Oil Analysis Helps Prevent Costly Maintenance for Rail Fleet

T.E. Laboratories ("the Laboratories”) is located in Tullow, Ireland, and provides fuel, oil and environmental analysis services for a variety of customers, including Irish Rail, Ireland’s national railway system. It uses equipment such as the Spectroil Q100 spectrometer from Spectro, Inc. on a regular basis.

When large amounts of severe wear particles were found in the oil analysis of samples from a main locomotive – indicating imminent catastrophic failure – Irish Rail too the Laboratories’ advice and brought the engine in for repair. An overhaul revealed that the bearings were about to fail and chunks of metal were visible to the naked eye in the sump.

In this case, oil analysis saved the Irish Rail of the potential expenses associated with a breakdown and the expense of a more extensive engine overhaul. The tally of these prevented costs more than paid for the cost of oil analysis for Irish Rail’s entire fleet for a year.

The Power of Oil Analysis

From a 40,000 sq. ft., custom facility, T.E. Laboratories, provides a machine-care predictive-maintenance system based on condition monitoring through oil analysis. This process is easy for machine operators: it only takes them a few minutes to obtain an oil sample and send it to the lab for identification of potential problems. Such problems include abnormal wear in lubricated metallic components, coolant contamination, and dirty fuel.

With oil analysis, machinery can be analyzed over a period of time to identify trends that can be used to plan maintenance based on actual need, rather than to simple intervals of time. The services provided by the Laboratories include fuel analysis for microbial contamination, transformer oil analysis, and water and soil analysis.

Regular customers include mining, quarrying and construction operators; manufacturing plants and heavy-equipment operators; trucking, rail and marine shipping fleets; and industrial units.

As the only oil analysis lab in Ireland, we handle a large number of samples and must deal with them efficiently.

Mark Bowkett, T.E. Laboratories’ General Manager

The company recently upgraded from its former “home-grown” system to the SpectroTrack laboratory information management system. SpectroTrack has the built-in ability to interface with the Spectro Inc., line of spectrometers and viscometers.

It also has the ability to integrate with instruments from other suppliers for vibration, thermographic, and performance data. The database is configured to track asset information related to maintenance actions, status, location, service intervals, and other issues.

Visible chunks of metal in the sump of the disassembled engine

Visible chunks of metal in the sump of the disassembled engine

SpectroTrack also offers the Laboratories’ customers with security-protected access to their sample results.

The railroad makes extensive use of SpectroTrack Web access to obtain their test reports and to plan maintenance. However, we don’t wait for customers to notice a problem. When we see something bad, we immediately notify them.

Mark Bowkett, T.E. Laboratories’ General Manager

For instance, a recent analysis of 18 different wear metals on a liquid-cooled diesel locomotive engine showed many warning signs. According to the Laboratories’ report, the analysis uncovered “the presence of large sliding wear steel particles and some dark metallo-oxides,” which indicates “a transition from normal to severe sliding wear and likely due to insufficient lubrication.” Additional problems were also noted.

A bearing from the engine on the verge of failure

A bearing from the engine on the verge of failure

Ferrogram image showing dark metallo-oxides indicative of abnormal wear

Ferrogram image showing dark metallo-oxides indicative of abnormal wear

John McGrath, Sales Manager for T.E. Laboratories says that these results “were worrisome, but not necessarily cause for immediate action.” However, a closer look at the sample was ordered with the SpectroT2FM Q500 analytical ferrography laboratory.

This technology employs a bichromatic microscope, image capture software, and video camera for the separation and interpretation of wear and contaminant particles in hydraulic fluids, coolants, fuels, and used oils.

A bichromatic microscope fitted with reflected (red) and transmitted (green) light sources was used to view and analyze ferrograms so that the ferrogram could be illuminated from both above and below the microscope stage. With bichromatic illumination, nonmetallic particles that transmit light appeared green and metal particles that reflect light appeared bright red.

Large copper chunk seen in ferrogram image

Large copper chunk seen in ferrogram image

Cast iron fatigue chunk seen in ferrogram image

Cast iron fatigue chunk seen in ferrogram image

The ferrogram indicated that the issue has reached a critical stage. It revealed a moderate to heavy amount of white metal wear particles and severe copper, and a moderate amount of dark-metalloxides. These elements indicate abnormal wear and lubricant starvation.

Red oxides were also present, indicating water ingress. The analysis also indicated the presence of non-metallic crystalline particles including silica and rust, large abnormal sliding wear particles in excess of 20 µm, low alloy steel fatigue particles, copper chunks in excess of 20 µm, and cast iron fatigue chunks from a case-hardened part.

The particles seen in the ferrogram were quite large and of a critical nature. The engine was on the verge of destroying itself. It needed to be brought in for an immediate overhaul.” When the engine was disassembled, he says, “It was obviously on the verge of a breakdown.

Mark Bowkett, T.E. Laboratories’ General Manager


To prioritize maintenance by avoiding spending money on units that have reached a scheduled milestone, and do not require maintenance, Bowkett believes in the use of cost-efficient oil analysis. At the same time, he notes that regularly scheduled oil analysis can point out units like the one described above that are in need of urgent maintenance, even when they are not due for service.

Bowkett believes that while it may not be possible to estimate the total amount of money saved by oil analysis in the above case, “It’s clearly well above the cost of the company’s oil-analysis program for its entire fleet.”

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by AMETEK Spectro Scientific.

For more information on this source, please visit AMETEK Spectro Scientific.


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