“Safety first” may sound like a cliché, but it’s a guiding principle for the freight rail industry. And to keep the 140,000-mile network safe, railroads spend billions annually on new technologies like drones, ground penetrating radar and smart sensors along rail tracks. In fact, railroads have invested $100 billion in the last four years alone in technology, infrastructure and equipment.

Those investments are paying off. New data from the Federal Railroad Administration confirms we are living in the safest era ever for railroads. According to Federal Railroad Administration data, the 2016 rail safety statistics continue a string of record-setting years, showing this period has been the safest ever for the rail sector. December 2017 FRA data based on per million train miles show that since 2000 the train accident rate is down 44% while the equipment-caused accident rate is down 38%.

Here are just a few ways railroads use technology to keep the rail network safely moving.

Staying on Track

For trains to run safely and efficiently, tracks and the foundation they sit on must be in top shape.

Railroads use ultrasound, just as doctors do, to peer inside tracks and identify possible flaws. Going further down, ground-penetrating radar looks inside track foundation — known as ballast — to see water damage or deterioration. And, for hard to reach infrastructure such as rail bridges, engineers use drones to ensure structural integrity while keeping their employees safely on the ground. All of these technologies function as early-warning systems, allowing railroads to strategically schedule and perform preventative maintenance.

Big Wheels Keep on Turning

Train wheels don’t just keep our economy rolling, they are also an important part of rail safety. In fact, railcars boast 12 million wheels nationwide and each one must be in peak condition to ensure a train runs smoothly. Investments in a variety of smart sensors, including infrared, acoustic monitoring and laser technology take note of the health of railcar wheels. They alert railroads to wheel anomalies, which can affect their performance, damage track or indicate brake problems. Similar to preventative track maintenance, this allows railroads to fix small problems before they become serious.

PTC: Preventing Human-Caused Accidents

Positive Train Control (PTC) is a set of highly advanced technologies designed to make freight rail transportation — already one of the safest U.S. industries — even safer by automatically stopping a train to prevent certain types of human-caused accidents. By the end of 2018, the rail industry will mark a pivotal milestone in the development and deployment of PTC. Railroads will have PTC in operation on approximately 80% of Class I tracks. Investments in this technology will serve as the foundation for future innovation to enhance the safety and efficiency of the network.