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November 2006

Rail News: C&S

Instruments of change

Railroads have used two-way analog radios in the field for more than half a century. The radios have improved over the years, sporting a wider communication range and longer-lasting batteries, but haven’t changed drastically.

Digital radio systems, which offer better signal clarity and less interference, have been marketed to the rail industry for several years. However, many railroad communications and signals (C&S) managers haven’t been willing to absorb the cost of replacing analog handhelds, base stations and repeaters.

They won’t be able to put off a changeover much longer. Railroads will need to acquire narrowband radio equipment by 2013 to comply with a December 2004 Federal Communication Commission (FCC) order. The commission will narrow the private land mobile radio VHF spectrum — which the rail industry uses — from 25 kHz to 12.5 kHz in the 150-174 MHz and 421-512 MHz bands to accommodate more users.

“The narrowbanding will provide more channels in the same block, effectively doubling the number of channels,” says Howard Moody, a consultant to the Association of American Railroads, which manages the rail industry’s radio spectrum and is working with the FCC to develop narrowbanding instructions for railroads.

Although many analog radios can operate in a narrowband, C&S managers will need to consider buying digital models so field workers can send and receive data via radio frequency (RF), and use handhelds that are interoperable with emergency first responders’ digital radios. In addition, managers will have to factor emerging voice-over-Internet protocol (IP), IP-over-RF and wireless C&S equipment technology into purchasing decisions.

Radio and wireless C&S equipment suppliers are expecting a near-term order windfall as more railroads pull the trigger on those decisions. Several railroads already are purchasing digital radios, and sales are bound to increase as new products enter the market and the FCC deadline approaches, radio suppliers say.

“In 2007, the Class Is will be buying digital radios, and I think there will be a complete conversion by 2010 to be on the safe side with the FCC order,” says Mike Utecht, a manufacturers representative for radio supplier Icom Inc.

A narrow approach
Icom officials hope a narrowband digital radio the company introduced in spring will draw interest from railroads. The F3061 VHF model now features a plug-in module that takes the FCC’s narrowbanding to another level: 6.25 kHz, says Utecht. Instead of exchanging one 12.5 kHz channel for one 25 kHz channel, an F3061 user can file for three 6.25 kHz channels that cover the same spectrum as their current 25 kHz channel, he says.

Early next year, Icom plans to introduce a repeater, base station and truck-mounted mobile unit based on 6.25 kHz.

The company currently is working with Kenwood Corp. to jointly develop and market a digital 6.25 kHz radio.

“They will also market their own 6.25 kHz radio and our radio will be compatible with Kenwood’s,” says Utecht.

In addition, Icom and Kenwood have formed an alliance with Trident Micro Systems to develop next-generation digital networking systems designed to replace analog systems.

For now, Icom continues to market the F3061 series of radios, which feature 512 channels and 128 zones — enough channel capacity to meet large railroads’ needs, says Icom Advertising Manager Dave Kruzic.

RELM Wireless Corp. also is trying to develop products that meet railroads’ radio demands. For the past five years, the company has marketed the BK Radio D Series APCO P25 digital portable radio, which offers 400 channels in the 136-174 MHz VHF spectrum.

“Cost used to be an issue with digital radios, but we’re driving the price down,” says RELM Director of Product Development Pete Rogell.

In July, RELM introduced the BK Radio DPH-CMD, a P25 digital and portable command/control radio that offers mixed-mode operations between digital and analog radios.

“You can set it up so one person has control over all communications,” says Rogell. “If there’s a derailment, that one person would be linked to people at the site and local first responders.”

In September, RELM released the Rapid Deployment Portable Repeater (RDPR) or “The Go Box,” which can be linked to an analog or digital mobile radio to increase RF power output to 50 watts or 100 watts.

“If people are working on track in a desert or remote area, they can set up the repeater on a mountain and get a longer range,” says Rogell. “Instead of five miles of talking range, they can get 20 miles.”

At Railroad Controls Ltd. (RCL), several new products are on the drawing board that would provide railroads more digital radio and radio-based data communications options.

“The FCC order will require railroads to obtain radios with more functionality, and make them look at their voice and data needs and make changes,” says RCL Executive Vice President of Marketing Mike Choat. “We’re working on ways railroads can use RF to transmit voice and data. Besides the FCC order, data over RF is a big issue.”

RCL currently distributes Motorola’s Professional Series two-way radios to the rail industry, including portable and mobile 750, 1250 and 1550 models. The company also provides radio tower construction, bench repair and licensing services.

Communication integration
Penta Corp. is trying to develop more voice and data communication products for the rail industry, too. For years, the company has marketed the PCx, a single communications system designed to integrate the control of radios, telephones, intercoms, PBX circuits, microwave channels, fiber-optic lines and consoles. The system can control 256 devices (lines and consoles) in standard mode and 512 devices in expanded mode.

By year’s end, Penta plans to introduce the cPCx, a “next-generation” digital voice-over-IP communications control system. The cPCx will meet the needs of Class Is with thousands of Internet portals or regionals and short lines with only a few portals, says Penta Sales and Operations Manager Bobby Chandler.

“If their infrastructure supports IP, they can take advantage of the cPCx’s voice-over-IP routing features,” he says. “It gives you the ability to re-route control from desk to desk using the advantage of IP addressing.”

Penta also is developing trunking radio features, which control a multi-channel voice and data radio system via several repeaters and a computer in a digital format and at a higher spectrum speed to provide clear channels in the field.

“You’d need less bandwidth for voice,” says Chandler.

RailComm Inc. is trying to provide an optimal radio spectrum for its products, as well. The company offers a wide range of spread spectrum communications and three frequencies (900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz) to improve the operation and security of its wireless remote-control command and control systems.

The firm’s RADiANT™ data radio with integrated antenna can provide a wireless link to remote sensors, microprocessor-based controllers and monitored mechanical devices.

“We can provide more security and reliability for communications between one point and another,” says RailComm Chief Operating Officer Sean Gleeson.

The company offers wireless yard and terminal systems designed to operate and monitor switch machines, blue flag operations, derails and other field devices. RailComm also markets supervisory control and data acquisition, centralized train control and dark territory train control applications.

“A new application is the replacement of wired code lines with our RADiANT technology,” says Gleeson, adding that the company recently completed an installation for the Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad Co.

Meanwhile, RFTrax recently introduced two wireless systems designed to monitor locomotives and freight cars.

Released in the first quarter, the Asset Management Platform (A.M.P.) Locomotive Edition features sensors, software and wireless cellular communications to monitor a locomotive’s location and conditions, such as coolant temperature, battery voltage and fuel level.

Currently, a Class I is using 1,000 of the devices on middle- and low-horsepower locomotives, says RFTrax National Sales Manager John Felty.

“Railroads can use our information to monitor crew performance, gain insight into the utilization of locomotives in certain regions and determine how to allocate locomotives,” he says.

Keeping tabs is key
Introduced in the second quarter, the A.M.P. Railcar Edition features a car-mounted asset command unit, sensors, software and wireless cellular communications to monitor a car’s location and condition.

“It’s a very flexible system,” says Felty. “Customers can select the sensors they need for their rail cars to determine conditions, such as temperature, if a car is loaded or a door is open,” says Felty.

By year’s end, RFTrax plans to introduce an A.M.P. Tank Car Edition targeted at private tank car owners. And in early 2007, the company expects to begin marketing a three-axis accelerometer that will sense ride-quality events on cars, such as overspeed impacts and truck hunting.

“It will be good for freight that is more susceptible to damage, like auto parts and paper,” says Felty.

As railroads continue to take on more traffic and hire more workers to handle it, C&S managers will continue to seek equipment that can improve communications and operations. For example, handheld radios soon might include a Global Positioning System feature so railroads can locate a field worker in distress or an encryption application so certain voice transmissions aren’t intercepted by a third party.

“I see railroads starting to look at encryption on critical-sensitive radios as a security feature,” says RELM’s Rogell. “If you’re in a yard moving tank cars around, that’s sensitive stuff.”


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