Modern railways, such as the West Coast mainline, which runs through Lancashire and Cumbria (Preston, Lancaster, Carnforth, Oxenholme, Penrith & Carlisle) present complex challenges to engineers, safety officers and maintenance teams. The speed and flexibility of drones offers solutions to emerging challenges.
Commercial drone UAV operators such as Hovershotz, now provide a range of services to assist railway operators, and those companies are also considering employing their own in-house drone teams. Network Rail, for example, of the Department for Transport that owns Britain’s railway infrastructure, uses drones to assess tracks and gather data for analysis. It is possible to use camera drones to film, video, photograph and survey railway infrastructure.
Fifty years ago the UK’s rail network began to change (thanks to Dr Beeching). Steam gave way to diesel and electric, and with the new rolling stock came high-tech track points, overhead cables and enhanced safety features. Several lines across Cumbria and the Lake District closed – Bolton Loop, Brampton Railway, Carlisle & Silloth Bay Railway, Cockermouth, Keswick & Penrith Railway, Corkickle Brake, Eden Valley Stainmore Railway, Lowca Light Railway Railway, Port Carlisle Railway Railway, Rowrah & Kelton Fell Railway, Solway Junction Railway.
The innovations and complexity of the systems and equipment that continue to upgrade services for passengers demands regular attention. Drones are proving to be a valuable addition to the teams that service the lines, depots and remote facilities every day. Aerial drone photography filming and surveying is a welcome tool for rail maintenance in Cumbria, Lancashire and the Lake District.
UAVs perform come rain or shine
One of the key benefits of utilising small unmanned surveillance aircraft is that they are now capable of operating in conditions that are potentially dangerous to human operatives.
Why send a team of overhead technicians up wet and slippery equipment when a drone can assess the situation quicker, safer and without the need to load up bulky clothing and protective equipment? All that is required is a camera drone and skilled operator.
Assessing damage to power lines, conductors and tension wires can be done in a fraction of the time it takes to deploy one or more engineers. Images captured by drone cameras can be relayed real-time to ground or office-based experts to make the key decisions about commissioning repair work.
Crucially, if safety allows, using UAVs to inspect railways means that passenger lines can be kept running. The alternative could mean fines for operators when scheduled services are cancelled. If the work was hazardous, services might have to be suspended to keep workers safe. Using drones avoids this.
With improved airborne monitoring and positioning now possible, drones can also fly close to tracks to check rail integrity, bridges and foreign objects that have been reported by drivers. This can be done much quicker than getting vehicles and personnel to isolated and hard-to-access areas.