Change may seem slower in the rail industry as trains have longer lives than many methods of transportation. Yet, as The Economist reports, there is no shortage of new ideas.

Better technologies are delivering everything from improved traction, braking and route-planning to sleek levitating trains designed to glide on air at an astounding 500kph (310mph). Energy-efficiency and safety are up, and derailments are down. There are schemes to transfer electrical energy from braking trains into local power grids, and even more radical plans for “moving platforms” that dock with high-speed trains.

Railway Technology Magazine

Railway Technology Magazine

To grow, a railroad needs to push more volume through a relatively finite network of tracks, locomotives, and railcars. New technology is essential to maximizing throughput; it’s a constant balance between analytics-driven automation and human judgment. With increased throughput and speed come concerns about safety.

Positive Train Control

A 2008 train crash in California in which 25 people died led to the Rail Safety Improvement Act, which mandates that all major US railroads implement a PTC (Positive Train Control) system by December 2015.

PTC deters train wrecks. It combines GPS, track-side devices, wireless radio, and software into a monitoring system for train position and speed. It can slow or stop a train before a collision due to excessive speed (like the 2013 crash in Spain), ignoring a red signal (as in L.A. Metrolink’s 2008 incident), and track incursions (which caused a 2012 accident in Valparaiso, Ind.).

A dozen PTC projects, involving nine railroads in at least 16 states, are in varying stages of development and implementation. The system will cover about 70,000 miles of track when completed. A consortium led by UP, CSX Transportation, Norfolk Southern Railway, and BNSF Railway is leading the interoperability effort. Due to the expensive and complicated nature of PTC technologies, rail companies recently Congress for a five-year extension on the 2015 deadline.

New Crashworthiness Standards in the US

The US Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Railroad Safety Advisory Committee has implemented new “crashworthiness” standards for next generation high-speed passenger rail equipment. According to Progressive Railroading,

The changes establish performance-based requirements for an interoperable rail network, permitting the use of “service proven” designs and advanced technologies, while ensuring a consistent, systematic approach to safety.

The standards provide baseline safety requirements for next-generation rail equipment that travel up to speeds of 220 mph on high-speed track. The standards also provide the flexibility to operate with existing freight- and passenger-rail systems at speeds up to 125 mph.

EURAIL Magazine

EURAIL Magazine

US crashworthiness standards mean Amtrak must use trains with locomotives on both ends. This makes them slower and heavier than bullet trains used in Europe and Asia. The new standards reflect that US passenger trains often share tracks with freight railroads rather than operating on their own lines.

Amtrak reports it is working on a series of new locomotive tests, “including maximum speed runs, acceleration, and braking, operating with Amtrak passenger coach cars attached and testing the overall performance capabilities of the locomotive. Engineers are also validating the on-board computer system and software, as well as evaluate ride quality by using instruments to measure things such as noise and wheel vibrations.”

European Safety Standards

Over the past 12 years, the European Union has pushed to transform national rail systems into a single market. With recent crashes, there is growing public pressure to install the latest automatic braking technology, as well as calls to reverse staff cuts that have left drivers alone and working longer hours that can result in human error.

To enhance safety, the European Train Control System is an automatic train protection system and GSM-based radio system that electronically transmits information from the track to the train to an onboard computer that calculates the maximum permitted speed and that can automatically slow a train. The new system will gradually replace the more than 20 train control systems across the EU.

In addition, EN 45545, the European Fire and Fumes Regulation, is moving from technical specification to implementation. According to EURAIL magazine,

All materials used in/for rail applications, such as seating and claddings (e.g. walls and floors) must meet stringent criteria in terms of flame spread, heat release, opacity, and the toxicity of smoke emitted during a fire. Fire is particularly dangerous in these enclosed spaces because evacuation is complicated and the air quickly becomes unbreathable.

Development continues as railroad companies look to key technologies to increase efficiency, safety, reliability, and provide a better passenger experience.

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