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A recent interview with Robert Cook, Head of Strategic Projects at the Office for Rail and Road (ORR) in the UK, highlighted just how challenging monitoring and maintaining the health of rail infrastructure is. Cook highlighted that repair works and upgrades to the rail infrastructure can be “monolithic tasks that can require years of work across miles of ground and involve numerous different companies and shareholders”.

Of course, that does not make maintenance and upgrade work any less essential. In fact, Cook stated clearly that “asset sustainability has been a really big risk” for rail infrastructure in the UK and that “the long-term cost of keeping it in a steady state was going up”. Indeed, recent data from the ORR showed that payments from Network Rail – the owner and manager of the UK’s rail infrastructure – to train operators for planned and unplanned disruption rose by £52m in 2017/18, totalling £439m for the year.

It’s not just the UK. Planned and unplanned maintenance is a huge cost for rail operators around the world. However, while specialised devices have enabled a certain level of rail monitoring, these devices are limited operationally – generally offering monitoring at a single fixed location. As such, DAS is a technology that has promised significant gains when it comes to optimising rail maintenance processes and delivering cost savings to operators.

Interestingly the capabilities of DAS in rail applications have moved on quickly. At a recent event, hosted by Frauscher, a number of operators offered their insights on the results they have achieved with DAS systems.

For example, the Austrian rail operator ÖBB described how it has used DAS to aid the detection and location of flashover events in the overhead catenary cables.

In 2016 ÖBB recorded nearly 4,000 short-circuits across its 8,100km network. Whereas conventional technologies cannot accurately detect the location of the short circuit, research with DAS has shown that using an optical fibre installed parallel to the line, shorts can be pinpointed to within 10 metres – even when a train is passing. This has the potential to dramatically accelerate repairs, and therefore minimise passenger delays, in what is a regular source of disruption.

Another example of the value of DAS came from South America, where rail conditions can often be poor – especially where the rail infrastructure is used to support the mining industry. However, a local operator established that DAS can detect a large range of faults including loose sleepers, loose track ties, rail squat and rail break.

The initial push for DAS in the rail sector was entirely focused on train tracking and detecting rail break. However, the progress made in the last few years has exceeded even our own expectations for the technology. As the examples above demonstrate, DAS can now deliver a much more all-encompassing level of rail monitoring – identifying a range of failures and enabling more strategic, smaller, ongoing, and more proactive maintenance, rather than only knowing there is a problem when something major fails.

These advances have been made possible by our own technical developments. Innovations like our Helios Theta platform offer exceptional high resolution monitoring – being able to identify faults to specific bogies on a train for example – but crucially this high resolution monitoring can cover over a range of 40km. For large scale infrastructure like railways, this extended range is a game changer.

These technical advances are making a compelling case for the broader adoption of DAS – and it is poised to make a huge impact in the coming years. Operators around the world are proactively identifying priority applications for the technology and a new industry body (FOS4R – Fibre Optic Sensing for Rail) created by operators will help promote the benefits further. Having gone far beyond its original purpose, DAS will soon be a big part of delivering better railways, more efficiently and with less passenger disruption. A true win-win for the industry and passengers.