Material gains: How new materials can keep Railway 4.0 on track

Apple and IBM gave the world in-app machine learning, Spotify and Uber teamed up to give us seamless music on the go and GM and Honda are working together to build a new autonomous vehicle; some of the most disruptive business innovations have come as a result of collaboration. Now you can add two more names to that list: CHH CoNeX has been named a preferred supplier to German company Berthold Sichert.

While our names may not mean too much to you at present, our recent partnership has the potential to have a fundamental impact on the rail industry as we move towards Railway 4.0; a fully digitalised, connected and intelligent rail infrastructure.

Why? Our partnership brings together the communications infrastructure intelligence of CHH CoNeX with the polycarbonate enclosure designs of Berthold Sichert, bringing new digitalisation opportunities to the UK at a time when Network Rail has unveiled ambitious plans to revolutionise rail connectivity throughout the next five years.

What is happening to UK rail?

Network Rail’s aim is to build upon the UK government’s Industrial Strategy of 2018, which included the Rail Sector Deal; a partnership between government and industry that promised to transform the UK’s railways through digitalisation. Three fundamental pillars of the sector deal are: embracing digital technology, making much better use of the wealth of data held in the rail industry, and embracing the use of new materials.

We already position sensors on rolling stock to monitor external conditions, rolling stock status and for GPS and tracking purposes. We collect video footage for surveillance purposes; store data through on-board processing; work with static data to produce train timetables. But what if we could collate and share this all in one place to perform real-time condition monitoring of railway infrastructure and therefore predictive maintenance of rolling stock through real-time train-to track communication? We can, and this is where our partnership with Berthold Sichert comes into play.

Freeing frequencies

One of the major requirements for seamless rail digitalisation is the need for new materials and technologies for trackside services and nowhere is this more essential than when it comes to data enclosures.

The traditional choice of material for these enclosures is metal, such as die-cast aluminium – indeed, metal enclosures are visible trackside on most routes throughout UK. However, while metal is durable, has low conductivity and is easy to coat, it also acts as a natural RFI shield and can block the passage of radio waves. Metal is also vulnerable to corrosion and weathering over time and is an inflexible material, ill-suited to fast and adaptable enclosure installations.

On the other hand, polycarbonate is an amorphous thermal plastic material with high heat resistance and excellent physical properties, making it an ideal material for outdoor rail enclosures. Not only can polycarbonate withstand a wide range of temperature fluctuations, its good electrical properties are unaffected by humidity. The material is also corrosive-resistant. This is important in the rail industry, as trackside equipment is often subject to heavy vibrations and corrosive brake dust. Furthermore, as a self-extinguishing material, polycarbonate requires no protective coating.

When we consider the type of equipment that is required to move us towards effective rail digitalisation, polycarbonate provides several benefits over metal for electrical enclosure design. The material has no effect on radio frequency (RF) signals, allowing 4G and 5G signals to pass through, unlike metal alternatives that block these frequencies. As a result, polycarbonate cabinets can add value through a secondary use, for example, for housing sensors used for monitoring, data collection and communication purposes.

A powerful partnership

By combining CHH’s enclosure integration and managed services experience with the polycarbonate enclosure designs of Berthold Sichert, we can provide a platform to truly connect all data processed throughout the rail sector, through highly customised and configured polycarbonate enclosures that are not only simple to install, maintain and upgrade, but which deliver data communications value beyond anything we can achieve today. For us, it’s the next step in digitising the UK’s rail industry and a unique opportunity to contribute to the world’s smart cities agenda.

While we may not yet be operating at the same level as Apple and IBM, the unique combination of new materials and infrastructure knowledge promises to have an equally as disruptive effect on the UK’s rail sector as we move towards a more connected, technology-driven future.

We’re always happy to have discussions with companies who are looking for material gains with their communications infrastructure. Call CHH today on 0121 344 6316