By: TTCI President Lisa Stabler and Railinc President & CEO Allen West

Every day throughout America, 600 freight rail companies operate more than 1.6 million rail cars and about 40,000 locomotives across enough track to circle the earth nearly eight times.

Monitoring and managing infrastructure and equipment across such a vast network might seem daunting, if not impossible. But today’s freight railroads have such deep insights into the health of the network that they can even identify microscopic flaws on a single wheel when it’s moving at 60 miles per hour.

That’s right — a 200-year-old industry is marrying advanced technology and Big Data to have eyes and ears across the 140,000-mile network. While the fundamentals of railroading — a hard steel wheel running on a hard steel rail — remain the same as they have for generations, this is not your grandfather’s railroad.

Railroads are leading the way, developing and deploying high-tech tools that help make North America’s freight rail network safer than ever before. And companies like Railinc and the Transportation Technology Center Inc. (TTCI), both subsidiaries of the AAR, leverage Big Data, research and analytics to improve safety and efficiency. Working together with the railroads and car owners, our organizations have developed advanced technologies and algorithms to better detect potential issues, which allows railroads to proactively schedule maintenance before problems arise.

At TTCI, scores of researchers, engineers and other rail experts in Pueblo, Colorado design, develop and test the technology necessary to keep the United States the global leader in freight rail transportation. For example, engineers use sophisticated computer modeling to virtually test the long-term operational stresses on railcars, track and even components, which helps reduce the cost of testing in the field. This helps the industry answer difficult technical questions, optimize the design of new components, investigate derailment causes, predict wear rates and more.

Drawing from a comprehensive portfolio of research initiatives, TTCI’s work led to the development and continued improvements of wayside detectors. These smart sensors positioned along rail track use a host of technologies, such as vision, acoustic, infrared, and X-ray systems, to assess specific equipment components like wheelsets as trains pass by at full speed. When analyzed, the data yields powerful insights that the railroads and others in the industry use to improve safety.

Turning that data into actionable information is one of the roles of Railinc, which provides IT and data services to the freight rail industry. As a hub for rail data and communications, Railinc connects approximately 600 railroads, nearly 2,000 private car owners, and hundreds of other logistics services providers along every link in the supply chain. With a bird’s eye view of the entire rail industry, Railinc helps railroads sift through a huge tranche of data to identify patterns and address operational challenges around equipment health.

For example, Railinc maintains a database of nearly 5 million wheelsets and their associated railcars. If a railcar has a worn wheel that could become unsafe, it shows up in the detector data. This allows Railinc to send alerts to railroads, so they can quickly address the problematic railcar. Railinc is also working to apply this approach to other equipment components such as couplers, bolsters, sideframes and brake valves.

Information is power and as the volume of data railroads generate in their operations is only increasing, we are able to help make the industry safer than ever before. With strategic deployment of these technologies, America’s freight rail transportation system has logged the safest years ever recorded.

Railroads’ continuing investment in equipment, infrastructure and technology — $100 billion over the last four years alone — is paying off with mainline train accidents down 32%  over the last decade. Looking to the future, we at TTCI and Railinc look forward to using today’s technology to deliver tomorrow’s railroad.