Northern, one of the prominent rail operators in the UK, is planning to equip up to 40 of its trains with state-of-the-art technology in a bid to revolutionise the maintenance of the rail network. The proposed trains, which will continue to serve the public, are set to function as “data hoovers,” collecting vital information about the track and surrounding infrastructure to be shared with Network Rail.

The groundbreaking initiative, known as Northern’s Intelligent Trains programme, aims to enhance safety, reliability, and efficiency in rail travel. Initially announced in 2022, the program is a collaborative effort between Northern and Network Rail.

The specially equipped trains will utilise horizon-scanning LIDAR cameras, thermal imaging software, and high-definition CCTV footage to detect and record various aspects of the infrastructure. These include infrastructure defects, environmental factors, and maintenance issues that require attention. By gathering comprehensive data, the trains will play a crucial role in transforming the maintenance process across the rail network.

Each night, the trains will undergo a “digital handshake” to enable the seamless transfer of captured information for further analysis. This data will provide engineers with valuable insights into the condition of the track over extended periods, ranging from days to months. By identifying maintenance issues promptly, repairs can be scheduled while still adhering to operational safety standards.

Rob Warnes, the strategic development director at Northern, expressed the company’s commitment to innovation, stating, “We have always sought ways to do things smarter, safer, and more efficient.” Warnes highlighted the significant opportunity for data capture, as the Northern fleet covers an average distance of 100,000 kilometers annually throughout the North of England. Out of Northern’s total fleet of 335 trains, only 40 would need to be equipped with the advanced technology to effectively survey the extensive 3,000-kilometer network.

The implementation of this ambitious program is contingent upon securing funding, which Northern is currently discussing with Network Rail. The company estimates that the initiative could save tens of thousands of “delay minutes” caused by urgent, unscheduled maintenance each year, leading to improved service reliability for passengers.

Northern’s groundbreaking efforts in this field have garnered recognition, as the company has recently been shortlisted for the prestigious 2023 Railway Innovation Award in the Engineering & Safety category. The Railway Innovation Awards, organised by Modern Railways magazine in association with the Railway Industry Association, will take place on Friday, 23 June, and acknowledge outstanding contributions to the rail industry.

If successful, Northern’s Intelligent Trains program has the potential to reshape rail network maintenance practices and set a new standard for safety and efficiency in the UK’s rail sector.