Improving the reliability and availability of railway track switching by analysing historical failure data and introducing functionally redundant subsystems

Track switches are safety critical assets that not only provide flexibility to rail networks but also present single points of failure. Switch failures within dense-traffic passenger rail systems cause a disproportionate level of delay. Subsystem redundancy is one of a number of approaches, which can be used to ensure an appropriate safety integrity and/or operational reliability level, successfully adopted by, for example, the aeronautical and nuclear industries. This paper models the adoption of a functional redundancy approach to the functional subsystems of traditional railway track switching arrangements in order to evaluate the potential increase in the reliability and availability of switches. The paper makes three main contributions. First, 2P-Weibull failure distributions for each functional subsystem of each common category of points operating equipment are established using a timeline and iterative maximum likelihood estimation approach, based on almost 40,000 sampled failure events over 74,800 years of continuous operation. Second, these results are used as baselines in a reliability block diagram approach to model engineering fault tolerance, through subsystem redundancy, into existing switching systems. Third, the reliability block diagrams are used with a Monte-Carlo simulation approach in order to model the availability of redundantly engineered track switches over expected asset lifetimes. Results show a significant improvement in the reliability and availability of switches; unscheduled downtime reduces by an order of magnitude across all powered switch types, whilst significant increases in the whole-system reliability are demonstrated. Hence, switch designs utilising a functional redundancy approach are well worth further investigation. However, it is also established that as equipment failures are engineered out, switch reliability/availability can be seen to plateau as the dominant contributor to unreliability becomes human error.