Private Rail Network

America boasts nearly 140,000 rail miles. They are operated and maintained by more than 560 private railroads, which typically own their own tracks and locomotives.

Types of Railroads

American railroads deliver 5 million tons of goods, on average, to ports, distribution centers, businesses and more — every single day. Passenger cars move along America’s freight rail network, too. It takes a mix of types of railroads to get the job done.

Class I

America’s seven class I railroads operate in 44 states and the District of Columbia, employ 90% of U.S. railroad workers and bring in more than $447 million in annual revenue. These are the long-haulers of the railroad world, accounting for nearly 69% of the industry’s mileage.

Short Line and Regional

31% of U.S. freight rail mileage moves along America’s 560 short line and regional railroads, which receive traffic from Class I railroads for final delivery. Some are small operators handling a few carloads a month. Others cross state lines and approach class I size. Short line and regional railroads operate in every state except Hawaii and employ 10% of U.S. railroad workers.

Switching and Terminal

Many ports and industrial areas include their own small railroads that pick up and deliver goods. This type of railroad also moves traffic between other, larger railroads.

Passenger

If you’ve ever traveled between cities on Amtrak or been one of the hundreds of millions of people to work by commuter rail each year, you very likely were carried along tracks or right-of-way owned by freight railroads. Approximately 70% of the miles traveled by Amtrak trains are on tracks owned by freight railroads.

Technology

Thanks to steady, substantial spending on infrastructure, equipment and technology — $100 billion over the last four years alone — America’s freight railroads move more freight more efficiently, safely and cleanly than ever before.

Positive Train Control

What is the future of freight rail technology? Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC is a set of highly advanced technologies designed to automatically slow or stop a train under certain circumstances, will address a leading factor in train accidents: human error. By December 31, 2018, first generation PTC will operate on approximately 80% of the required Class I rail network, well beyond the amount mandated by the federal government. The system will be fully active and interoperable by 2020. This technology will serve as the foundation for future innovation to enhance the safety and efficiency of the network.

Drones

Railroads are taking to the skies and mastering technologies once found only in the pages of science fiction novels. Railroads use drones to inspect bridges and other areas of their network that are difficult for employees to safely reach. Today, Class I railroads across the nation are deploying drones for a variety of safety and environmental purposes. In remote areas, drones are exploring thousands of miles of track to ensure that freight trains continue to safely traverse unforgiving terrain. Railroads also use drones to inspect bridges.

Ultrasound & Radar

Tracks, rail ties and ballast (the stone bed tracks rest on) are the foundation of the private, 140,000-mile rail network. Together, they must support 6,600-ton trains as they move across the country. Tiny flaws imperceptible to the human eye can lead to accidents, so railroads rely on technology, such as ultrasound and radar, to look deep inside a track. Radar allows employees to peer into a track while ground-penetrating electromagnetic radar detects any abnormalities in ballast. Railroads use this data to proactively schedule preventive maintenance, helping to keep small issues from becoming big problems. Thanks in large part to technologies such as these, the track-caused accident rate is down to 53% since 2000 to an all-time low since.

Machine Visioning

Can you imagine taking thousands of images in one second? That’s something railroads do every day with trackside machine visioning technology, which captures 50,000 images per second of nearly every component on a passing train. Specialized software analyzes the images in real-time and alerts rail personnel to anomalies that require attention.

Recently a team of researchers at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), a technology subsidiary of AAR, developed an advanced machine visioning system that can inspect ballast, the rock foundation tracks sit on. The current process is slow and labor-intensive, but with this new iteration of machine visioning, railroads will be able to perform evaluations quicker and identify potential problems sooner.

Data Analytics

Using a combination of smart sensors, industry-wide data sharing and advanced analytics software, railroads monitor the health of the network and equipment in real-time. For example, thousands of smart sensors, known as wayside detectors, positioned along rail track throughout the country, monitor the integrity of railcars as they move at up to 60 MPH. Using a host of technologies, such as infrared and X-ray, the sensors assess the health of bearings, axles, wheels, springs and other equipment components in real-time. This information allows railroads to react quickly, preventing bigger repairs and even accidents.

Preventive maintenance also allows railroads to schedule repairs and fixes at optimal times and places, so trains stay as close to schedule as possible. And with fewer breakdowns, more trains are out on the tracks delivering goods and raw materials, instead of in the rail yard waiting for repair.

Workforce

The jobs that support railroads are wide-ranging: from engineering and dispatching to law enforcement and information technology to industrial development and more. These highly skilled professionals average $125,400 per year in compensation, including benefits. They tend to spend their entire careers in the industry, and many have family railroad legacies stretching back generations. Railroads are also military-friendly employers, with nearly 20% of current employees veterans.