A pantograph is a device that sits on top of a train and collects electricity from the overhead line equipment (OLE). The pantograph must connect properly so passengers can enjoy a smooth journey. Its contact with the OLE has to be set within the right range to collect electricity and keep the train running, or this may lead to unpredictable repair work and misery for passengers. They’re the ones who must endure delayed and disrupted journeys. So damage to the pantograph and OLE could affect the rail company’s reputation in the eyes of customers.
Repairing damaged pantograph/OLE on site can be a dangerous, difficult and expensive process for rail companies. Therefore having their remote condition monitoring system on-board is desirable and it can inform engineers to do the maintenance in advance thus to avoid their breakdown when they are in operation.
To ease the problem, a research team led by Professor Sun and Professor Grattan of City, University of London has created a new smart pantograph. It’s less likely to suffer damage and can help rail engineers prevent trains going out of service. This saves money for the rail companies and ensures an easier journey for passengers.
What did we explore and how?
Professor Sun, Professor Grattan and their research team worked with Faiveley Brecknell Willis, a world-leader in railway electrification based in the UK, to create a self-sensing pantograph for the rail industry. The pantograph fits onto existing electric trains, so no extra modification is required.
The smart pantograph looks the same as a normal pantograph but it has fibre optic sensors inside. The sensors aren’t as vulnerable to extreme weather or high electrical currents because they sense the surrounding environment and transfer data using light. The pantograph provides engineers with real-time data of a train’s condition, coupled with the information extracted from GPS and a camera, allowing the engineers to schedule preventive maintenance and fix any problems before they cause disruption. The engineers can pinpoint the exact location of an incoming fault.
Since 2018, Network Rail have been using smart pantographs on their high output plant system (HOPS) trains. The data the pantographs are collecting is also being used on the Great Western mainline for scheduling maintenance and repairs.
Benefits and influence of this research
Smart pantographs come with a perk for the environment. Since they can fit on existing trains, there’s no need to replace and rebuild them. No materials go to waste. As they help with scheduling preventive maintenance, the pantograph and OLE can stay in use for longer. They don’t have to end up on the scrap heap at the first sign of trouble.
Trains running in better conditions for longer is good for passengers. All they want is a smooth and fast journey, which they’re more likely to enjoy thanks to smart pantographs. This makes train travel look more appealing to prospective rail customers and has the potential to create another benefit for the environment: if more people swap their car journey for a train, there will be less congestion on the roads.
Being able to carry out preventive maintenance is great for engineers and rail companies too, saving them millions of pounds they would lose to unscheduled maintenance. Thanks to the integration of the smart pantograph, GPS and camera, engineers can find the precise location of where the repair needs to happen. As a result engineers can work in safer conditions, as they are better informed of the train operation conditions allowing for earlier actions to be taken.
Details of this research
Research status: Ongoing
Topic: Public transport