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Trains Run on AutopilotTrains Run on Autopilot

Booming freight traffic drives railways to seek efficiencies via wireless technology

March 30, 2006

5 Min Read
Trains Run on Autopilot

Faced with soaring demand, rising fuel prices, and a fixed infrastructure of tracks and cars, the worldwide railway industry is investing heavily in wireless technology to make freight trains run more efficiently and productively.

The share prices for publicly held railway companies like Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway are on a two-year roll, reported The Wall Street Journal this week, as demand continues to grow and railways have been able to institute their first major price increases since the industry was deregulated in 1980.

The good times, however, have created a dilemma: how to handle increasing loads -- particularly for "intermodal" container traffic that travels by ship, truck, and train -- without laying new track. Each mile of new track costs between $1 million and $2 million to build -- and there aren't that many places left to lay track.

"In North America, China, India, Russia -- just about everywhere, railroads are bottlenecked," says Prat Kumar, head of General Electric's Rail Solutions unit. "Laying down new track is a very expensive way of increasing capacity. So the core philosophy behind my business is unlocking railroad capacity with wireless technology and IT."

"Investment in our railway [data] network is increasing," adds Lynn Andrews, the senior assistant vice president for IT operations services and CTO of Union Pacific Railroad, the nation's largest railway. "We have to spend more because volumes are up so much."

Telcos within railways
Railways can be thought of as big telecom companies within even larger freight-hauling companies. Union Pacific, for example, has a 15,000-mile private microwave network, connecting towers along the rail lines. Much of that network is aging, which means that Andrews is faced with upgrading his existing system while installing new technology such as onboard cellular modems and 802.11 networks at large facilities like railyards.

At the moment, communications uplinks from trains in transit are handled by the microwave network and by satellite in remote areas where there's not other forms of coverage.

"I'd hoped by this time to be able to begin to retire some of our private stuff and go over to public networks," says Andrews, "but the coverage from the cell providers is just not there yet."

Wireless intra-train communications began to be critical for railroads in the early 1990s, when the advent of distributed locomotives (i.e., engines in the middle and at the rear of the train, not just at the head) "completely changed the physics and redefined the landscape of heavy hauling," as Kumar puts it. Over the last 10 years, he says, GE has invested nearly $200 million on developing technologies in IT and wireless systems to unlock capacity along the railways. Revenues for GE's railway technology business increased 60 percent in 2005 over '04.

Now, the railways are seeking to use improved data flow to manage traffic across rail networks thousands of miles long.

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Higher velocity
In the last year, GE has released a series of products aimed at developing an "autopilot" system for trains, including a locomotive tracking and monitoring system called PinPoint, which can tell if an engine is in motion or idle, the train's exact location and speed, its fuel level, and so on. Coupled with GE's radio-frequency remote control system for trains, called Locotrol, and its Movement Planner program for optimizing the flow of trains across the entire system, this system can significantly increase velocity, or the average speed of all of a railroad's trains at any given time.

For U.S. railroads, says Kumar, a one-mile-per-hour gain in velocity can mean $1 billion in savings over the course of a year. Fully implemented across an entire railway, he claims, GE's Movement Planner can achieve 2- to 4-mph increases in velocity.

"Eventually, an engineer will download a trip plan onto the locomotive's computer," Kumar explains. "And the locomotive will figure out the best way to run the train over a piece of track."

For more localized applications, railroads are building wireless mesh networks in their yards, which can sometimes stretch for five or six miles and cover hundreds of thousands of acres. Most locomotives today carry event recorders, "black boxes" that record all the parameters of a given trip including fuel economy, average speed, the gradient of the line, and so on. These logs often contain hundreds of megabytes of data. When a train pulls into a WiFi-equipped terminal it can download all that information in seconds, allowing analysts at the railroad's network operations center to examine it and deliver a report to the crew on the performance of the locomotive and how to wring more efficiency from each trip.

No forklifts allowed
"There's a lot of fuel to be saved by operating the train better," explains Andrews, "and one of the best ways to give the crew feedback is immediately after the run: 'On this hill you did this, if you'd done that it would've saved a lot of fuel,' that sort of thing. We need to rapidly upload that data from the train to the mainframe, analyze it and put out a report before the train even gets to its destination."

One of the biggest challenges of upgrading to wireless systems is integrating new technology seamlessly into ongoing operations; There's no such thing as a forklift upgrade when you're shipping close to 2 billion ton-miles (one ton shipped one mile) of freight every year.

"We've got a huge physical plant and a huge investment in all this [existing] technology," says Andrews. "So we don’t do sweeping rollouts. It's more evolutionary as we move from technology to technology."

To that end, even as he replaces the legacy analog radio equipment on the UP network with IP-based digital microwave systems, Andrews is installing converters to let some of the older equipment work over the new IP networks. The good news, he says, is that while the budget for advance networking stays more or less flat, he can get more for the money as prices for equipment and software come down.

That's a good thing, because there's no end in sight to the railway capacity crunch: Total freight traffic by rail, according to Jacksonville, Fla.-based railway company CSX Corp., is projected to grow by 67 percent in the next 20 years.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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