Optimising rail fleet and network maintenance. By Pareen Kapadia

Larger and more complex rail franchises are requiring operators to take on higher value financial risk, while facing declining profit margins. For new franchise bids, the government is expecting train operating companies (TOCs) to take on this additional risk while providing services at lower cost. Indeed, with the high cost of bidding for franchises – up to £10m in some cases – and the need for a substantial parent company guarantee, the financial pressures on operators are increasing. In this climate, TOCs are having to reconsider the way they work, and their use of technology, to try to reduce their costs.

From past experience, TOCs have recognised that short-term cost savings, such as reductions in manpower or fleet maintenance, can come back and bite them in the future – if you reduce maintenance today, it will cost exponentially more tomorrow. Instead, a better approach is to optimise the strategy used to maintain the fleet and network. However, there are a range of potential challenges to overcome to optimise maintenance activities. One key challenge for TOCs is to ensure that their maintenance activities are planned and scheduled effectively – poor planning will have a negative impact on train availability, resource requirement and overtime. Every operator will have an extensive list of daily, weekly and monthly checks that need to be undertaken on each train, and will need to perform medium- and longer-term cleaning, component replacement and overhaul major equipment. Poorly organised, these activities can result in additional costs, duplication of effort, over- or underutilisation of staff and other resource issues.

Manufacturers will offer a recommended maintenance regime for the fleet they supply. In practice however, because train usage varies from location to location and between different users, and with the need to respond to incidents that have occurred in service, the recommended maintenance regime rarely aligns with actual requirements. In certain situations, this will mean too-frequent maintenance – regular replacement of a component that never fails – at other times, too-little maintenance will mean parts are failing regularly. So, these regimes need to be amended and optimised for individual TOCs.

But modifying a regime, to make it bespoke to an individual TOC’s needs, frequently means introducing a new activity – such as an additional inspection, or a new maintenance procedure in response to an incident. Rather than slotting these into an appropriate place in the existing regime, these activities are often simply added to the end of the schedule. So, of course, as multiple activities are added to a train’s maintenance list over time, the regime becomes very inefficient. Frequent returns to the depot for very minor maintenance reduces train availability, affecting service and the number of passengers that can be carried. In turn, there is a knock-on effect on staffing resource: people are needed to move the trains to and from the depot, and to perform the maintenance.

Frazer-Nash Consultancy recently looked at the maintenance problems one of its rail sector client was facing. We first spent time going through the client’s entire maintenance regime, looking at each activity and which components were being maintained. We then drew similar activities together: so, for example, rather than maintaining a particular component five times a year, we grouped the work on this component so it was undertaken once a year instead. These groups of activities could then be scheduled alongside other appropriate maintenance, so three or four different bigger activities would be achieved within a similar timeframe. This increased train availability, as the train needed to return to the depot less frequently; lowered resource requirement by removing the duplication of activities on the same piece of equipment; and reduced the amount of time required for maintenance.

A key benefit of the analysis we undertook was in the optimisation of staffing resource. The addition of extra tasks to maintenance regimes had led to large peaks and troughs in the requirement for staff, resulting in a reliance on overtime. Our analysis packaged the work together in a way that ensured resource utilisation was constant throughout the year, reducing excessive demands on maintenance staff and overtime costs. Through multiskilling staff, a wider pool of resource was made available, increasing flexibility. Importantly, the optimisation of schedules avoided the need for reductions in staffing, with the net savings from reduced overtime and improved train performance more than able to balance out salary increases for staff upskilling.

Rather than simply making cuts to reduce costs, our analysis of TOC data and engineering expertise meant we were able to identify the specific technical changes that would have an impact, and to make achievable recommendations. Using a broad range of data sources – from resourcing sheets, depot organisation plans, and information on staff training levels; to existing maintenance regimes, task timescales and component failure data – we were able to work out if maintenance needed to increase or decrease to improve availability. We could also ensure that maintenance was targeted at the components which needed it most – those that were failing regularly.

We validated the new maintenance regime using our depot modelling tool, which simulates the movement of knowledge of depot managers and maintenance teams. We compared the current system with the proposed regime in our depot model, and were able to show the level of time-saving that would result and to ensure that resource allocation was appropriate.

Managing material assets
Materials usage is another major contributor to maintenance costs for TOCs. Asset management can be a key issue to address: knowing how many spares are available and how many are needed. Tracking usage using individual identifier barcodes, or similar, on each item can allow data to be gathered that identifies time of installation, mileage covered and failure frequency, meaning that pre-emptive replacement can be scheduled at an appropriate time during the maintenance regime – again increasing train availability. Understanding that materials usage links in with maintenance enables predictions to be made as to when components will be required. For example, using data to build knowledge of failure data – identifying how many failures in service could be expected in a year – can help ensure stock levels of components are optimised. However, it should also be considered if keeping components in stock is necessary. Many suppliers will be able to provide replacements overnight (or even more quickly). With some equipment becoming obsolete over time, TOCs also need to develop a strategy to manage end-of-life stock. Engineering analysis can help to identify if components will need replacement in the shorter- or longer-term, enabling strategic decisions to be made on procurement.

Through managing the maintenance element of their operations TOCs can achieve real cost savings – in one Frazer-Nash client’s case this was in the region of £1.6m a year – supporting them to keep moving forward despite challenging financial terrain.

Pareen Kapadia is a Consultant at Frazer- Nash Consultancy. Frazer-Nash’s consultants are applying their expertise and know-how to develop, enhance and protect clients’ critical assets, systems and processes. They are renowned for their work in the aerospace, transport, nuclear, marine, defence, power and energy sectors and our security, resilience, cyber and information technology expertise. The depth of Frazer-Nash’s knowledge base means it can transfer the skills, experience and best practice from one area to benefit clients in other fields. With over 700 employees, Frazer-Nash operates from a network of 12 UK and Australian offices.