Prioritized, Predictive Rail Maintenance with Tensar Monitoring Solution

by Mike Misitigh, on February 03, 2022

Freight railroads spend $25 billion a year on capital and maintenance expenses and maintaining the integrity of rail lines is no small part of that. With the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, that number is likely to rise in the coming years. Efficiently handling line maintenance – balancing cost and risk-management – depends on an operations team’s ability to predict and prioritize the track sections that are in most immediate need. Doing that right requires timely data from the front lines.

businessman hand working with modern technology digital tablet computer and graphics layer effect as business strategy conceptThe Big Data revolution, fueled by Internet of Things (IoT) technology, has been sweeping US industries for several years. The earliest adopters – from manufacturing plants to oil fields - are now reaping significant returns in efficiency, safety, and profitability. In particular, the digitization of infrastructure is on an accelerated pace but not all sectors are equally advanced. While the rail industry embraced automatic equipment identification (AEI) in the 90s to track equipment en route, presaging the IoT revolution by decades, it has been behind the curve when it comes to measuring what sits below the track.

Understanding when the conditions in a railbed are deteriorating is the biggest variable in the timely mitigation of track substructure problems such as fouled ballasts. Typical inspection methods include visual inspections, track geometry cars, and ground-penetrating radar(GPR). Visual inspections, the most common form of review, can miss issues that are developing below the surface, while GPR and track geometry cars can be expensive and the results can be somewhat difficult to interpret. All create something of a time lag, as a particular section can go an excessive amount of time between inspections.

GridSensorConstruction - CopyTensar’s new Rail Ballast Monitoring tool aims to help rail operators understand when a substructure is performing as it should be and when it requires maintenance in real-time.

For decades, Tensar’s geogrid has been a proven solution to extending the life of railbed ballasts. A recent case study of geogrid’s effectiveness after greater than two billion MGT of freight coal and several major natural disasters over 30 years in the Port of Mobile, Alabama, demonstrated as much as 88 percent more structural stiffness.

The Rail Ballast Monitoring tool combines the documented success of geogrid’s ballast stabilization with Internet of Things technology to create a solution that extends the practical life of ballasts while also revolutionizing the rail inspection process. By integrating an array of proprietary sensor hubs within the Geogrid structure, Tensar has created an embedded monitoring solution that delivers actionable insights into a rail track substructure.

Grid Sensors - CopyWhen the solution is installed in the ballast layer of a section of track, the technology monitors key parameters that correlate to fouling and instability. An attached cellular gateway processes the data and reports it to Tensar’s IoT software platform utilizing machine learning and other algorithms to create a real-time report of track substructure health. With this technology, a railroad could have a constant, live assessment of the condition of its track with remote sensors, keeping maintenance boots off ballast and unnecessary costs down.

Tensar has been developing this technology for years in the lab as part of its Intelligent Solution platform. Recently, in partnership with Railway Technology Solutions, Tensar has been piloting this solution on a moderately used section of track used for both passenger and freight rail. In those tests, Tensar’s sensors and software were 90% accurate in determining if a substructure required maintenance. These findings were presented at the recent University of Delaware conference focused on Big Data in railroad maintenance planning. We would be glad to share the presentation and detailed findings with you.

The digitization of transportation infrastructure is an accelerating phenomenon. As the original inventor of geogrid solutions, Tensar has played a vital role in infrastructure innovation. It’s now blending its physical solutions with digital ones to increase development and maintenance efficiency, reduce errors, improve safety, lower costs, and aid in predictive maintenance for the rail sector.

We’re recruiting partners and pilot locations to take this technology to the next step. Please reach out to learn more, to see our recent ballast monitoring presentation and to potentially pilot this upcoming solution.