“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 privately spend $26 billion each year, on average, on infrastructure and equipment to modernize and maintain the network.

Those investments are paying off. Since 2000, train accident and hazmat accident rates are down 30% and 64%, respectively, while rail employee fatalities in 2019 matched an all-time low.

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, the railcar fleet 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. As of August 2020, the nation’s largest freight railroads were operating PTC across 100% of the required Class I PTC route miles nationwide. The system will be fully active and interoperable by the end of 2020.

Keeping Employees Safe

Working on the railroad is safer today than ever before — safer even than working at your local grocery store. Applying technology to worker safety has allowed the industry to make great strides in recent years. From remote control locomotives used to reposition locomotives in a rail yards to bridge inspection using drone mounted high-definition cameras, rail technology is empowering employee to do their jobs more effectively while keeping them out of harm’s way.