Rail track beds can now be scanned at speed By Rosie Hardy

Whilst vital for safety reasons, track bed inspections can be a time-consuming and costly process. However, a patented invention is promising to speed up the process significantly.

In response to limited maintenance budgets and diminishing track access, Georgetown Rail Equipment Company (GREX) has developed several automated track inspection systems under the brand name Aurora®. Sales and awards demonstrate that these systems have been well received by the rail industry.

To secure its innovation, GREX has obtained patent protection for its track inspection systems. With the help of a family of patents, the technology is effectively ring fenced in numerous countries around the world including Europe, US, China and Canada.

One such patent, European Patent 1766329, protects an automated system for inspecting a rail track bed in the UK and certain other European countries. The European patent document describes how the system is mounted on a vehicle so it can travel along the railroad track, and includes lasers, cameras and a processor.

As shown in the Figure 2, the track bed is made up of crossties (10), rails (12) and interconnecting tie plates (14). The novel track inspection system uses lasers (40) to illuminate the railroad track POM 152 bbed and cameras (50) to generate images of its profile.

The GREX system also cleverly incorporates a band pass filter to ensure only reflected laser light is captured by the cameras. The processor uses specific algorithms to analyse the images generated by the cameras, and particularly the contours of the crossties and tie plates, to detect whether the tie plates are misaligned or sunken.

Since the lifespan of crossties and tie plates is limited, railroad track beds need to be inspected on a regular basis. With over 10,000 miles of rail track in the UK, managing their inspection and replacement is a significant task. Manual inspection methods are notoriously slow and expensive. Crews of three or four inspectors are only able to survey about five to seven miles of the track bed per day. Contrastingly, GREX’s automated system is able to scan cross-ties in a much more efficient and accurate manner, whilst travelling along the track at speeds of approximately 30 miles per hour.

Power of a patent
Patents have a life span of up to 20 years. This valuable monopoly gives the patent owner a period of exclusivity during which they can control the manufacture, sale, use and licensing of their innovation, and thereby establish a market. Without patent protection, competitors would be able to freely copy the innovation.

Indeed, GREX’s decision to obtain patent protection has already proved a wise move and has served the business well in a recent enforcement action. It has been widely reported how GREX used its US Patent 7616329 to stop competitor Holland L.P. from copying its track inspection system. The US District Court found that Holland willingly infringed the US Patent whilst competing with GREX for a major contract with Union Pacific. In 2016, the US District Court subsequently awarded GREX $1.5 million in lost profit damages, along with an additional $1 million in enhanced damages as well as a permanent injunction against Holland.

This award demonstrates the power of a patent. It can prevent copies of innovative products from reaching the market and eroding business profits.