Maintaining and improving rail networks is a constant challenge for transport agencies around the world. Many governing bodies are raising the bar for health and safety standards, and there’s international pressure on rail networks to advance technologically.
Many transport agencies and infrastructure managers around the world are meeting expectations by carrying out non-contact monitoring of railways assets with laser scanning equipment. With laser scanning systems, such as LiDAR, organizations can collect valuable information from railways and create a digital model representing the scanned infrastructure and surrounding environment. These detailed datasets and realistic models then monitor the condition of rail infrastructure to estimate when maintenance should occur. The data can also identify, trial, and enable development possibilities.
To demonstrate exactly how LiDAR is playing a role in the development of rail infrastructure, we took a look at how five countries with leading rail networks are using laser scanning technology.
Banedanmark, the company responsible for managing Denmark’s public railway infrastructure, announced last year they would be working with Fugro to carry out LiDAR surveys of Denmark’s railway networks. The laser scanning is due to take place over four years. By the end of the four years, Fugro will have a full capture of Denmark’s public rail networks.
Banedanmark plans to use the resulting data and “digital twin” of the rail network to improve the safety and timeliness of railways. The data will play an important role in maintenance, asset management, and landscaping (to prevent transport corridor encroachment). The digital model will also help to plan developments. Detailed designs can be created and trialed using the digital twin of the rail network, and in the words of Charlotte Lomholt, Banedanmark’s project manager, the laser scanning project “will help create the railway of the future.”
In 2014, SNCF, a French railway company, commissioned surveyors FIT ESIC to capture data from hundreds of kilometers of the French rail network. The laser surveying systems, developed by 3D Laser Mapping, Britain, were mounted on trains and used to capture information from many kilometers of railway in a short space of time.
Using a vehicle-mounted LiDAR system, FIT ESIC was able to limit the number of on-site surveyors — only a few surveyors were needed to survey hidden objects and features, such as engineering structures hidden beneath the track. The captured data is still assisting maintenance schedules and helping analyze the French rail infrastructure to enhance the rail network and electrify railway lines. SNCF has also since announced that LiDAR sensors may help in the development of autonomous trains.
Until recently, India’s Central Railway surveyed rail networks using manual methods. Surveyors needed to be on-site to gather information, meaning teams would be working in high-risk environments. Because of the high levels of human involvement, staff casualties were common.
But last year, the Central Railway zone of Indian Railways announced they would attach LiDAR sensors to the tops of railway cars. These sensors capture data from tracks, transport corridors, and the surrounding environment without the need for on-site teams or line closures. Data is collected as trains travel designated routes.
With point cloud data software, the information collected by the sensors develops 3D digital models of certain sections. The systems also alert railway officials of any track faults.
Using these models, surveying teams can quickly identify track faults, transport corridor encroachment, and analyze the condition of rail assets. Track faults and encroaching vegetation may pose risks of collision or derailment, but identifying these hazards quickly means infrastructure managers can organize an immediate response.
As well as using laser scanning technology to survey rail networks, the China Railway Construction Corporation has used LiDAR to create the world’s first driverless ART (Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit).
This futuristic rail network opened to passengers for the first time in December 2019, in Yibin, China, after two years of testing. Rather than running on steel tracks, the ART has rubber wheels and runs on virtual tracks. The “tracks” are mapped out with painted white lines on the road, and the trains use LiDAR and GPS systems to determine the dimensions of the road, detect obstacles, and navigate from stop to stop.
The autonomous rail system eliminates the need for both drivers and steel tracks, meaning transport agencies can save money on railway construction and staffing costs. Rather than hiring a driver, the train will simply need an operator on-board in case of an emergency or system failure.
5: United Kingdom
Rail networks across the UK, including the new Crossrail railway line, use LiDAR systems to survey rail corridors and prevent objects from interfering with rail services.
Obstacles on the track are a major concern for rail operators in any country, but in the UK, leaves and branches falling on tracks disrupt rail services, cause huge delays and cost railways millions every year. With many UK railways passing through rural locations with dense forestry and vegetation, foliage on the tracks is hard to avoid. However, some networks are using LiDAR systems as a solution. With LiDAR technology, heat maps of the trees and vegetation surrounding rail lines are created, allowing transport agencies to effectively target vegetation control efforts to problematic areas.