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Railway Maintenance: Efficiency by Mobility in a Static Business

By Axel Crona

While road transportation has endured harsh pressure of major competition on a deregulated market – the mostly government-owned railways in Europe stagnated.

Today, rail vehicles move on long stretches without freight nor passengers. These rolling stocks have to be maintained in a few large and inefficient workshops demoting competition, binding vehicle resources, wasting time and incurring unnecessary costs. This railway maintenance happens on an already capacity-restrained infrastructure.

Here Are Some Facts

  • 40 % of operator total assets are bound in rail wagons
  • 45 % of gross mileage is empty hauling on over-utilized networks
  • A simple repair takes between 2 to 7 days to complete.


Does this sound like the 21st century, the age of mobility and flexibility, where Amazon delivers goods by drones and Google builds autonomous cars? Isn’t there a better way?

What if the same principles that went into Amazon’s drones and Google’s cars were applied to the maintenance of rail vehicles? What if their maintenance was mobile and flexible?

Efficiency by Mobility - Illustration 1

Mobility: Pushing a 200-Year-Old Industry into the 21st Century

In a study for Trafikverket, the Swedish Transport Administration, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has developed a concept of mobile maintenance where work is performed by mobile road units maintaining rail vehicles where and when needed along the main line.

This is done by deploying specialized mobile road units ranging from small cars for light maintenance to large trucks and cranes for major repairs immediately after, or even before, a fault is detected. The mobile unit can quickly arrive on site of the damaged vehicle, from a strategic location covering a large area, to perform almost any kind of maintenance without unloading cargo or hauling.

Discussions held with the most prominent maintainers in Sweden came to the conclusion that both maintenance and repairs, such as routine audits, weld repairs, brake pad replacements, and even heavy repairs such as wheel axle replacements are suitable for mobile maintenance.

Suitable locations for mobile maintenance on the public rail network in Sweden:

Railway Maintenance: Efficiency by Mobility in a Static Business

Mobile maintenance enables an optimized and flexible use of the combined road and rail network by allowing both tracks and roads to be used for what they are good at – respectively moving large quantities over long distances and smaller quantities over shorter distances with optimal flexibility.

How Is Mobile Rail Maintenance Applied in Sweden

In a country like Sweden, with a small population concentrated in one end of the country, the few worshops that exist are sometimes far from where they are needed. With mobile maintenance, not much more than a siding of suitable length on a plain surface, road access to the rail line and an appropriate rail configuration, such as a location without overhead lines if a crane is used, is needed. WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff has shown that a large number of such suitable locations already exist within the Swedish rail network. They are covering all major railway lines from south to north, both public and private.

Learning From F1 Best Practices

Just like race cars are serviced anytime during a race, rail vehicles could connect to sidings when in need of maintenance or repair. And the beauty of the concept is that with little or no effort, existing and unused tracks are ready to be used today. By employing the concept of mobile maintenance units, the need for large workshops is greatly reduced, thus dramatically cutting fixed investments and almost eliminating empty hauling.

Efficiency by Mobility - Illustration 2

Does this sound too good to be true? Contrary to the general business understanding, we have demonstrated how this can be turned into reality in Sweden. By bridging the gap between legislators, infrastructure managers, asset owners and asset maintainers, WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff is enabling a more efficient use of the rail system before this much neglected infrastructure disappears, without heavy investments.