Tech, Innovation and Safety: 5 Things You Didn’t Know about US Freight Rail

The rail industry in the United States, which is regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), is dominated by freight railroads. In recent years developments in technology and new regulation have changed the shape of the sector. In her first column for Railway-News, Betsy Cantwell, Communications Director for GORAIL, tell us more about it:

Norfolk Southern Freight Train © Jim Bauer under licence

New data released by the FRA in March 2018 verifies that the last several years have been the safest ever for America’s railroads. Among other achievements, the train accident rate has declined 44 percent since 2000.

Undergirding this news are advances in innovative rail technologies and how they’re being implemented across the 140,000-mile U.S. rail freight network. While railroads are the economic powerhouse that helped develop America, there is nothing old-fashioned about rail technology. From drones and big data to automation and mobile phone apps, U.S. freight railroads are innovating to improve safety. Here are six things you might not have realised about rail tech and innovation:

  1. Railroads are on the cutting-edge of safety

Trains have come a long way since the days of the Iron Horse. State-of-the-art technologies like big data, drones, and ultrasound technology are just a few of the innovations railroads use to advance rail safety. For example, while today’s inspection technology currently makes it possible for U.S. railroads to identify 90 percent of track defects before they lead to an incident, multidimensional ultrasonic technology, currently in testing, aims to identify the remaining 10 percent of track imperfections.

Big data is also helping to identify problems before they happen. Every day, rail data warehouses receive and store the vast amounts of data gathered from the wayside detectors and other monitors along the rail network. This data — hundreds of trillions of bytes — is used to identify critical risk factors. Railroads can then issue “composite rules”, or safety protocols, that address the piece of equipment at risk. The Association of American Railroads (AAR), for instance, used big data to issue a composite rule that sets industry-wide standards for wheels to ensure their safety and integrity.

  1. North American railroads partner to run the world’s leading rail research facility

In Pueblo, Colo., railroads jointly support the Transportation Technology Center, Inc., or TTCI, the world’s leading rail research and testing facility. Many new U.S. rail technologies — like the world’s first laser-based rail inspection system, or on-board computer systems that analyse track geometry — are developed and tested at the TTCI.

Also housed at the TTCI, the Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) trains thousands of first responders every year, through both hands-on programmes and free, web-based training for those who cannot attend in person.

The TTCI is a great example of how railroads partner with the U.S. government to tackle safety. The FRA contributes about a third of its annual research budget toward projects conducted at the TTCI. John Tunna, director of the FRA’s Office of Research & Development, describes the relationship: “It’s a very good example of the public-private partnership. One of the facilities at TTCI is the Positive Train Control test bed. This is a fully functional PTC system. It has both the freight implementation of PTC and Amtrak’s implementation. It has all the wayside units, the onboard units, radios and back office server. It means that people developing the system can come and test their component there and iron out the bugs before going out into railway service.”

  1. There’s an app for first responders

Thousands of first responders around the U.S. have signed up for an innovative mobile app called AskRail. Launched in 2014 and recently updated with new features, the app is designed to prepare responders for a rail emergency in real time by providing immediate access to accurate, timely data about what type of hazardous materials a railcar is carrying.

Updates unveiled in 2017 include full integration of all North American Class I railroads, a map feature that provides isolation zones and points of interest and a French version. AskRail is included as part of standard emergency responder training from Class I railroads and can only be downloaded by qualified emergency responders who have completed rail emergency training. Railroads can also offer the app to known emergency responders along their routes.

  1. Positive Train Control is the largest and most complex safety system in the history of the railroad industry

Another example of freight rail innovation, positive train control, or PTC, is a set of advanced technologies designed to automatically stop a train before certain incidents occur and it will soon be installed across more than 54,000 miles of the U.S. rail network. Because much of the PTC technology did not exist when the U.S. Congress mandated its installation in 2008, railroads and their suppliers have had to develop many of its components from scratch.

Implementation requires the deployment of hundreds of thousands of technology pieces, the precise geo-mapping of tens of thousands of miles of railroad right-of-way, as well as extensive training and testing to ensure the system is interoperable between railroads. The industry has invested upwards of $8 billion so far and expects to spend more than $10 billion in total before the systems are fully operational.

Despite the complexities and challenges of implementing PTC, freight railroads are on track to meet the deadline set out by Congress in 2015. By the end of 2018, America’s Class I freight railroads will have all hardware installed, all spectrum in place, all employees trained and at least 80 percent of PTC-required route miles in operation.

  1. Private investments correlate with increased safety

The new FRA stats also include a 55 percent decrease since 2000 in the track-caused accident rate, as well as a 42 percent decrease in the derailment rate in the same time frame. These gains are not anomalies, but examples of how steady rail investment pays safety dividends. U.S. freight railroads, which are privately owned, have collectively spent over $100 billion on their network and operations in the last four years alone.

“Investments in technology and employee training to advance safety in recent years have yielded significant gains that make railroading in America safer and more reliable than ever.”

said AAR President and CEO Edward Hamberger.

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