California groundbreaking offers a new option for USA

The groundbreaking ceremony of California’s long planned high-speed railway from San Francisco to Los Angeles on January 6 marked a real milestone in rail travel in the United States, and it’s hard to think of any part of the industry that won’t benefit, including signalling.

The route has to be signalled with Positive Train Control – it’s the only interoperable technology in North America that can provide the Automatic Train Protection that high-speed rail needs – and it could just be that it provides a much needed fillip to the technology. It will also provide a much needed alternative to European Rail Traffic Management System, which is becoming a de facto standard for new high-speed railways all over the world.

So it’s all eyes on California’s high-speed dream. We wish them well in turning it into what we hope is a game changing reality.

US Senate slams rail delays

Rail congestion is costing United States industry and agriculture hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation this week.

Rail customers in North America are suffering from network congestion - but what's the best way of  funding the improvements needed? Credit: Union Pacific.

Rail customers in North America are suffering from network congestion – but what’s the best way of funding the improvements needed? Credit: Union Pacific.

Senator John Thune expressed serious concerns about the impact of delays on the rail network, saying: “In all my years of working on rail matters, I have never seen producers more concerned than they are now regarding their restricted capability to move grain to market.”

“It is my hope that this hearing will continue to bring attention to the rail service backlogs that South Dakota shippers, and shippers nationwide, are currently facing, and encourage continued discussion about both short-term and long-term solutions to address these issues.”

The committee’s concerns carry weight, but perhaps they also reflect that the big Class 1 railroads are – to an extent – the victims of their own success: if traffic levels were lower, route congestion would be too.

The solutions are straightforward in principle: more infrastructure where it is needed most, and the rollout of Positive Train Control (PTC) to provide much needed extra capacity on existing routes. The challenge for railroads across North America is the same faced by their counterparts all around the world – funding.

Given the importance of heavy-haul freight in particular to the United States, perhaps central funding on a national network basis represents the best solution. One is sure – the  the railways must work together on the network improvements so clearly needed.

Wabtec wins Alaskan PTC deal

Alaska Railroad Corporation has awarded a USD 16.6 million contract for Positive Train Control (PTC) equipment to Wabtec. Wabtec will supply a range of equipment including computer aided dispatch and back office systems over the railway’s 840km network, which is used for freight and scheduled passenger services.

The company’s Interoperable Electronic Train Management System (I-ETMS) will be installed on 54 locomotives as part of a comprehensive PTC fit-out. As expected the systems are fully interoperable with other PTC technologies being installed across the United States.

Wabtec Chairman and CEO Albert J. Neupaver says: “PTC continues to be developed and deployed by freight and passenger railroads in the USA, and this project with Alaska Railroad demonstrates the variety of capabilities we have to assist our customers.”

Alaska Railroad Corporation VP of Advanced Train Control Systems and Technology Eileen Reilly added: “Wabtec understood our needs and delivered the computer-aided dispatch that is the cornerstone of our PTC project. We look forward to our continued successful relationship as we implement I-ETMS PTC.”

Will camera spending really improve safety?

The North American railway journalist Fred Frailey has been a vociferous critic of moves to install video cameras in locomotive cabs to monitor drivers’ activities, arguing that all they will achieve is to help identify what went wrong in an accident rather than prevent them from happening. However, he published a response on his blog from Chicago, South Shore & South Bend Railroad president Andrew Fox, who makes a cogent argument for the technology.

Can inward facing video cameras really improve rail safety? Some railroads in North America believe so. Credit: Union Pacific.

Can inward facing video cameras really improve rail safety? Some railroads in North America believe so. Credit: Union Pacific.

Fox makes some good points about being able to monitor and enforce regulations such as not using mobile telephones in the cab, but is Frailey right? Most modern locomotives and multiple units already have extensive monitoring and recording facilities to assess operations, and real-time monitoring from onboard systems already allows railways to evaluate any number of activities – from throttle and brake settings to fuel consumption, component status and more. With the likes of driver vigilance devices already ensuring that crews remain focused, it is difficult to see how monitoring video feeds from all cabs in real time would highlight any improper practices, except by chance or in the event of an accident. Other than the thought in the back of a driver’s mind that he or she could be being monitored at any given moment, what safety gains are there really?

There is a strong argument that suggests that better signalling systems and safety devices will do more to improve rail safety than an in-cab video feed and the costs of setting it up and employing people to monitor them. The rollout of Positive Train Control and onboard systems monitoring is surely a better investment in terms of safety and performance evaluation than a video camera, however cogently North American railroads may argue the case. That is certainly the view of the majority of railways elsewhere in the world.

This is becoming a controversial issue in North America, but fundamentally the question has to be asked: is it better to invest in safety systems to prevent accidents, or in those which merely help explain what went wrong?

Automation Week Day 3: Weighty challenges for Heavy Haul

Heavy haul freight presents unique challenges in imposing greater automation. Credit: Union Pacific

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.

Big problems for PTC rollout

US railroads will not be able to meet the government imposed deadline for installation of Positive Train Control of 2015, according to representatives of a number of Class 1s – and there is no clear indication of when the rollout will be completed.

The scale of the challenge is vast, and with 96,500km of track and more than 18,000 locomotives to be equipped, it lends credence to the long held view of many railroaders that the 2015 deadline was always likely to be unrealistic.

But is the investment justified by a rational cost:benefit analysis? Although the safety benefits are significant, could the money being spent on PTC be used to save lives in other fields such as roads safety to name just one example? will be interested to hear your views…

Either way, PTC implementation is going to be an even hotter topic over the coming months.