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US Railroads Harness the Power of Technology & Big Data

by | IntelliTrans | Aug 4, 2022 | Blog News

How the nation’s rail systems are using technology and big data to improve safety and efficiency.

As shippers, carriers and logistics firms around the globe put more technology in place to both address their current challenges and prepare for what’s coming around the next corner, some core infrastructure providers are taking similar steps. Any company shipping break bulk and using rail, for example, will be happy to know that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) clearly views technology and data as important to its future. 

Most recently, in a push to enhance train safety and codify train crew size requirements, the FRA issued a proposed rule to enhance train safety and codify train crew size requirements.

The rule requires a minimum of two train crewmembers for over-the-road railroad operations. It includes some exceptions for certain low-risk operational circumstances and/or where mitigating measures are in place to protect railroad employees, the public and the environment.  

“For the past few years, our rail workers have worked hard to keep people and goods moving on our nation’s railroads, despite a global pandemic and supply chain challenges,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in a press release. “This proposed rule will improve safety for America’s rail passengers—and rail workers—across the country.”

Finding Coherence

The FRA’s proposed rule is also focused on enhancing safety nationwide by replacing what it calls a “patchwork” of existing state laws regarding crew size with a uniform national standard. “Without consistent guidelines, railroads may be subjected to disparate requirements in every state in which they operate,” the FRA points out, “resulting in potential safety risks, operational inefficiencies, and significant costs.” 

The notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) also addresses the physical location of crewmembers on moving trains and would prohibit the operation of some trains with fewer than two crewmembers from transporting large amounts of certain hazardous materials. The FRA says that the risk assessment and annual oversight requirements in the NPRM are intended to ensure that railroads fully consider and address all relevant safety factors associated with using less than two person crews. 

Current industry practice is to have two-person crews consisting of a locomotive engineer and conductor. Under the NPRM, a special approval procedure would allow railroads to petition FRA: (1) to continue legacy operations with one-person train crews; and (2) for approval to initiate a new train operation with fewer than two crewmembers.  

This proposed rule is complementary to other recent regulatory initiatives FRA has issued or is in the process of developing. Those initiatives include railroad safety risk reduction programs and the development of fatigue risk management programs. The rule is also consistent with safety analysis required by other FRA regulations, including positive train control (PTC), which is designed to prevent collisions, derailments, incursions into established work zones, and the movement of trains as a result of switches being left in the wrong position.


Harnessing the Power of Big Data

The FRA isn’t alone in its mission to use more technology and data to ensure safety and improve efficiencies within rail networks. According to the Association of American Railroads (AAR), railroads continue to harness the power of big data to solve big challenges. Aided by smart sensors deployed across the network and advancements in track inspection technologies, for example, railroads have amassed databases populated with hundreds of trillions of bytes of information about the condition of tracks and equipment. “This virtual goldmine of data coupled with improved data analytics software allows railroads to uncover critical data trends and apply those learnings to enhance safety and operations,” AAR points out. 

Once data trends have been identified, researchers at MxV Rail study the data and develop recommendations for how to apply it to improve operations. For example, they’re using the data to analyze multiple factors at once and then develop “composite rules,” or industrywide standards based on identifying a factor or combination of factors that can indicate if a piece of equipment is near risk of failure.   

“As railroads gather more data through inspection technology and refine the software capable of analyzing it, the ability to enhance safety and maximize the efficiency of operations will only increase,” the AAR says, adding that track inspection machines currently operate independent of trains. 

Once in place, the next generation of track inspection technology could be incorporated into locomotives generating up to 250 gigabytes of data daily per locomotive, the group predicts. “Onboard inspection technologies such as these would allow for continuous and more frequent inspection and data collection,” AAR adds, “that informs annual capital and maintenance planning.”

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