Commentary | IT Matters

Networked Track Sensors Keep Rails and Workers Safe

Tags: Logistics I.T., Rail, Safety

Dr. Abdullatif “Bud” Zaouk is Director of Transportation Solutions, QinetiQ North America, 571-521-7700

The current state of rail integrity and safety is a critical issue for logistics managers who increasingly rely on intermodal transportation. Intermodal rail traffic has significantly increased during the past two decades, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In addition to increased rail traffic, aging infrastructure complicate intermodal shipping. In 2011, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) reported 46 derailments related to track buckling, resulting in nearly $19 million in reportable damages.

Fluctuating temperatures represent another concern for rail shippers. Common industry practice targets 95°F as the Rail Neutral Temperature (RNT) the temperature at which the rail has no compressive or tensile stress. But field studies show RNT seasonal changes fluctuate 30 to 40 degrees due to factors such as rail traffic volume and other stressors. These shifts in RNT can make the rails more susceptible to buckling and breaking, and subsequent train derailment.

Workers typically measure rail temperatures at high-traffic times, a practice that can create two problems. It represents a worker safety risk, and can result in inconsistent monitoring which means critical data could be missed.

To help mitigate the risks inherent in gathering and sharing track data, rail companies can use sensor-based computer networking solutions to continuously monitor tracks and make warning data accessible.

On the Right Track

With the help of communication towers and a Web-accessible user interface, freight rail companies can monitor, capture, and push data from long stretches of rail. The data alerts key personnel to track temperature changes, enabling them to make the right decisions at the right time with minimal service disruption, and assist track inspectors with more comprehensive coverage.

Rail companies can realize technical support, risk management, and cost benefits from adopting networked sensor technology. This allows authorized personnel to receive emergency notifications if rails break or buckle, or at risk of doing so.

Data captured from these networked sensors can also help streamline maintenance by providing timely information regarding the need for rail repair or replacement. This correlation between field inspection and measured data can help manage track failure risk and prioritize track maintenance. It is safer and more cost-effective to anticipate when a rail might buckle or break, as opposed to reacting after a potentially dangerous problem occurs.

Another benefit of track sensors is that command centers will be able to provide more accurate data. In addition to capturing data more frequently for nearly continuous monitoring, the sensors minimize human error.

With more effective command centers, freight rail operators will avoid unnecessary down time, while increasing revenue-generating service.

Track-buckling prevention is a primary research and development goal for the FRA. For now, no one knows which priorities will emerge from this R&D initiative, but one thing is clear: technology solutions can help freight rail operators improve worker safety, cut costs, and mitigate potential rail incidents and damages by remotely monitoring track conditions. These tools put them on the right track when it comes to rail integrity and safety.