By putting technology to work, freight rail is focused on the present while shaping the future, committed to keeping the American economy on track.
Safer than Ever
We are living in the safest era ever for U.S. railroads thanks in part to rail technology, which allows railroads to inspect their track and equipment with greater frequency, efficiency and reliability.
U.S. freight railroads can, on average, move one ton of freight 479 miles per gallon of fuel, making rail the most environmentally friendly way to move freight over land.
By applying advanced software and technologies to operations, railroads move freight more efficiently and cost-effectively than ever before.
Get Up Close & Personal With the Future of Freight Rail
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 stop a train under certain circumstances, will address a leading factor in train accidents: human error. 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. This technology will serve as the foundation for future innovation to enhance the safety and efficiency of the network.
Railroads are taking to the skies and mastering technologies once found only in the pages of science fiction novels. 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, train-caused accident rates are at an all-time low.
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.
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. 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.
The Digitization of an Industrial Giant
How Technology is Revolutionizing Freight Rail & Keeping America’s Economy Moving
Integrated teams of data scientists, software developers and engineers develop and apply technology across every aspect of the nationwide freight rail network. Here is some of their insider knowledge.
Kathleen Brandt, CSX CIO
Asim Ghanchi, BNSF General Director of Technology Services
“We have more than 4,000 wayside detectors spread across the network and we’re gathering about 35 million readings per day. Over the last 10 years, we’ve reduced the number of mechanical-caused derailments at a compound annual growth rate of approximately 6% using these sensor technologies.”
Mabby Amouie, Norfolk Southern Senior Manager of Advanced Analytics
“Sometimes we’re able to detect problems hours, days and even months in advance. That’s a game changer in terms of gaining valuable insights about the future that empower and enable us to get ahead of potential problems and prevent certain failures.”
Lynden Tennison, Union Pacific CIO
“People really didn’t think of us as a tech company. They thought of us as a industry, kind of an old school industrial economy type of company. Once [summer college interns] got in here and saw the types of breakthrough R&D we were doing — stuff they would read about in the tech periodicals — then suddenly their eyes were opened and they realized this really is a tech company inside of an industrial giant.”
Lisa Stabler, President of the Transportation Technology Center Inc.
“Although the locomotives that you see today may look like they did 30, 40 or even 50 years ago, the technology that’s in them today is very advanced and extensive, There is a lot of computerization and technology that allows for the efficient management of fuel and real-time sharing of information about the condition of a train.”
Ready to Learn More?
Explore the latest AAR.org articles on freight rail technology and learn more about how the rail industry uses technology to increase network safety, sustainability and service.