Below Rail Infrastructure, Engineering, Freight Rail

Starting from first principles: An independent approach to condition monitoring


Getting the balance right between preventative maintenance and over-spending on upkeep requires an independent set of eyes highlights Lycopodium.

The Port of Newcastle handles over $18 billion worth of freight each year, with 97 per cent of trade moved by rail. This makes ensuring that the lines which feed into the port from the Hunter Valley coal network and the links to interstate freight lines are in good condition a critical requirement.

Scott Campbell, general manager – rail for Lycopodium Infrastructure knows this well having worked with a number of rail infrastructure owners whose exports travel to the Port of Newcastle.

“If there is a fault or a defect that will prevent freight transport, that’s a huge impediment, not just to the individual companies who are trying to get a train through but to the logistics and transport industry in Australia,” said Campbell. “Some coal producers put out up to 10 trains a day, so that’d be about 80,000 tonnes of coal per day out from their facility. If there’s a failure in the infrastructure on a particular day and it takes a week to repair and get the trains back on track that’s potentially half a million tonnes of coal and when the market is good, that’s at $100/tonne. That’s a huge amount of money.”

Lycopodium assists freight operators and infrastructure owners nationally to determine the right rail maintenance program that suits their operations. For Campbell, this is about ensuring that maintenance is done in a controlled manner.

“Commercially and logistically, it’s imperative to get a maintenance program in place so you do preventative maintenance rather than breakdown maintenance. Being able to understand the status of track condition and to fix or upgrade the track back to a fit for purpose standard before there is an issue means you can program and plan your production and your maintenance, reducing risk to operations.”

What sets Lycopodium apart is that unlike maintenance contractors, there is no large shed of equipment and machinery waiting to be deployed to work on the track. While Lycopodium is an accredited rollingstock operator with its own hi-rail inspection plant for on-the-spot repairs, their focus is about designing the maintenance program to fit the job at hand.

Operating in all mainland states, Lycopodium is an independent advisor when it comes to maintenance, with deep expertise in design, project management, and infrastructure management, and has the ability to conduct track inspection and certification.

“We provide an independent, fit for purpose solution. We will go there and do the inspections, certify the tracks, and identify defects,” said Campbell. “If required, we can then prepare scoping documentation to call tenders and manage the maintenance work on behalf of the client.”

With Australia’s vast network of rail track providing very different tasks depending on the location, Lycopodium can design a maintenance program that responds to the needs of a particular section of track. With this information in hand, infrastructure owners can then ensure their maintenance provider is providing them the best value for money.

“We work on a lot of private sidings around the country where we do the inspections, identify any defects and then put in place a maintenance program,” said Campbell. “We assess the condition of the infrastructure at the time of inspection, report on the severity of any defects and provide an analysis on infrastructure condition trends.”

Through rigorous inspection and trends analysis, Lycopodium’s engineers begin from first principles. By starting with the infrastructure configuration and condition, rather than inferring from theories or assumptions, the maintenance program is tailored to the specificities of that track.

“Our engineers look at the duty of the rail, what tonnage is going to be going across the track over any given year – not just the overall tonnage, but the point tonnage – what the axle load is going to be. We look at the status of the infrastructure from the formation of the ballast to the rail, sleepers and fastenings, and then we provide a maintenance management plan to the client so that again the predictability is there and they can forecast costs when they need to have an outage to conduct on-track maintenance,” said Campbell.

The maintenance needed, whether it be rail grinding, safety measures, or upgrading ballast and sleepers, is therefore based upon the actual usage rate of the track.

Lycopodium brings an independent view to the maintenance and management of rail infrastructure.

To get this understanding of a network or section of track, Lycopodium works with the client in partnership. A round of inspections are done to form a base line and then once usage is discussed a further maintenance inspection will be carried out to see the trends of the track’s wear.

“If a grain siding is only going to be putting out 50,000 tonnes a year and it’s only going to be operated at the end of a harvest, we’re not going to be inspecting the track every month for 12 months,” said Campbell. “We’re going to look at it at the end of the harvest, so we do a condition assessment at the end of it, and we will compare that with how we predicted it would be.

“We might do a six-month inspection and look at how it’s stood up to almost no use and then come back in closer to harvest time where we’ve predicted what the condition is going to be. Then, we will see what maintenance is required so that the siding is suitable for their forecast use over the next harvest season.”

Within the rail group, Lycopodium has 40 staff, including track inspectors and certifiers, maintenance manager, and condition analysts. The data from the inspections is fed into Lycopodium’s Maintenance Management Systems (LycoMMS) so that clients can get a real-time understanding of where the defects in the track are. This tool can then be used to forecast when maintenance is needed.

“A lot of the industry have conducted regular inspections and upgrade tracks to a standard that’s not required,” said Campbell. “What we have focused on is engineering from first principles and monitoring to make sure that the track is fit for purpose, while making sure that the clients don’t overspend on an asset.”

“Focusing on a rail asset’s actual condition and usage, rather than an assumption can avoid overspending in the order of three times the amount required,” said Campbell.

“Marrying up the strong engineering principles with the maintenance management system that provides monitoring and trending, we can then tailor a maintenance program to a client’s real needs, rather than a best guess.”