The JSE-listed Etion is lobbying for the formation of an independent information and maintenance house, which will manage the maintenance and information of the condition monitoring systems at most of South Africa’s freight rail operations.
These systems, which serve to keep trains on the track and support the optimal utilisation of railway assets, include systems such as train wheel profiling monitoring, wheel impact monitoring and hot bearing detector systems.
Traditionally, condition monitoring suppliers are only responsible for providing the equipment and honouring the warranty. Second- and third-line repair and calibration are done on an ad-hoc basis.
“I have lobbied with most of the monitoring equipment suppliers in the local industry – there are more than ten suppliers of different equipment in the market – to form this independent house,” says Etion chief technology officer Dr Bennie Steyn.
“The plan is for railway owners and operators, such as Transnet, to then only buy the operational information and dashboards, necessary for operating their businesses, from this house. The house, on the other hand, should buy the measurement data from the measurement system suppliers against a service level agreement.”
“We envisage that all participating monitoring equipment suppliers and operators, such as Transnet, will own shares in this independent company.”
In the end, the formation of the house means that suppliers will install, operate and maintain the condition monitoring equipment on railway lines, in trains, and at depots and stations, to ensure the required availability, reliability and accuracy of the data.
“This means the railway operator can focus on running and maintaining its own assets,” explains Steyn.
Although first-line maintenance could still be performed by the railway operators, the main drive behind the formation of the independent house is that the maintenance and calibration of condition monitoring systems becomes the responsibility of the suppliers, because of the complexity of the systems.
“Some of this equipment uses similar technology as the Hubble Telescope. Sometimes it seems as if the equipment performance is poor, but it’s not. Maintenance of these sophisticated systems is, generally speaking, not at the level it should be,” says Steyn.
Also, often the equipment is thinly dispersed and in remote locations, not necessarily justifying the full-time services of a specialist technician.
The emerging challenge is that the Fourth Industrial Revolution will deliver an increasing number of sensors and equipment in need of maintenance, says Steyn. This will also mean an ever-faster growing body of data on the railways, and even more equipment diversity.
“How would the railway operator maintain all these systems? How will it manage sustainable information distribution?” asks Steyn. “This is where an independent company, safeguarding data integrity, can provide the answer. It can transform the data into the relevant operational information and can provide the right information to the right person at the right time.”
Transnet has, earlier this year, put out a tender for measurement systems, as well as maintenance proposals.
“We plan to pitch this idea of an independent house to Transnet,” says Steyn.
“We think it can be a win-win situation. Transnet no longer needs experts in maintenance, or to deal with large numbers of condition monitoring suppliers, but can, instead, focus on their core capabilities. This means they’ll be able to increasingly sweat their assets.”