Predicting future track quality. By Rosie Hardy

Predicting future track quality has never been an easy process and conventional forecasting techniques can be limited and inconsistent. The Institute of Rail Research (IRR) at The University of Huddersfield has been leading research to find a solution to this problem.

The IRR has a respected reputation in the field of rail engineering and risk, and whilst researching how rail vehicles interact with the track it has developed a number of predictive tools and POTM 151techniques to increase safety and reliability. International Patent Application WO 2017/055838 describes one particular system and method for predicting the quality of a section of railway track.

The International Patent Application explains how maintenance engineers find it difficult to accurately monitor track alignment. It seems that the comparative approach using the standard deviation of vertical and lateral alignment every 200m section of railway track is unable to provide a reliable prediction of future track quality or identify the durability of tamping.

To improve the prediction process, IRR uses track geometry measuring devices to obtain sets of quality data as they travel along a section of railway track on different dates. With a computer processor, the variance-based values corresponding to at least one data channel for each of the data sets is calculated (step 220) and the degradation rates are determined by comparing these measurements over a period of time (step 225). From the degradation rates, the computer processor is able to identify if tamping has occurred on the section of railway track (step 230). Multiple degradation rates associated with different dates are then selected to determine a quality estimate/settlement rate (step 235). From the quality estimate, the track quality can be predicted (step 240) and sent to the user (step 245). (See flow chart on right – reproduced from the Patent Application).

Given the commercial opportunities for this predictive tool, IRR is right to have sought patent protection. Moreover, by using the flexible and cost-efficient International Patent Application process, the Institute is able to selectively acquire patent protection in countries around the world. It is also worth noting that this International Patent Application describes the predictive tool as a ‘computer system’ and a ‘computer implemented method’, and this should help to dispel the myth that computer-based inventions with technical outcomes cannot be protected by patents.

If the International Patent Application is successful and patents are granted, then the patents will allow IRR a period of exclusivity lasting up to 20 years to capitalise on its predictive tool. By taking this approach, the patents will enable IRR to transform its research and development programme into commercial gain.