New NRC technology helps VIA Rail increase passenger comfort

- Ottawa, Ontario

Via Rail train stopped at its station.

Rail travel is one of the most environmentally friendly, most efficient and comfortable ways to get where you need to go. But ensuring that the ride is always smooth and enjoyable is no easy task. For passenger rail service providers, the safety and comfort of passengers are the highest priorities.

Passenger ride quality is an important consideration when designing, manufacturing, maintaining and operating a rail transportation system. VIA Rail is constantly investing in research and infrastructure improvements to enrich the travel experience for not only customers but also employees. To support VIA Rail in its efforts, rail engineering and technology experts from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) are using their expertise to find sustainable solutions to improve the travel experience.

VIA Rail is continuously looking to improve ride comfort through design modifications and increased maintenance and monitoring. "VIA Rail takes passenger safety and comfort, as well as environmental protection, very seriously," says Paul Charbachi, VIA Rail's Senior Engineer, Infrastructure. "For that reason, we have a longstanding relationship with the National Research Council of Canada to innovate continuously in all areas of rail travel."

The most recent collaboration between the NRC and VIA has succeeded in improving ride quality even further. Using information from a novel system for data collection, management and analytics developed by the NRC specially for the passenger carrier, VIA Rail has implemented changes that have raised the track quality index by over 10%. The track quality index is a quantitative measure used to assess overall track quality.

"This solution is a new tool in our proactive maintenance program," adds Charbachi. "It allows us to identify problematic track conditions, prioritize issues and improve track design on bridges, road crossings, curves and fastening systems."

On track for success

The NRC's team at the Automotive and Surface Transportation Research Centre includes Dr. Yan Liu, Team Leader and Principal Engineer, and Tomasz Byczkowski, Research Officer and Test Engineer.

The NRC's Resilient Ground Transportation program leader Albert Wahba says that the NRC understands the pressure on VIA Rail to ensure passenger ride quality remains high. The researchers, therefore, created a system that gives operations managers key information on ride quality performance without putting extra demands on their time.

"This innovative data collection and communication technology, combined with advanced data analytics tools, monitors passenger comfort and pinpoints track locations that have the highest impact on passenger travel comfort," says Albert Wahba.

The first step was to develop a compact system to take measurements related to ride quality that could be installed unobtrusively on any railcar or locomotive. To that end, Byczkowski created a sensor about the size of a small juice box (known as a sensor-in-a-box). He then worked with VIA Rail to identify the best locations and methods for mounting it on a VIA locomotive.

Next, Dr. Liu and his team at the NRC developed the Rail Data Integration and Analytics System. This system sends data automatically from the sensor to the NRC data centre, where various algorithms identify and rank ride quality issues at specific locations on the track. Through a secure, cloud-based portal, the information is then emailed to VIA Rail operations management.

"We developed an end-to-end solution, from data collection and transmission to analysis, information extraction and data-sharing with clients," says Dr. Yan Liu. He points out that the solution can be adapted to other methods of transportation and customized to any company's needs.

According to Charbachi, the success of this project is only one example of how two organizations working together can make a big contribution to Canada and Canadians.

"The NRC has massive R&D experience and knowledge that we can use, while we bring our historical track record to the equation," he says. "Over the years, we've conducted many tests, gained greater understanding and brought our combined learning to bear on solutions to pressing issues."

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