BNSF Railway inspects every inch of its 32,000 miles of track — the equivalent of 563,200 football fields — more than ten times each year, looking for tiny flaws deep in the track. Their actions help ensure trains move safely and efficiently on it.

Technology makes this detailed inspection possible. High-tech geometry cars travel along the tracks measuring elevation in curves, gage (distance between rails), rail wear, track alignment and many other factors. The information gathered by the geometry cars helps identify areas needing maintenance, ensuring small issues don’t grow into big problems.

“Inspecting that much track, that often, would be impossible without technology,” said Asim Ghanchi, General Director of Technology Services at BNSF.

Track geometry cars are just one of the countless innovations freight railroads invest in every year. Railroads spend an average of $25 billion annually on innovation and network improvements that make the U.S. freight rail network the world-best system that it is today. But this impressive level of spending is only possible because of the balanced regulatory environment that allows freight railroads to remain viable and, in turn, adequately invest in their networks. Thanks to this, railroads are building the transportation network of the future that will enable continued U.S. economic growth in the coming years as demand for freight movement increases and the global economy becomes more competitive.

Balanced Regulation Ushers in an Era of Innovation

America’s freight railroads weren’t always able to heavily invest in their networks. In the 1970s, railroads were struggling financially under strict regulations that governed their ability to set prices and routes. This made it difficult for railroads to earn the revenue needed to make critical improvements to the nation’s rail infrastructure and equipment. That all changed in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed legislation partially deregulating the industry, giving railroads the flexibility to make smart business decisions based on market forces and customer needs.

With this ability, the industry was revitalized and began aggressively investing in technology, infrastructure and equipment. Since then, railroads have spent more than $685 billion to sustain and modernize their 140,000-mile network. In recent years, railroads have spent an average of 19% of revenue on capital expenditures — six times more than the average U.S. manufacturer.

These investments have paid off for customers, U.S. businesses and consumers nationwide:

  • Adjusted for inflation, average U.S. freight rail rates (based on revenue per ton-mile) were 46% lower in 2017 than in 1981.
  • Railroads haul one-third of all U.S. exports at cost-effective rates that allow American companies to compete in the global economy.
  • Freight railroads can move one ton of freight an average of 479 miles per gallon of fuel, helping to limit greenhouse gas emissions. On average, railroads are four times more fuel efficient than trucks.

High-Tech Investments

Many of these benefits are a direct result of the rail industry’s investment in cutting-edge technologies that enhance safety and efficiency.

Railroads use technology, such as smart sensors placed on locomotives and track, to regularly inspect and monitor their track and equipment. These sensors, aided by advanced predictive analytics software, give railroad employees the insights they need to identify and address potential issues before they result in an accident. These types of automated inspection technologies have already helped reduce track-caused accident rates 39% over the past decade — to a record low.

In recent years, railroads have spent more than $10.5 billion on the development and installation of Positive Train Control (PTC), a set of innovative technologies that automatically stop a train to prevent certain kinds of human-caused accidents. PTC will become the foundation for future safety and efficiency improvements, generating huge amounts of data that can be applied to inform improvements to dispatching, engineering and maintenance.

Technology is also driving rail customer service improvements. Today, for example, Norfolk Southern (NS) arms its customers with advanced mobile applications that give them clear visibility of their shipments and insight into rail car availability across the railroad’s network. To further meet customers’ demand for more consumer-like service, NS applies predictive analytics to give customers improved delivery windows that allow them to more effectively manage their daily operations. “Our customers face the same imperatives as the railroad industry — to use assets more effectively, to operate more efficiently, and to serve their customers better,” says Chief Marketing Officer Alan Shaw. “Investments in customer-facing technology by NS and the rail industry enhance the reliability, predictability, and transparency of the service we provide — helping our customers to grow, and us with them.”

Future Forward

With the Federal Highway Administration forecasting that total U.S. freight shipments will increase from an estimated 17.7 billion tons in 2016 to 24.2 billion tons in 2040, railroads’ investments in next-generation technology — as well as broader infrastructure and equipment projects — are crucial.

These investments help ensure that the industry is ready to move more freight — more safely and efficiently —than ever before. The broad benefits of technology extend to rail shippers too, helping to keep rates low and increase U.S. competitiveness in the global economy.

Underlying all these benefits — and the ability to meet increased demand in the future — is today’s balanced economic regulatory environment. Without it, railroads would not be able to sustain high levels of reinvestment and better serve their customers. Maintaining balanced economic regulation will help ensure that railroads and their customers will continue to thrive.