How technology is preventing train accidents

How technology is preventing train accidents
Train derailments, both passenger and freight, are unfortunately much more common than we think. Dozens of major derailments worldwide result in thousands of deaths yearly. This year alone, there have been major derailments in the U.S., U.K., India, Greece and Belgium to name a few, with several resulting in fatalities.

In an effort to reduce rail incidents, new standards and regulations have been put in place by governments across the globe. These new measures include the implementation of advanced technologies to improve rail management and safety.

Positive Train Control

In 2008, the U.S. enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act in an effort to improve rail safety. This law came on the heels of the 2008 Chatsworth train collision between a freight train and commuter train in Los Angeles, Calif., resulting in the deaths of 25 and over 100 injuries. Part of the Act requires positive train control (PTC) technology to be installed on passenger railroads and Class I freight railroad networks by the end of 2015; this deadline was extended to 2018.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), “PTC is required to be installed and implemented on Class I railroad main lines (i.e., lines with over 5 million gross tons annually) over which any poisonous- or toxic-by-inhalation (PIH/TIH) hazardous materials are transported; and, on any railroad’s main lines over which regularly scheduled passenger intercity or commuter operations are conducted.” The FRA currently estimates this will equate to approximately 60,000 miles of track and will involve approximately 20,000 locomotives.

Based on the Rail Safety Improvement Act, all PTC systems must reliably and functionally prevent: train-to-train collisions, overspeed derailments, incursion into an established work zone, and movement through a main line switch in the improper position. Furthermore, the FRA states that “PTC systems must also provide for interoperability in a manner that allows for equipped locomotives traversing other railroad’s PTC-equipped territories to communicate with and respond to that railroad’s PTC system, including uninterrupted movements over property boundaries.”

The deployment of PTC technology, however, has come with many challenges and opposition. For example, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) pointed out that this type of system requires highly complex technologies that are able to analyze and incorporate the huge number of variables that affect train operations. More importantly the technology must be able to automatically and reliably interpret the information and safely stop the train.

Opponents of PTC question whether or not the technology is better than skilled train operators and engineers with decades of experience. Some even question whether there is technology advanced and sophisticated enough to do the job effectively and efficiently.

Implementation costs are another issue. The estimated total cost of PTC development and deployment for freight railroads is US$10.6 billion, according to the AAR; an additional $3.5 billion is estimated for US passenger railroads. These figures do not include the hundreds of millions of additional dollars that will be needed to maintain the system each year after.

Regardless, US railroads will be required to finish deploying PTC technology by 2018, with some being granted extensions until 2020 if they meet the criteria.

Intelligent Databases

Railroads and rail car owners are taking advantage of the information provided by big data to improve rail safety.

The Asset Health Strategic Initiative (AHSI) from Railinc, a subsidiary of the AAR, is a US railroad industry project working to build an intelligent database tracking railroad and rail car health. The AHSI further builds upon previous initiatives to monitor rail-car health. This includes component tracking and equipment health management system (EHMS) programs.

According to the AAR, “Prior to EHMS and AHSI, railroads relied largely on data gathered from wayside detectors — trackside technology that monitors the rail cars of passing trains to identify when select components on those cars are beginning to show signs of wear and tear — located only in their service territory. Unfortunately, while rail cars (which are owned by various entities) regularly traveled across multiple railroads, their performance data did not. A railroad only knew how a rail car performed on its own tracks — a partial picture that slowed down diagnosis of potential systemic industry problems and necessary repairs.”

The AHSI hopes to change that. By aggregating data points from rail networks across the U.S. and from different rail companies and lines, the intelligent database hopes it could potentially prevent rail incidents from happening by providing rail operators with a more complete picture of what to look out for and what is happening on the tracks.

Derailment Detection and Rail Fracture Devices

India has some of the most congested and used railroads in the world. It has also had some of the worst train accidents. This year alone has seen several major incidents, including a terrorist attack in March where a bomb exploded.

Derailments, however, remain a problem significant problem in India, often resulting in a high number of fatalities. In November 2016 a passenger train derailed killing 150 and injuring more than 150. It is the deadliest train accident in the country since 1999. As a result, the Indian government has invested more resources into developing technologies to help prevent such incidents in the future.

Currently, the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur (IIT Kanpur) is working on developing derailment detection devices, which would be in the form of onboard equipment. The device would integrate with existing brake mechanisms for minimizing losses due to dragging of derailed vehicle, according to IIT Kapur. Currently there is no instrumentation on Indian Railways for detecting derailment possibilities.

The Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras) is working on developing a system to detect cracks on rail tracks; as of now there is no automatic system for this. Currently, rail operators rely on ultrasonic testing conducted by engineers every two months to check track conditions, as well as reports by train drivers. IIT Madras hopes to develop a system that will digitize the process of ultrasonic testing.

Continued Advancements for Safer Railways

As it stands, there are already many systems and technologies that exist to assist in the prevention of railroad accidents; however, as technology improves, so do these systems. While these systems cannot prevent every accident, nor can they predict accidents caused by spontaneous or planned human events, the implementation and improvement of such systems will surely save lives and continue to make railroads safer.
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