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21st Century Railroads: Safety Through Technology

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 10 Freight Rail Innovations​

With more than 28,000 locomotives, more than 1.5 million rail cars and enough rail to circle the earth nearly eight​ times, U.S. railroads rely on advanced technologies​ to monitor the condition of the nearly 140,000 mile freight rail network and the locomotives and railcars moving across it. From ground penetrating radar used to identify problems beneath track to a vast network of wayside detectors to identify track and equipment components in need of repair or replacement, railroads are developing and deploying advanced technologies to enhance the industry’s safety. Many of these technological advancements are being developed, refined, and tested at the world’s leading rail research facility, the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), in Pueblo, Colorado, or at the industry’s premier information services company, Railinc, in Cary, N.C.


1. Detecting Flaws Inside the Rails with Ultrasound Technology​

 
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Internal flaws in railroad tracks—caused by use and impurities introduced during the manufacturing process—are largely invisible to the human eye. Today, railroads employ defect detector cars and HiRail trucks with GPS, induction and ultrasound technology to help locate and identify these internal rail defects before they cause an accident. In addition, the world's first laser-based rail inspection system is being developed at TTCI.


2. Maintaining Optimal Track Conditions ​

 

How do you build railroad track that safely supports trains weighing over 3,500 tons, while maximizing the fuel efficiency of trains and the lifespan of the track? Through track geometry: the three-dimensional geometry of track layouts that encompasses everything from the alignment and elevation of track to its curvature and track surface. Today, railroads use sophisticated electronic and optical instruments to inspect all aspects of track geometry. At TTCI, railroads have developed on-board computer systems that provide even more sophisticated analyses of track geometry and predict the response of freight cars to track geometry deviations, allowing railroads to determine when track needs maintenance.


3. Ensuring a Solid Rail Bed Foundation​

 

A strong foundation is critical for any structure—and railroad tracks are no exception. Track ballast—the foundation, often made of rock, upon which railroad track sits—helps transfer the load of the trains to the underlying foundation while facilitating drainage of water and minimizing vegetation that might interfere with track structure. Over time, ballast breakdown can occur and lead to track instability. To measure this, railroads regularly use ground-penetrating radar to measure ballast thickness and identify areas where repairs are needed.


4. Maintaining Rail Bridges ​

 

With more than 100,000 privately-owned bridges in America's freight rail system, railroads are continuously seeking ways to monitor bridge health and detect damage in real time. At TTCI, researchers are developing a new generation of monitoring equipment to be installed on both trains and bridges in order to provide regular feedback on the health of each bridge. In addition, TTCI researchers are conducting research to gain insight into current bridge design, component standards and maintenance practices to identify new ways to extend the lifespan of rail bridges.


5. Keeping Rail Wheels Turning Safely ​

     

Wheel bearings—or "journals"—allow the wheels of a rail car to rotate freely along track, and the journal box holds the oil to keep wheel bearings operating smoothly. However, worn or defective wheel bearings can cause enough friction to heat up the journal box and create what is known as a "hotbox." During the early days of railroading, oil soaked wool would be placed in journal boxes to detect early signs of friction and overheating. When a journal box became overheated, the wool would smoke, alerting brakemen to an issue. Today, what was once detected with wool is now detected with infra-red technology and acoustic monitoring devices. For example, friction from a faulty wheel bearing causes a noisy rubbing sound—an 'acoustic signature' that can be recorded by track-side monitoring devices and used to alert railroads to early signs of stress.​


6. Preventing "Truck Hunting" ​

 

A rail car's axle and wheel suspension assembly is commonly known as its "truck." Trucks that are in proper alignment help to extend the life of rail car components and track, and help trains use less fuel. However, when trucks become warped or misaligned, a phenomenon known as "truck hunting" occurs. Truck hunting causes a rail car to oscillate which can damage the rail. To prevent truck hunting, railroads rely upon a laser-based monitoring system—truck bogie optical geometry inspection or TBOGI—that measures the alignment of a rail car's truck and identifies trucks that are not performing optimally.​


7. Alerting Engineers to Wheel Failure​

 

Similar to smart alert systems on many automobiles, advanced monitoring systems alert railroads when a train wheel is in need of repair. Wheel images captured by lasers show worn wheel treads or flanges, indicating when the wheels on a rail car need to be replaced. Meanwhile, wheel impact load detectors are used to measure vertical wheel loads as rail cars travel across track, and alert railroads when a wheel is warped and needs to be repaired or replaced.


8. Positive Train Control (PTC)​

 
 

Since 2008, freight railroads have worked closely with the federal government and passenger railroads to implement PTC—the largest and most complex safety system in the history of the railroad industry. This cutting-edge technology is designed to automatically stop a train before certain accidents occur.


9. Improved Tank Cars​

 
      

While railroads generally do not own tank cars, the rail industry for several years has been advocating for stricter tank car standards to help ensure the safe transportation of hazardous materials, such as crude oil. The rail industry has advocated for standards beyond what is required by federal regulation established by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in the U.S. Department of Transportation.


10. Asset Health Strategic Initiative (AHSI) ​

 

AHSI is a multi-year rail industry program that applies information technology processes to improve the safety and performance of freight cars and locomotives across North America. The program helps reduce mechanical service interruptions, improve the quality of railcar inspections and increase rail yard and repair shop efficiencies by consolidating equipment information, including ownership information, repair and inspection history, company recalls and more.