Heavy haul freight presents unique challenges in imposing greater automation. Credit: Union Pacific
When you consider some of the world’s most demanding heavy-haul freight railways, on the face of it, there seem to be significant opportunities. Fewer – if any – crew needed over long-distance runs, greater fuel economy, and perhaps even the opportunity to haul heavier loads still. Yet a more detailed examination might suggest that the situation is more complex.
Railways in North and South America, South Africa and Australia have long used multiple working and remote control to reduce the number of traincrew needed. Train control systems such as Positive Train Control offer a higher degree of supervision from control centres, ensuring that trains are running at the optimum speed and keeping to schedule. In theory, the central control centres could drive the trains automatically with further development.
However, although the technology is making unmanned operation a possibility, it seems highly unlikely that railways will opt for total automation over long distances. The reason for this is simple: how can a remote system deal with unexpected events such as motorists running the lights at level (grade) crossings, technical failures, or even animals straying onto the route? (A heavy freight train hitting a herd of bison, for example, could well derail).
The simple answer is that over the hundreds and thousands of kilometres that the world’s longest and heaviest freight trains operate, there isn’t an automation system on the horizon which could deal effectively with any or all of these issues. Technical failures such as hot axleboxes, broken couplings or locomotive defects may be rare, but if, for whatever reason, a train breaks down, human intervention is going to be needed. And it’s much faster for a traincrew onboard to intervene than it is to dispatch maintenance crews via road or helicopter to remote locations.
Furthermore, the sophisticated onboard systems of modern freight locomotives mean that traction and fuel consumption are going to be highly optimised, and with long distances between stops, some of the key arguments for automation on metros – greater route capacity and shorter journey times – become less relevant.
It is possible that a heavy-haul freight railway could move to full – but with supervisory staff on board – automation, but in our view, the operational benefits of doing so are more than outweighed by the potential for delay caused by failures and the wait for remote teams to arrive on site and resolve the issues. What are your views? Let us know via the comments form.