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Tech on the Tracks

The railroad industry increasingly resembles Silicon Valley rather than the iconic black-and-white images of days gone by.

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Despite a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission that shows that 34 million Americans lack access to fixed (wired) high-speed Internet access, most experts agree that the U.S. leads the world in information-driven innovation.

The railroad industry increasingly resembles Silicon Valley rather than iconic black-and-white railroad images of days gone by.

American companies like Facebook — which reported $5.84 billion in sales for the fourth quarter of 2016 — and Google, which had a 14 percent spike in its core Internet business last year, undoubtedly drive technological development around the globe. The stories of Silicon Valley’s most successful companies, made possible through unique technologies, skills and training, are well established.

But what is less well known is that more established U.S. sectors, including freight railroads, are also deploying big new ideas to modernize operations and better compete in this global economy.

Consider that in 1980 3.1 million containers and trailers were moved by rail intermodal — the long-haul movement of shipping containers and truck trailers by rail, combined with a (usually much shorter) truck movement at one or both ends.

By 2014, volume had surged to 13.5 million containers and trailers. This means increased efficiency for the delivery of consumer goods. While partially attributable to naturally occurring market shifts, the trend is also the result of an unrelenting quest for better and safer delivery of goods. Advances in technology are at its core.

As Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), recently opined, “from a sophisticated system in its final stages of testing that uses multidimensional ultrasonic technology to locate defects in tracks before they cause problems, to the testing of drones for inspection of tracks and bridges as well as measuring air quality, the industry increasingly resembles Silicon Valley rather than iconic black-and-white railroad images of days gone by.”

Some railroads are testing the use of drones as a tool to inspect tracks and bridges, and measure air quality.

Railroads are increasingly using “big data” to analyze the safety of equipment, looking at a combination of factors to discover potential safety problems. “Individual factors by themselves might not be predictors of defects, but in combination they could be,” says Tony Sultana, a principal investigator at the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI), a research and testing facility in Pueblo, Colo., which is owned by the Department of Transportation and managed by the AAR. By collecting and analyzing hundreds of terabytes of information, railroads can — as Sultana shows — help identify problems with equipment.

Some railroads are also testing the use of drones as a tool to inspect tracks and bridges and, in the case of BNSF Railway, monitor air quality. Not as a replacement for on-the-ground, trained employees, but an enhancement to make railroads even safer.

“These drones will be able do their detective work despite dangerous conditions, keeping rail employees safe while improving railroads’ ability to gather the information necessary to help detect problems and to plan and prioritize corrective action,” according to a new report from the Association of American Railroads.

Meanwhile, railroads are on the cusp of using “phased array” ultrasound technology — think an X-ray — to analyze tracks and identify microscopic flaws before they lead to safety problems. This technology enables a railroad to examine track from a number of angles at the same time, instead of just head-on, providing a more complete, real-time analysis. With 140,000 miles of steel rail across this nation — enough to circle the earth more than five times — this advancement will be a significant tool in reducing the occurrence of railroad accidents.

Consumers may not associate freight railroads — responsible for overseeing a vast infrastructure with more than 100,000 privately owned bridges and 1.5 million rail cars in the U.S. — with high-tech and the startups driving consumer behavior today. But for every disruptive technology like ride sharing or autonomous cars, there is a reliable freight railroad incorporating new technologies that ensure the efficiency and safety of the nation’s essential rail network.

Michael J. Rush is senior vice president of safety and operations at the Association of American Railroads, (AAR), the world’s leading railroad policy, research and standard setting organization for the freight and passenger railroads of the United States, Canada and Mexico. He serves as the industry’s liaison with regulatory bodies including the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Homeland Security. Among other responsibilities, Rush oversees the rail industry’s homeland security plan, environmental protection and safety programs, and tank-car safety standards and design. Reach him @AAR_FreightRail.

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