To ensure that its 28,000 locomotives, 1.5 million rail cars, and 140,000 miles of freight railways are in good condition and running safely and smoothly, America’s railroad industry relies on state-of-the-art technologies and operational innovations. From ground-penetrating radar to integrated wayside detector systems, the railroad industry is committed to developing and deploying the latest cutting-edge technological advances to keep passengers and freight moving safely and securely around the country. Here is an overview of some of the latest technological developments at work on a railroad near you.
Locomotive and Freight Car Wheels
As rail cars pass, wayside detectors identify defects—including cracked or damaged wheels, overheated or deteriorating bearings, dragging hoses, and excessively high or wide loads—that could result in structural failure or other damage. Newer wayside detectors are also performing highly accurate inspections of car underframes and car safety features using machine vision and digitized images.
Wheel profile monitors.
By using lasers and optics, these monitors capture images of wheels to ascertain the level of wear on wheel tread or flanges, in order to determine when the wheels should be removed from service.
Acoustic detector systems.
Located trackside, these systems identify those internal wheels that are nearest to failure by evaluating the sound of the wheels’ “acoustic signature.” Acoustic detector systems typically supplement or replace existing systems that identify failing wheels by measuring the heat generated by wheel bearings.
New wheel materials.
Wheels constructed with micro-alloy metals are currently in development. Thanks to the greater strength of these alloys, the wheels will be better able to resist damage and handle heavier service loads.
Wheel temperature detectors.
These detectors use infrared technology to scan passing locomotives and freight cars; the resulting temperature reads show whether brakes are properly set.
Track and Infrastructure
Rail flaw detection.
Among the methods used for detecting rail flaws are defect detector cars, which are used to identify internal rail flaws. Other new systems in development include an in-motion ultrasonic rail joint inspection system, which is currently in the testing phase, and the first prototypes of a laser-based rail inspection system.
Metallurgy and fastening systems.
Improvements in both these areas have helped enhance track stability, which decreases the risk of derailments due to track failure.
Track geometry cars.
These advanced cars inspect track conditions like alignment, gauge, and curvature using sophisticated optical and electronic instruments. Analyses of track geometry are provided through advanced onboard computer systems, which help predict freight cars’ responses to deviations in track geometry. This enables railroads to determine when tracks require maintenance.
Along with terrain conductivity sensors, this radar system, which is currently in development, will help identify below-ground problems, such as deteriorated ballast or excessive water penetration, that could threaten track stability.
Improved lubrication techniques, such as high-tech “friction modifiers,” help extend rail life and lower fuel costs.
Systems that include remote monitoring capabilities are being developed to help determine the structural health of bridges.
Locomotives and Freight Cars
To address the fact that the majority of track damage is caused by a relatively small percentage of freight cars, experts are working on new ways to use performance detectors to pinpoint those freight cars that are performing poorly.
New inspection techniques.
Innovative techniques in development make use of nondestructive tools, like fluorescent magnetic particles, to find defects in rail car coupling systems and castings.
Tank car enhancements.
Thanks to improvements in tank car safety, the rail accident rate for hazardous materials has fallen by 95% since 1980.
Gradually, older and poorly performing locomotives are being replaced by a new fleet of state-of-the-art models. These locomotives pollute less, are more fuel-efficient, and feature dozens of microprocessors that monitor performance and critical functions.
Remote-control locomotive technology.
This technology allows rail personnel on the ground to control locomotives in rail yards using a hand-held transmitter, which communicates with a microprocessor on board the locomotive.
Shutdown and startup systems.
Primarily designed to save fuel and reduce emissions, these systems help reduce idling and keep engine fluids warm. Additional components of these systems include consist managers, which automatically reduce power to locomotives not in use.
Computers and Communication Systems
Computer modeling software.
Advanced modeling software is now widely used throughout the rail industry for a huge range of tasks, including operations simulations, construction sequencing, and automation of rail grinding schedules.
This new web-based application is designed to help first responders in the event of a rail emergency. Responders can input a particular rail car’s identification number to immediately determine whether the car is loaded, and if so, the nature and hazard class of its cargo, any emergency response information associated with the cargo, and the emergency contact information for the handling railroad.