Railroad Operations: Where Safety and Innovation Converge

Railroad Operations: Where Safety and Innovation Converge

New processes, technology, and policies help ensure rail cargo security and prevent accidents.

Specially equipped freight cars pass over railroad tracks as sensors gather multiple data points on their condition. Rail-side detectors scan passing rail cars to evaluate their integrity. Trackside ultrasonic technology identifies internal flaws in passing wheels.

These cutting-edge technologies—implemented by the Association of American Railroads‘ (AAR) Transportation Technology Center Inc. (TTCI) in Pueblo, Colo.—are part of a multi-billion-dollar investment rail companies are making to continuously enhance railroad operations safety.

The United States has been criticized in recent years for the state of its transportation infrastructure. But rail is being held up as a model for the significant improvements that can be attained with dedicated effort. This praise is largely due to ongoing investment in infrastructure and equipment by America’s freight railroads—including more than $25 billion in 2012 by members of the AAR.

“Railroads are experiencing a competitive resurgence as an energy-efficient freight transportation option,” according to the 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, published every four years by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The report commends the railroads for increasing investment during the recent economic recession, when materials prices were lower and trains ran less frequently, and says rail has made the biggest improvement since the group’s last report.

That’s a far cry from the 1970s, when “the Northeast almost lost freight rail services,” says Richard Young, Ph.D., professor of supply chain management and business administration at Penn State University. “Railroads deferred maintenance on a lot of track, until the Staggers Rail Act of 1980 eased regulation.”

Improvements and ongoing investment since then helped the rail industry experience its safest year ever in 2012, according to the AAR. Since 2000, the train accident rate has fallen 44 percent, the rail employee injury rate has dropped 51 percent, and grade-crossing collisions are down 45 percent.

Facing the Challenges

Railroad companies own most of the United States’ 138,565 miles of track, operating on a land mass roughly the size of Delaware—stretched out in long, skinny strings that cross through every type of geography: urban centers, suburban neighborhoods, open plains, mountains, lowlands, and everything in between.

Rail systems also have many components: rail beds, bridges, ties and tracks, locomotives, rail cars, and mechanical and computerized systems that control it all—and that doesn’t include the yards and all the equipment they maintain. Rail operators must address both safety (preventing accidents, and keeping people and property free from harm) and security (protecting loads against damage and criminal activity).

Monitoring and protecting rail operations is a significant challenge. Trespassing on railroad property is common, and many roads cross rail tracks at grade—a situation many railroads are working to abate.

Another challenge for rail operators is that in some rail-reliant industries, shippers or other railroads own the cars. Intermodal containers may also be owned by third parties. While railroads are generally happy to let someone else own the assets, they do bear responsibility to inspect them to ensure compliance with safety standards, and to refuse or repack those that fail inspection.

Some industries have made considerable investment in rail car safety. “For example, the chemical industry has been diligent about investing in braking systems hardware,” says Young.

To some degree, the rail industry has also become a victim of its own success in attracting new business.

“Many solutions are already in place to help shippers, but some new customers have never shipped on rail before,” says Jim Horgan, director of damage prevention and claims for Norfolk, Va.-based Norfolk Southern, a Class I railroad operating in 22 states and the District of Columbia. “The rails are continually developing new products and conveyances, so we have to work closely with our marketing and sales teams to be in the forefront of new business opportunities in order to avoid future problems.”

Pushing Tech Advancement

Railroads have an obvious interest in keeping people and cargo safe and secure. But so does the government. While the AAR credits reduced regulation with many of the industry’s gains, the two entities are still sometimes at odds over specifics of how to attain those goals, such as timetables and appropriate standards.

For example, U.S. legislation passed in 2008 mandates that railroads implement positive train control (PTC) technology on main lines used to transport passengers and toxic-by-inhalation materials. PTC technology is designed to automatically stop or slow a train before certain types of accidents occur, including train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive speed, unauthorized incursions by trains into maintenance areas, and switches left in the wrong position.

The law requires railways to implement PTC by 2015. But the industry warns that despite $3 billion in investment to date, technological hurdles stand in the way of attaining a reliable nationwide interoperable PTC network. The rails are asking for more time—and an August 2012 Federal Railroad Administration report confirmed the accuracy of the industry’s assessment.

But the rail industry has also pushed for higher safety standards than the government currently allows. In March 2011, the AAR’s Tank Car Committee petitioned the U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to adopt higher standards for DOT-111 tank cars carrying packing group I and II commodities (such as crude oil and ethanol). The standards include enhanced tank head and shell puncture resistance systems and top fittings protection that exceed current requirements.

The PHMSA is seeking public comments on the proposed new rules, but the industry has moved ahead proactively: All new tank cars carrying packing group I and II crude oil and ethanol ordered after October 2011 are built to these higher standards.

Leveraging Innovation

To meet regulations or pursue their own continuous improvement objectives, many railroads are combining technology, processes, and shipper training—along with expertise from field-based damage prevention managers—to reduce cargo damage or loss.

Rail safety begins with the quality of the underlying rail infrastructure. Maintaining and investing in tracks and equipment is key to preventing accidents.

From 2008 to 2012, Class I railroads purchased 2,669 new state-of-the-art locomotives, and rebuilt another 845 locomotives to improve their capabilities, according to AAR. They also installed 77 million new crossties and 2.9 million tons of new rail, and placed 61 million cubic yards of ballast.

The railroads also devoted substantial resources to developing and implementing innovative new technologies, such as:

  • Wayside detectors. These sensors identify defects—overheated bearings and damaged wheels, dragging hoses, deteriorating bearings, cracked wheels, and excessively high or wide loads—on passing rail cars.
  • Acoustic detector systems. These trackside systems use “acoustic signatures” to evaluate the sound of internal bearings to identify those nearing failure. They supplement or replace systems that measure the heat that bearings generate to identify those in the process of failing.
  • Track geometry cars. These technology-rich cars use sophisticated electronic and optical instruments to inspect track alignment, gauge, curvature, and other track conditions. A new vehicle track interaction system is also used to locate difficult-to-find track geometry defects. This information helps railroads determine when track needs maintenance.
  • Ground-penetrating radar. This technology helps identify below-ground problems—such as excessive water penetration and deteriorated ballast—that hinder track stability.

IT Investments

The rail industry has also made considerable advancements in information technology systems. For example, TTCI developed the Integrated Railway Remote Information Service (InteRRIS), an advanced Internet database. An early project using InteRRIS processes data from various equipment measurement systems to produce vehicle condition reports.

Another example is the Equipment Health Monitoring Initiative, a predictive and proactive maintenance system designed to detect potential safety problems and poorly performing equipment.

Like other industries, rail is increasingly scouring data to gain business insights. For railroads, that insight includes cargo safety and security.

Norfolk Southern, for example, uses data analysis tools to identify trends in customer freight claims and damage notifications for specific shippers or commodities that require attention. By drilling down into specific lanes, customers, and rail cars, NS can often determine a root cause, so it can resolve the issue.

Putting Protection in Place

It’s up to individual railroads, however, to implement these technologies in a way that makes the most sense for their operations. Most Class I rail companies also maintain their own facilities to conceive, test, and implement technology innovation.

Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX—a Class I railroad operating 21,000 route miles of track in 23 states, the District of Columbia, Ontario, and Quebec—has invested in eight Super Sites on its higher volume lines.

Super Sites feature groups of specialty detectors that monitor wheel and bearing health, and communicate with a central database. The database logic provides comparisons of bearing temperatures, and alerts train crews if those temperatures indicate potential problems.

Other CSX technology includes machine vision systems to look for equipment defects, laser/camera systems measuring critical wheel profile dimensions as rail cars pass, and technology to monitor terminal coupling speed. The carrier also uses remote monitoring technology to observe key infrastructure, including tunnels and bridges.

Norfolk Southern credits its safety improvements primarily to track maintenance, process control computer upgrades, and Wayside Imbalance Load Detectors, which identify potentially dangerous loads and help shippers correct their load patterns. The rail company is currently enhancing the detectors to include longitudinal imbalances to improve the safety of moving large or heavy loads.

The railroad also works with dunnage and securement manufacturers to explore and test new ideas to safely secure lading.”More shippers are now using non-metallic strapping—a safer alternative for many commodities,” says Horgan.

“The more information shared—from shipper to railroad and railroad to shipper—the less chance of shipment damage.” Gary Sease, CSX


Omaha, Neb.-based Class I railroad Union Pacific has also invested in wayside detectors. It also uses distributed power units—placing locomotives in the middle and/or end of trains to reduce the physical forces on them, which makes them less prone to derailments, and facilitates more even braking to reduce wheel and track wear.

In Mexico, Class I railroad Kansas City Southern Railway (KCS), based in Kansas City, Mo., has implemented GPS, geo-fencing, security applications for smartphones and iPads, and other security technologies and investments, in addition to constant security auditing. For damage prevention in both the United States and Mexico, KCS introduced a solar-powered, wireless data system that monitors several parameters on rail cars to help reduce freight claims.

Analytics and Process

Processes and procedures for properly preparing freight to move on rail represents another area where railroads are concentrating their safety improvement efforts.

Perhaps the fastest education on how to secure a load properly for the longitudinal shifting that impacts cargo in a rail car—and how it differs from a truck’s latitudinal movement—is to open a car after a rail trip and see what it looks like.

That’s where a railroad such as Pioneer Valley Railroad in Western Massachusetts has a lot to offer.

“We transload many shipments—taking them off the rails, holding them in our warehouse, and trucking them to the destination,” says Mike Rennicke, vice president and general manager for Pioneer Valley. “We’re in the perfect position to go back to the shippers with a digital photo that shows how a load looks when it arrives, so they can compare it to when it was put in the rail car.

“It always starts out looking perfect, but loads shift in transit,” he adds.

Pioneer Valley and others offer services to help shippers plan and improve their loading processes. One Pioneer Valley customer that makes bagged plaster, for example, was using air bags to fill space between products to prevent damage. But pallet shifts were still causing problems, so Pioneer recommended plywood between pallets.

For a birdseed company customer, switching pallet sizes so loads fit more snugly across the rail car interior helped eliminate damage. For another shipper, new strapping and cushioning recommendations improved the condition of rolled aluminum shipments.

Norfolk Southern recently restructured its damage prevention team, creating expert positions for automotive, intermodal, open-top, and closed-car commodities. “We are working closely with our marketing and sales colleagues to develop training programs for both internal and external participants,” says Horgan.

Handling Hazmat

Hazardous materials present a special challenge no matter how they are moved, but rail companies have developed their own technologies, policies, and processes to move these materials as safely as possible.

In 2010, U.S. railroads transported approximately 1.8 million carloads of hazardous materials—including 77,000 carloads of toxic inhalation hazard materials. In 2010, 99.998 percent of rail hazmat shipments reached their destination without a release caused by a train accident, according to the AAR. Rail hazmat accident rates are down 38 percent since 2000.

“Hazardous materials are subject to greater scrutiny—such as handoff procedures from one supply chain partner to another,” says Robert Ledoux, senior vice president at Florida East Coast (FEC) Railway, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based intermodal shortline operating on the east coast of Florida. “We have to ensure we are prepared to receive and secure those shipments, as does the receiving customer.”

One contributor to safety achievements is the Rail Corridor Risk Management System, a sophisticated statistical routing model designed to ensure that materials are transported on routes that pose the least overall safety and security risk. A railroad will intentionally route hazardous materials away from a stadium full of football fans on a Sunday afternoon, for example.

In August 2013, the Federal Railroad Administration issued additional mandates for certain processes and policies intended to help prevent trains operating on mainline tracks or sidings from moving unintentionally.

Steps include daily job briefings for those involved in securing a train, and communicating with dispatchers regarding the number of hand brakes applied, the tonnage and length of the train or vehicle, the grade and terrain features of the track, any relevant weather conditions, and the type of equipment being secured.

Designing and maintaining equipment is only part of the task of ensuring the successful movement of freight from Point A to Point B. Railways maintain comprehensive security organizations to protect goods from damage and theft.

“The biggest challenge is when the train stops,” says Ledoux. Rail workers can’t monitor every mile of train, and cars branded with familiar retailer names can be a particular draw for thieves.

Security Investments

To continue enhancing its security, FEC is reducing stops, performing more field inspections in both directions, and deploying its police force to ensure cargo protection at vulnerable times such as crew changes and during emergencies.

The railroad is also investing in automated gate systems and a new yard under construction in Port Everglades, Fla. And FEC is starting to offer on-dock rail in PortMiami to avoid transferring to trucks for the six-mile trek across town.

Security technologies in place at Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF—a Class I railway operating on 32,500 route miles of track in 28 states and two Canadian provinces—include camera systems with detection analytics, gate access systems, portable surveillance systems, thermal imaging devices, tamper-resistant barrier seals for trailers and containers, and uniformed police and K9 teams with marked police vehicles.

BNSF employees are trained to be aware of and report security-related issues and threats, and the railroad helped start Citizens for Rail Security, which taps members of the public to help protect the railroad by reporting security violations, trespassers, or unusual occurrences. Today, BNSF is broadening that effort by further educating community and legislative groups.

Solutions in Development

Many of the industry’s technological advancements are developed and refined at TTCI. The facility uses its 48 miles of test tracks, highly sophisticated testing equipment, metallurgy labs, simulators, and other diagnostic tools to test all aspects of railroading, including track structure, freight car and locomotive performance, and component reliability.

Technologies currently under development at TTCI include:

  • Rail defect detector. Special cars detect internal rail flaws caused by fatigue and impurities introduced during manufacturing. TTCI is developing a prototype of an advanced “phased-array” rail inspection system to detect hard-to-find internal rail defects.
  • Optical geometry detectors. This technology identifies poorly performing freight cars. While a relatively small percentage of freight cars are defective, they cause an inordinately high percentage of track damage, and have a higher-than-usual propensity to derail.
  • Automated detector systems. These inspect the undercarriage, safety appliances, and other components using machine-vision-based car inspection systems.

Other TTCI projects include evaluating track substructure under heavy-axle load operations; an overlay treatment to combat running surface degradation; steel bridge testing; and improved brake riggings to prevent asymmetric wheel wear.

What Shippers Can Do

Some shippers exert an unusually high level of control over their freight because they own the rail car as well as its contents. But whether they’re using their own, a third party’s, or the rail company’s equipment, shippers can take steps to maximize load safety and security.

The AAR maintains a set of standardized loading rules and procedures for shippers, and rail companies advise shippers on preparing loads.

“Provide as much information as possible to the railroad regarding the commodity or product to be shipped and any potential for damage or spoilage,” recommends Gary Sease, corporate communications director at CSX. “The more information shared—from shipper to railroad and railroad to shipper—the less chance of damage.”

Also make sure trading partners are aware that the shipment they are preparing may involve rail transportation, so they can optimize intermodal container loads for rail travel as well as other applicable modes.

Preparing for the Future

Measured in ton-miles, about 40 percent of U.S. freight volume moves by rail—more than any other transportation mode. Thanks to their significant investment in technology, processes, and infrastructure, railroads are ready to move even more of this freight securely and safely.

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