Technology helps railroads achieve safety milestones, minimize their impact on the natural environment and maintain a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced global economy.
In the coming years, railroads look to build upon these successes. While rail technology is pervasive, the industry is on the verge of an exciting new era of innovation. Advanced algorithms and data analysis software will enable railroads to harness the massive amounts of data being collected nationwide to enhance safety, reliability and service to customers. Next generation automation technology will continue to reduce the impact of human error and human limitations on railroad operations, improving safety and efficiency.
Looking toward the future, federal regulations must both permit and encourage railroads to continue to develop and deploy these vital technologies that produce meaningful benefits for citizens, American businesses and the U.S. economy.
Generating Big Data & Big Solutions
Railroads harness the power of Big Data to solve big challenges in unimaginable ways. Aided by smart sensors deployed across the network and advancements in track inspection technologies, railroads have amassed databases with hundreds of trillions of bytes of information about the condition of track and equipment. This virtual goldmine of data coupled with improved data analytics software allows railroads to uncover critical data trends and apply those learnings to enhance safety and operations.
Once data trends have been identified, researchers at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI) extensively study the data and develop recommendations for how to apply it to improve operations. One aspect of data analysis is the ability to analyze multiple factors at once and develop “composite rules” — industry-wide standards that are developed by identifying a factor or combination of factors that can indicate if a piece of equipment is near risk of failure. Recently, industry members issued a composite rule that sets the industry-wide standards for wheel safety and integrity. TTCI’s InteRRIS® database provides the foundation for future composite rules.
As railroads gather more data through inspection technology and refine the software capable of analyzing it, the ability to enhance safety and maximize the efficiency of operations will only increase. Today, track inspection machines operate independent of trains, but the next generation of track inspection technology could be incorporated into locomotives generating up to 250 gigabytes of data daily per locomotive. Onboard inspection technologies such as these would allow for continuous and more frequent inspection and data collection that informs annual capital and maintenance planning.
Moving Toward Automation
Automation holds great promise for the future of railroad safety and efficiency. Today, automation of inspection technology and Positive Train Control (PTC) has started to deliver on its great promise to reduce the impact of human error and go beyond human limitations to make railroad operations safer and more efficient. Recently, an advanced algorithm analyzed the track alignment — known as track geometry — of more than 1,500 curves in track in just a few hours, whereas it would have taken a team of four people 10 months to manually complete the same task.
Today, all Class I railroads use some sort of automated technology for inspections to supplement the manual inspections required by federal regulation. With increased use enabled by next generation technology and modifications to federal regulation, railroads will be able to conduct safety inspections more frequently, detect more flaws more reliably and respond more quickly while keeping workers out of harm’s way.
Automation of train operations also has the potential to enhance both network efficiency and safety, enabling the transport of more goods by rail — reducing the demand on highway capacity and providing fuel efficiency and air emissions benefits — while further reducing accidents related to human factors. PTC — technology designed to prevent rail accidents related to human error — is central to advances in automated train operations. When deployed, the next generation of PTC will know the precise location of all trains operating across the network as well as the distance required between individual trains for them to operate safely. Armed with this information, railroads will be able to safely increase the number of trains on a track and better manage how closely they operate together, improving both network velocity and fluidity.
As of August 2020, the nation’s largest freight railroads are 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.
Developing 21st Century Regulations for a 21st Century Industry
For railroads to realize the full potential of technology, a paradigm shift must occur. Today, railroads are required by federal regulation to perform manual inspections, despite the existence of technology that can perform these inspections more reliably and quickly while keeping workers out of harm’s way.
Realizing the full benefit of these future technologies will require modernization of regulatory processes from the current historic perspective to one which actively encourages the development of safe and productive technological solutions that allow the industry to better serve American businesses and consumers.
“Regulators should start with the premise that technological progress can solve many problems,” Joe Kennedy of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation says. “They should therefore welcome technological development, and act to speed the process of making it safe and reliable and introducing it into markets, rather than act as gatekeepers who slow the pace of innovation.”
A regulatory environment based on today’s technology — and flexible enough to embrace future innovations — will enable railroads to meet the challenges of tomorrow while maintaining its status as the world’s best transportation network.