“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 $25 billion annually, on average, on infrastructure and equipment to modernize and maintain the network.
Those investments are paying off. According to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data, the 2017 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 2008 the train accident rate is down 23% while the equipment-caused accident rate is down 16%.
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. At the end of 2018, the nation’s largest freight railroads were operating PTC across the vast majority — 83.2% — of the required Class I PTC route miles nationwide. The system will be fully active and interoperable by 2020.