Southwestern Rail Conference Discusses Technological Innovations in Rail Safety

By Ariel Graham | DFW Newsflash | February 2020

Dallas — Using technology to keep trains and railways safe was one of the major topics of conversation during the 16th Annual Southwester Rail Conference, held at the Beeman Hotel in downtown Dallas on Thursday, Jan. 23, and Friday, Jan. 24.

Hosted by Texas Rail Advocates, the conference discussed the merging trends in railway technology, legislation and development.

“Texas Rail Advocates was formed in 2000 when the USDoT came up with this idea of high speed rails around the country,” Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates, said. “We have the South Central High Speed corner formed here in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. We have evolved into the largest grassroots nonprofit in Texas that supports smart development of both freight and passenger rails in Texas and the southwest.”

One emerging technology is the automated railcar inspection portal, a system which employs numerous cameras to take pictures of both the cars and the tracks to more quickly and accurately identify potential safety concerns, such as broken bits of tracks or damage to the side or undercarriage of the car. Scott Daniels, senior vice president of CN Rail, explained how the system worked.

“These are high resolution cameras pointed at the train,” Daniels said. “The train goes through that track speed at up to 60 miles an hour. These are very large pieces of infrastructure that have very high intensity LED lighting that light up the sides and under carriage of the train and cameras all the way around taking pictures of everything from what’s underneath to the sides to the top. We get a picture of the entire train, a picture of every single little car following the locomotive that’s captured at 360 degrees.”

Jason Bilous, car mechanic for CN Rail, expects the automated system to significantly shorten the time needed to inspect cars on the ground level.

“Our daily tasks can be pretty challenging at times,” Bilous said. “When we do certified car inspections, you’re down on the ground, you’re in the dirt, you’re in the trenches, you’re doing the hard tasks. It can take up to an hour, an hour and a half to possibly even two. We can take that time and reduce it down from an hour and a half to two, down to minutes or to seconds with the automated rail car inspection portal.”

Gerry Harder, chief mechanical officer for CN Rail, added the goal of the automated portal is not to remove human inspectors altogether, but to give them the tools they need to better perform their jobs.

“This isn’t about replacing people with machines at all,” Harder said. “This is about giving people the tools and the insight they need to be most effective. I want experienced people figuring out what’s the priority of action I need to take. In this instance, what needs to be fixed and how best to address it in what priority to work. Our expectation is we will do more work on the assets because we will find more things. I’d rather invest more time and effort fixing our equipment and our assets before they break down, than dealing with it after.”

However, new technology is not just about making the cars safer. TrackAware, an intelligent right of way system, is aiming to make the tracks themselves safer, especially at railroad crossings and restricted areas.

“Right now, there’s a big push on eliminating trespassing fatalities and grate crossing accidents,” Robbie Brownell, director of business development for Duos Technology, said. “The top three states on the top of the list for the worst number of incidents are one, California, two, my home state Florida, and three, right here. Texas is number three in the United States [for trespasser fatalities].”

The system is designed to scan objects on the track, quickly identify what they are, and send messages to other trains on the track alerting them of a potential threat. Brownell said the system can identify anything from a car, to a human or animal that stumbled onto the tracks.

“Seventy-three percent of trespass fatalities and accidents happened within 1,000 feet of a gate crossing,” Brownell said. “Within that zone, our system can actually detect the difference between a human being, or a ball, a cat, a dog, and send alerts to the OCR and give audible messages via the radio to the oncoming train if there’s one on the approach. Also with cars stopped at crossings or even when the gates come down near high density intersections near railroad crossings.

“The top incident rating for gate crossing accidents is a car stopped on the track, not because they broke down, not because they bottomed out, it’s because they have a railroad crossing near [interstates] or near areas where they come out, because people are going home or coming to work.

“For example, one of our zones is set up with the right of way system on the West Coast with Metrolink. We also do tunnels and other significant assets. We will do OCR and video analytics of people going into tunnels other assets, areas where they don’t need to be. We can track them in and track them out.”