Lean Railroading, Part III

I’ve previously written about how railroads are beginning to apply lean principles to reduce the time cars spend in classification yards being switched among trains, and to reduce the time those cars spend being maintained.

Now comes a story detailing how preventive maintenance is being adopted so that the cars don’t break down in the first place.

The source is a nice article about Bombardier in the April 9 issue of Forbes, which also contains articles I previously mentioned discussing Chrysler and GM.

            Perhaps best known in this country as an aerospace manufacturer, Bombardier is also a key player in building and maintaining rail systems. The article, written by Kerry Dolan, suggests that a lean revolution is beginning within at least some rail systems.

            Part of it has to do with manufacturing, and the article gives credit to Bombardier president Andre Navarri for introducing lean manufacturing and a just-in-time inventory control system into its operations.

            But beyond that, the article indicates that a rail version of total productive maintenance is gaining ground in rail operations.

            The article actually refers to “predictive maintenance” and “anticipative maintenance.” (I suspect that latter term was created by the writer.)

            An example is a description of how railway engineers at an operations control center in the English city of Derby use Bombardier’s maintenance system, branded Orbita. They spend time studying four large wall-mounted computer screens displaying data on 33 Scottish trains run by First ScotRail.


            If something gets in the way of the door – a person’s foot or a roof panel that’s hanging down – the electric motor that closes the train door has to work harder and produces more current. Orbita measures the extra current and relays that information to the engineers at master control. If the door motor is working overtime all afternoon long, for example, they see a tall red bar on a chart. First ScotRail’s maintenance staff is then advised there’s a problem with a particular door on a particular train.


            While the article emphasizes Bombardier’s increased use of technology, it’s also clear that applying that technology in ways consistent with lean principles – such as making sure maintenance occurs before a part fails – is at the heart of what the company is doing.

            A consultant is quoted in the story as suggesting that, for a variety of reasons, rail companies are at least a decade behind aerospace and automotive companies in adopting lean strategies. Bombardier is clearly moving into the future.


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