When booking a car in for a service, a driver usually tells the receptionist about any other faults that need attention at the same time. “The brakes pull to the left”, “the air conditioning isn’t working”, or “there’s a funny noise from the back”. Writes Nigel Wordsworth

This allows the garage to plan the time that may be needed, whether a specialist mechanic is required, or particular equipment, and perhaps even whether any spare parts have to be ordered in ahead of time.

Why should a train be any different?

Diagnosing the fault

Of course, some faults may be obvious to the driver or train manager. Wheel flats, non- functioning lighting or ventilation, blocked toilets – all of those can be reported manually.

But a modern train, such as one of Virgin’s Pendolinos, is a very complicated and sophisticated piece of kit. It has a ‘brain’ – the train management system (TMS) – which knows how every part of the train is functioning. It can even tell when a component or system is starting to run outside of its normal operating parameters.

Trains tend to be serviced every night. However, sometimes that is just a ‘wash and brush up’. On any one night, the trains in a fleet will be booked in – some for service, some for maintenance, and some for a clean. If a train that is scheduled for cleaning only actually arrives with a major fault, it can completely mess up the depot’s plans for the night.

So what is needed is for that information to get back to the depot before the train arrives for its nightly service. Plans can then be made to attend to urgent faults immediately, rescheduling other less-critical work to another night, so that everything runs smoothly once trains start arriving.

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To do this, manufacturer Alstom has fitted Virgin’s Pendolino fleet with three major diagnostic systems. The TMS has a call-ahead function which shows any fault online – in real time – back at the depot. It also has a download facility, which gives full details of the train’s performance throughout its working day.

The on-train monitoring recorder (OTMR) records all of the inputs from the cab control desk – it’s a bit like a driver’s ‘black box’. And the tilt and speed supervisor (TASS) monitors tilt performance and limits top speed if any defect is found, recording that information.

The main server at Alstom’s headquarters in Rugby polls each train in the fleet on a rotational basis. This ensures that every train is interrogated at least once every two hours. Those faults are reported to the depot which is the base for that train.

A major part of the Pendolino fleet is based at Oxley in Wolverhampton. There, principle engineer Chris Collins checks the data which comes up on his screen. A really urgent flag would result in thetrain immediately being taken out of service – a problem for the operator and fleet availability team. However, most are notifications that need to go into the planning process for that night’s work.

Back to the drawing board

It is at this stage that the high-tech wizardry gives way to an old-fashioned whiteboard and coloured pens. There is no better way of displaying information to a large group of people, which is flexible and can be updated instantly, than a large wall-mounted board.

Traincare centre manager Dave Jones and his operations technical manager Neil Stainke talked The Rail Engineer through the process.

On any one night, there is usually one set in for a two-day D examination. That takes the train out of service, but that is why there are a couple of spares so that fleet performance is not affected.

However, if another train comes in with a major fault which cannot be fixed overnight, then there is a risk that they will be one set short come the morning, and train cancellations may ensue. This is why it is so important to know in advance and get the train concerned into the workshop as soon as it arrives to give the maximum time to work on it. It also gives the planners the opportunity to reallocate trains to services in the morning, so the one with the problem can be ‘last out’.

Faults are prioritised. ‘Mandatory’ is naturally the highest priority as operating procedures, not to mention insurers, won’t allow such a train to be used. ‘Performance Affecting’ comes next – a train can run but with restrictions. For example, if one traction motor is out, the train is still safe to use but may not reach its top speed resulting in longer journey times.

The lowest priority is ‘Customer Related’. This can be something such as a non-functioning toilet door. The train is quite capable of being operated, but the problem needs to be sorted as soon as is practicable.

Incidentally, two non-functioning toilet doors, particularly if they are disabled toilets, will bump the priority up to ‘Performance Affecting’.

All of this is laid out on the display board. Each train is allocated to a bay in the workshop or in the yard, and the team of engineers allocated. Every process is marked down, and labelled complete as the night progresses. It is a very practiced operation, with regular comments and all of the train numbers being on magnetic panels and other, more individual comments being added by hand.

It is thus immediately apparent when any train has missed a milestone and additional resources can be directed to help mitigate the problem.

And there’s more

DSC_5655 [online]A couple of other processes are carried out as well. A team of three or four people are on ‘hotel standards’ – they walk the trains looking for torn seat covers, worn carpet, frayed decals, poor lighting and untidy or dirty areas, so that most can be addressed before the train returns to service and those that will take longer are programmed in for another night. They take pride in every train looking as good as it possibly can.

Another team, auditors from Lloyd’s Register, make periodic inspections to ensure that standards, both in presentation and in engineering, are maintained.

At the end of the night, trains start to return to service, The depot team is still talking with the planners – a train that needed more work than expected is running late, can it go out unwashed? It seems like a minor question, but it still needs the concession to be approved by both Alstom and Virgin.

So, by booking faults in advance, the workshop process is made much less fraught and more efficient. In addition, all of the reporting means that incipient faults are caught earlier. The time between failures on the fleet has increased from one every 16,000 miles to one every 35,000.

The Alstom team is not content with this though. Chris Collins has a simulator, a bank of racked servers and equipment that replicate everything on a train. Software is tested and retested and, once approved by both Virgin and Angel Trains (the Pedolinos’ owners), it is released around the fleet once or twice a year.

There is also a laser-operated brake pad monitoring system under trial as part of a ‘health hub’. This includes the remote inspection of everything on the train from pantographs to aerodynamic skirts.

So there is much more to come.