Rail operators face two interconnected problems or pains associated with track failure.
First, they face enormous costs when faulty track causes a derailment. A derailment is a catastrophic event immensely disproportionate to the apparent cause. The second problem is that visually monitoring thousands of kilometers of track is a logistical impossibility. This leaves the railroads with two unappealing options: accept very high recurring costs for track monitoring or live with high derailment costs.
Neither the railroads nor the rail services companies are ignorant of this situation. Building some type of monitoring system into ongoing rail operations is, in its own way, obvious. After all, the track most likely to wear out and cause the most derailment damage is precisely the rail that gets used the most. In other words, the rail operators already have equipment traversing precisely the track they would like to monitor. But prior systems such as accelerometers simply were not consistent or effective in predicting rail quality issues.
It is critical in any innovation commercialization effort explore the pain or gain as directly as possible. It would be easy to conclude that the rail operators’ pain is either the cost of derailment or the cost of track monitoring (or both). The reality is that the pain is the track maintenance prioritization problem. Rail track wears out. There is no technology on earth to completely prevent track and trackbed damage and wear when 100 million metric tons of coal travels over it. The challenge is figuring out which track is at risk and prioritizing track monitoring activities. Visually inspecting 100 sections of track, each 100 metres long, is a manageable problem.