Op-Ed: Freight Rail is a Driver of Innovation

November 1, 2017

Even in a nation’s capital typically behind the curve on technological matters, autonomy and self-driving automobiles continue to grab headlines.

Case in point: The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation passed a bill unanimously in October crafted to expedite the testing and deployment of partly and fully autonomous vehicles. While the bill must still pass the full Senate, a similar bill in the U.S. House of Representatives has already passed. Both measures have the same goals in mind – adjust traditional car standards to allow greater room for innovation and technological advancement by carmakers and give the federal government the ultimate authority on related governance.

The overall effort of elected leaders is refreshing proof that D.C. can indeed meet pressing challenges and has the ability to take on the issues of our future. These technologies, after all, will potentially save thousands of lives annually when deployed on our nation’s highways.

Policymakers and the public, however, should take note: similar efforts to test and deploy groundbreaking technologies are occurring across other industries and transportation modes. This includes the privately owned freight rail sector, which operates on infrastructure it owns and maintains through substantial private investment. Washington would be wise to commit itself to embracing a similar regulatory approach to railroads that fosters innovations that can enhance safety and improve performance.

The most obvious rail innovation is Positive Train Control (PTC), a set of advanced technologies the industry has developed collectively and spent more than $8 billion on to date. PTC will inhibit train-to-train collisions, incidents caused by excessive speed or situations where railroads are on tracks they shouldn’t be. This will be done through a three part system consisting of an onboard locomotive system to monitor the train’s position and speed, a collection of wayside networks that communicate to the locomotive and a massive, backend server that processes the large data set accrued across the 140,000 mile network.

But there are broader efforts within the industry that continue to be tested and deployed beyond PTC – truly next generation capabilities.

For instance, big data is increasingly used to identify trends on the network, particularly through “composite rule” protocols that are developed through a combination of factors to identify an issue that can affect even less than 1 percent of a given piece of technology. Much of this work occurs at RailInc, the industry’s largest and primary source for IT and information services.

“Individual factors by themselves might not be predictors of defects, but in combination they could be,” Tony Sultana, Principal Investigator at the Transportation Technology Center (TTCI) recently explained. By storing and analyzing terabytes of information, researchers and engineers can pinpoint acute issues, such as cracked wheels, before they cause an issue. As the industry collects even more data, including through PTC operations, it will only increase such practices.

At the same time, some railroads are using drones to test the quality of rail infrastructure and air quality. “While questions still need to be answered, it’s clear drones will likely play a role in the future of rail,” reports Mashable. “After all, they can safely inspect parts of the freight rail lines where temperatures can drop well below zero during the dead of winter.”

This is especially valuable for “beyond line of sight operations,” as railroad operators can effectively supplement human know-how with a constant, vigilant eye extending beyond traditional views.

In addition, railroads are on the verge of widely using something called “phased array” ultrasound technology, analogous to an X-ray but for inspecting rail equipment, to analyze microscopic flaws in real time. The laser-based system allows railroad workers to inspect track with a 360-degree view, not just head on, providing a more thorough and precise diagnosis of various track pieces. It is being rigorously tested at the Transportation Technology Center, or TTCI, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the industry which is in and of itself a marvel of technology – a 52 square mile facility in Colorado with 48 miles of railroad track to perform independent research.

Phased array is not dissimilar to what one railroad calls “Machine Vision”: “a train-sized, erector-set-like portal containing detection sensors, cameras, lasers and strobes” used to inspect railcars in transit in real time. Machine Vision, which has been implemented in three prominent rail yards, can identify and measure 22 train components at one stop.

The industry, in collaboration with first responders, has even developed an app called AskRail that allows these individuals and their organizations to access “accurate, timely data about what type of hazardous materials a railcar is carrying so they can make an informed decision about how to respond to a rail emergency.”

“I would recommend the AskRail app to other first responders because the information you need in an emergency is right at your fingertips,” says one Wisconsin firefighter. “You don’t need to get information from third parties or rely upon UN classification numbers. AskRail tells you if the rail cars are full, if they’re empty and what’s inside — vital pieces of information that really helped us resolve the Watertown incident safely.”

Suffice to say, railroads are in the technology business and will continue to innovate to improve safety and performance. As Washington, D.C. and the public continue to navigate the rapidly changing landscape, we hope they realize how committed our industry is to be a leader in the transformation.

Jefferies is Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, at the Association of American Railroads. The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Eno Center for Transportation.

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