TOKYO -- Japanese rolling stock makers are tapping the "internet of things" to offer maintenance and management solutions to rail system operators suffering from chronic staffing shortages.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries looks to offer a service that uses cameras and sensors mounted on freight trains to detect problems such as track warping. The monitoring service also analyzes operating data to determine the least disruptive time to make repairs. The system is slated to launch as early as next year.
Companies like Kawasaki Heavy and peer Hitachi are developing services for rail maintenance in order to supplement their train car manufacturing operations, which have become increasingly unprofitable as price competition escalates.
With its monitoring service, which may be offered through a subscription model, Kawasaki Heavy seeks a slice of the estimated $6 billion North American rail maintenance market.
Major rail freight companies operate more than 200,000 km of track in the U.S. alone. In some areas, such as the Rocky Mountains, rough terrain makes it difficult to check track conditions in person. Though shippers run track inspection vehicles once a year or so, derailments in recent years have put pressure on these businesses to improve safety.
Kawasaki Heavy's service will let even regular trains spot problems "with nearly the same level of accuracy as inspection cars," said Hiroshi Nakatani, general manager of the group's corporate technology division.
Hitachi, which enjoys a strong presence in Europe, has partnered with the owner of the Copenhagen Metro in Denmark to test a system that automatically adjusts train service based on ridership. The service, which runs on Hitachi's Lumada platform, uses sensors at each station to track congestion.
The system should ease crowding for riders while reducing costs and improving efficiency for rail operators. Hitachi looks to put it on the market soon, targeting mainly developed countries.
In Australia, Hitachi and miner Rio Tinto have created a fully automated long-haul freight rail network. The driverless system has improved efficiency sharply by eliminating the need for the hourlong shift changes that averaged three per day. Hitachi reports a 6% increase in speed, along with greater operating flexibility.
But as with rolling stock, competition also is intensifying in rail services. Siemens in particular has been a step ahead of Japanese rivals in the internet of things space. The German company has teamed with Sweden's SKF, the world's largest maker of ball bearings, on a maintenance system that monitors train components and provides recommendations on when they should be replaced.