The freight rail industry and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) partner to ensure a safer rail network.

John Tunna, Director of the FRA’s Office of Research & Development, discusses what accounts for improvements in safety, how the industry and FRA work together on safety and the additional safety technology on the horizon.

Q: There have been significant railroad safety improvements since the 1970s. What, in your view, has accounted for this change?

A: It is a combination of what has been done at the regulatory level and what has been done by the industry. At the regulatory level, one very important area has been in writing and regulating track safety standards. We now have for the different classes of track very clear standards that represent minimum safety limits that the railroads have to maintain the track to.

That is an example of an activity led by the FRA, but what the industry has been doing in the meantime is investing in rail renewal. The rail that they put in today is much better quality than it was in the ’70s, so it is less likely to fail from internal defects.

While we’re talking about the track, another thing that was improved in that time frame is track inspection technology. We now have railcars that will measure track geometry and report sections of track that don’t comply with the safety standards and allow the railroads to take some action. We also have new systems for inspecting inside the rail to look for internal defects. Then there are other systems that take visual images of the track and report defects. Technology has come along leaps and bounds in terms of track inspection.

Q: How about advancements made in inspecting freight rail equipment for potential safety problems?

A: On the equipment side, the industry has deployed wayside detectors to look for defects. As the train goes past, detectors look at various performance properties and report where there are problems. The number and variety of those detectors has increased. Also, the industry is better at analyzing the data that comes from those detectors.

That’s what has contributed to, for example, preventing burned-off wheel bearings. There is a network of hot bearing detectors, and data from those is processed to look for trends and bad actors. There is another type of system that listens to the sounds the bearing makes when it goes past. Those two systems together are largely responsible for dealing with the problem of burned-off bearings.
Together with the industry, we have also made improvements to rolling stock when it’s involved in a derailment. For example, over this time period we have done a lot of research and testing of tank cars and used that to determine structural improvements.

Q: The rail industry stresses that its investments are a big contributor to safety.

A: Oh, yes, absolutely. One of the reasons why track-caused derailments are fewer than they were decades ago is because the railroads have been installing new rail.

Q: The FRA’s long-range research and development plan talks about requiring research into the most significant remaining safety risks. Can you explain how research is helping to solve these particular issues?

A: The FRA’s research and development program is aimed almost entirely at improving safety. We look at the history of accidents to see where the risks are highest and that’s where we focus our attention. When we do that today, we find that broken rails are the main cause of track-caused derailments. So we do a lot of research on improving the detection of rail defects before they become breaks and before they cause derailment. Our contractors that do this kind of research work to develop systems that eventually, once prototyped and commercialized, go into service.

Q: One example is the system that uses phased array ultrasonic technology to spot small defects in rail.

A: Yes. That’s one of them. Another interesting area that we’re working with the railroads on is using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for track inspection. That’s a new thing, and it is pretty exciting in terms of what could be done, but we have quite a few practical issues that need to be resolved first.

Also regarding track, we are continuing to revise the track safety standards. I mention those as a main contributor to improving safety in the past. We continue to look at those safety standards to see where they can be improved. We just completed an exercise that took about five years to revise them for the highest-speed track classes, and now we’re getting started on the low-speed track classes.

Q: What are other examples of FRA and industry collaborating on safety?

A: It’s reflected very strongly when it comes to research and development. Of the FRA’s annual research budget of typically $39 million, a third goes towards research conducted by Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), an industry-owned transportation research and testing organization], at the federal Transportation Technology Center. That, more or less, matches the funding that AAR provides for joint research through its strategic research initiative program. TTCI conducts FRA’s research there, it conducts AAR’s research there, and quite a number of projects are jointly funded by the both FRA and AAR.

It’s a very good example of the public-private partnership. One of the facilities at TTCI is the Positive Train Control (PTC) 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. Again, that’s a tremendous example of how we are working to help the railroads implement this technology.

Q: What are other areas in which the FRA is helping improve freight rail safety?

A: We often provide railroads the ability to test new technology. A good example of that is we have a regulation right now that says if the railroad detects an internal defect in the rail, they have to stop inspection and get out and verify that the defect is there with a manual process. Then depending on the severity of the defect, they take corrective actions.

We have recently allowed some railroads not to stop immediately, but to continue inspecting and build up a list of defects and then have somebody go back and check. What that means is the systems that do these inspections can be used much more effectively because they are not continuing to stop. Because the track ends up getting inspected more often, we believe that the safety risk is reduced.

FRA also has its own inspection cars. So in addition to the railroads running around checking things, we have our fleet of cars that go around checking things. We share all the data that we record and the railroads add that to the data that they’ve got to get a more complete picture of the condition of the network.

Another focus for the FRA is safety culture initiatives. A good example of this is the confidential close-call reporting system that we piloted. If anybody in the railroad workforce witnesses a close call or near miss, in a confidential manner they can report it to a neutral third party that gathers all the information. When they see signs of a common cause emerging, then they raise a flag and call together a team to see what could be done about it. That reflects a big shift in approach away from prescriptive regulations towards a more collaborative way of addressing risk.

Q: What are the FRA’s research focuses?

A: Going forward, we continue to spread the available funds as far as we can over the main areas of trespass prevention, grade-crossing safety, derailment prevention and collision mitigation.

If I had to pick out individual projects, it would be broken-rail detection — I think there’s a great opportunity for us to collaborate with the industry on that. And I don’t just mean the railroads, I also mean the parts of the industry that provide that service to railroads.

Another one to pick out would be track geometry measurements. We’re moving in the future to autonomous track geometry measurement systems, away from manned, dedicated test cars that have to be scheduled to operate in revenue service. The new devices are put onto regular railcars and run around, reporting back track geometry measurements.