgets for transport investment are likely to be significantly constrained for many years to come, even as most countries start to rebound from the recent financial crisis.

For railway operators, ‘doing more with less’ has become an oft-repeated mantra, and in the rolling stock field this has led to considerable focus on optimising maintenance techniques, both to reduce costs and improve availability. The gradual shift from traditional distance or period-based maintenance regimes towards a predictive and/or condition-based methodology has been underway for a number of years. This trend has driven some operators to invest in enhanced data capture and analysis tools to support a ‘telemaintenance’ approach where components report their status and alert depot teams of a risk of failure.

Train manufacturers themselves have been seeking to offer their customers an integrated package when they buy new vehicles – examples include Alstrom Transport’s Traintracer and Bombardier’s Orbita platforms. But in Portugal, a decade and more of research has paved the way for a concept branded ‘telemanagement’ by its creators, the EMEF subsidiary of national railway CP and Nomad Digital. As we reported last month, EMEF and its long-standing technology supplier Nomad Digital, have set up to develop and commercialise the concept on the international market.

Get the data you want

EMEF is CP’s 1200-strong maintenance business, and it has been exploring condition-based maintenance techniques for several years, starting in 2003 with the Alfa Pendular tilting train sets but now encompassing a wide range of EMUs and locomotives. With large-scale procurement of new rolling stock out of the question, and under pressure to reduce the overheads of its ongoing operations, CP turned to a team of around 12 EMEF staff within its innovation team in a bid to develop ‘supplier-neutral’ diagnostic systems suited to a legacy fleet of trains dating back approximately 10 to 30 years. It is the EMEF innovation team which now makes up the bulk of the Nomad Tech staff, and the joint venture has its headquarters at Contumil depot in Porto.

‘We’ve worked together for more than two years now; EMEF doing the condition maintenance work and Nomad Digital providing the train-to-shore communications platform,’ reports Jay Saw, Chief Commercial Officer at Nomad Digital. ‘The market is evolving very rapidly and there is a huge demand for what we term the “connected train” philosophy’ he adds, noting that the market has gone ‘so far beyond simple modems or basic passenger wi-fi it’s untrue’, Indeed, Nomad’s internal research puts the potential value of the global telemaintenance market at £5bn per annum.

‘Essentially what we offer railway operators is a means to use technology to answer some tricky questions – for example, how do you remotely access, interpret and analyse the output from OTMR unit?’ Saw adds.

Nomad Digital believes that the major suppliers ‘have failed to address the market adequately, which is understandable given that their main priority, in my opinion, is to sell new vehicles’, he continues. ‘But what many operators find is that even when they have new vehicles, the complexity of the on-board systems is astonishing, and they struggle to extract the data they need to truly optimise their maintenance methods’, Saw explains. ‘The suppliers will help, especially for the first few years when the train is under warranty. But often the operators still complain that they can’t get the diagnostic data they want, even if the supplier’s remote monitoring equipment is fitted. Then you see providers like Nomad Tech coming in to offer bespoke help.’

Beyond the OEMs

Nomad Tech reports that its condition-based maintenance techniques have delivered a 20% gain in availability and a 30% improvement in reliability. ’That’s proven. We know we can do that,’ insists Costa Franco, General Manager at Nomad Tech. But central to the joint venture’s bullish outlook is the adaptability of its tools to differing fleets, manufacturers and operating environments. ‘The difference is that we are all from a maintenance background. We know railways, we speak railways, and we know what depot staff want from their IT systems. Nobody wants only data – you want information that you can act upon, changing your maintenance regime for a given train accordingly’.

Among the core objectives of telemanagement is to improve understanding of component behaviour. ‘The major suppliers are generally systems integrators’, Franco notes. ‘So when a new train needs a pump, they buy one. But the pump supplier doesn’t know the operating conditions the pump will face – the temperature, the level of redundancy, the vehicle’s dynamic behaviour and so on.’ Nomad Tech’s interface is intended to retrieve condition data that would enable the performance of such a component to be modelled over time, and the maintenance checks adjusted accordingly.

But Franco stresses that the telemanagement concept goes beyond the interpretation of data broadcast from the train back to the depot. ‘We aim to complete the circle – including interaction with an existing computer-based management system, which many operators have today,’ he notes. ‘Our tools are application-neutral, so they can interact with SAP or Orbita to alert the team that a component is about to fail, how urgent any remedial action might be.’ Together, the telemanagement tools and CMMS can then schedule resources, parts and labour to fix the fault.

‘We extract complete data using bespoke software that can talk to any OEM’s native train management system,’ Franco explains, adding that the output data can be accessed in a ‘simple format’ via a PC or using a pre-existing back office platform.