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by Robert J. Derocher
In general, the demand for communications and signaling (C&S) power supplies was strong in 2010, and it's at high ebb again this year, suppliers say. Just how much of that demand is being driven by the pending implementation of positive train control (PTC) technology is unclear, but the game-changer that is PTC definitely is driving some of it.
Some suppliers say railroads are gearing up for the likely increase in remote power requirements for PTC.
"Last year was our best year ever, and this year looks every bit as good — especially because of PTC," says Tom Ulrich, president of Arthur N. Ulrich Co., which supplies batteries, chargers and other power equipment to all the Class Is. "It's driving a lot of power needs that weren't there before."
Others say railroads are not yet pulling the trigger on purchases connected to a technology that remains a few years off — or longer, should the federal government extend PTC implementation, as a few suppliers suggest.
In any event, suppliers of power generation and conversion equipment, solar power supplies, converters and inverters, and batteries and related accessories say they continue to offer plenty of options to interested railroads. They also continue to develop new products and equipment as customers seek economical options for non-pole power supply for a variety of C&S operations.
What do power-supply buyers want? Options for traditionally located signals, crossings, hot box detectors, telecommunications and other rail applications, Ulrich says. Batteries, too — for Arthur N. Ulrich, that means battery products from Saft, such as the SPL Ni-Cd, a long-life nickel cadmium battery that provides standby power for rail infrastructure applications, including trackside power and signaling; and the Tel.X Ni-Cd, a long-life nickel cadmium battery for rail telecommunication functions.
Sales also are increasing at Arthur N. Ulrich subsidiary RedHawk Energy Systems, which offers renewable and alternative power sources, such as solar power systems, hydrogen fuel cells, wind generators, and hybrid systems for power usage and storage. There'll be even more demand for these systems because PTC will require power availability in dark territory and other locations that will be too remote or otherwise too costly for other power supply options, Ulrich says.
"[Railroads] are just going to need power in so many more sites," he says.
In the meantime, railroads continue to seek solar and fuel cell technology, along with hybrid power systems, notes Sid Bakker, president of Transportation Product Sales Co. (TPSC), a manufacturer's rep for Automated Railroad Maintenance System Inc. (ARMS), among others. ARMS specializes in distribution and system integration of rugged power systems and electronic equipment for C&S systems. Several Class Is are using the ReliOn E-200™ hydrogen fuel cell system, which is designed for small-scale backup power applications within the telecommunications, transportation, security and government sectors.
"It's a maturing technology that has the performance that railroads are looking for, and it is environmentally friendly," Bakker says, adding that one railroad is using the system for crossings, yard cameras and hot box detectors.
Solar power also is a maturing, eco-friendly power supply that continues to gain acceptance in the railroad industry, says Rich Griswold, account executive for Ameresco Solar, which provides solar power systems to railroads and other industries. The company posted record revenue in 2010 — a total that was 44 percent higher than it was in 2009, according to an Ameresco press release.
During the past few years, Ameresco Solar has worked to improve its tower design for better solar energy collection and storage, developing solar modules that have increased energy retention by as much as 20 percent, Griswold says. The systems, which are used to power crossings, signals, hot box detectors and switches, will be ready for the continued PTC push.
"With PTC, we've positioned ourselves with a design that allows us to build and ship units very quickly," Griswold says. "We're pretty optimistic. We understand what the [railroad] profiles are and what applications are going to fit in the best."
An indication of solar power's (and Ameresco Solar's) growth in the railroad industry is the increasing use of solar power systems by short lines and commuter railroads, as well as the eastern Class Is: Costs now are more competitive for smaller railroads, and solar can compete with pole-line power, Griswold says.
Although Bakker expects TPSC to provide more hydrogen fuel cell, solar power and hybrid systems to satisfy the railroads' signaling, crossing, telecommunications and other trackside needs related to PTC, he says some of the biggest gains related to PTC could come from DC-DC converters, which will be needed to convert power from one voltage to another. About 75,000 DC-to-DC converters will be required for PTC deployment, Bakker estimates. TPSC already has sold several hundred such converters, supplied mostly by Power-One and Wilmore Electronics Co. Inc., he says. And that doesn't even take into account the anticipated DC-DC needs for locomotives to control onboard equipment.
"Every locomotive with PTC will require DC-to-DC converters," Bakker says.
Officials at Newmar Power, which offers several DC-DC converters, also note increased interest from railroads — not only for converters, but for other telecommunications applications related to PTC, such as battery chargers, power systems and remote site power monitors.
"We're already ramping up production as the PTC-related orders are coming through," says Jeff Wright, national sales manager.
Newmar's Centurion II Power System is adaptable for PTC applications. Meanwhile, Amtrak last year took delivery of 200 SPM-200 Site Power Monitors, which keep tabs on power supplies, rectifiers, batteries, converters, inverters and AC power at trackside bungalows.
"You can monitor the system and access it from anywhere in the world via the Internet," says Jeff Patrick, Newmar's product manager.
Meanwhile, some Class Is and commuter railroads are using Newmar products on a trial basis — notably, the company's Site Power Systems (SPS) Series of units that provide battery charging, power supply and monitoring, Patrick says.
Although railroads are taking steps to get ready for the advent of PTC, some aren't diving in with both feet, suppliers say.
"A lot of the railroads are waiting to know better what their needs are going to be," says Eric Augustine, vice president of engineering for Shawnee Power Systems, which specializes in power generation and power conversion equipment for industrial, commercial and communication applications.
With that in mind, Shawnee officials spent time last year refining and improving products, such as the dcCharger series of generators, which are used to provide power for crossings, signals and hot box detection. The dcCharger II, a DC generator that runs on propane or natural gas, is produced from rugged aluminum and provides more power than the previous model, per railroad customer demands, Augustine says. BNSF Railway Co. installed more than 25 units in the field last year, Augustine says, adding that Norfolk Southern Railway and Progress Rail Services ordered units, and CSX Transportation is testing them. And as PTC develops and many railroads seek to move away from pole power, they are looking closely at the role of generators as backup power.
"They're going to want some extra reliability there," Augustine adds.
PTC's incremental development also means that suppliers such as Shawnee and Schaefer Inc., will continue to develop customized power conversion, storage and supply options.
"We're more of a niche company," says Doug Burr, Schaefer's vice president of operations. "PTC is going at a slow pace. I think people want to make sure they get it right."
Until PTC implementers are sure they have, they'll continue to rely on Schaefer and other suppliers for switch-mode battery chargers, DC-DC converters and power inverters that are often retrofits on rebuilt locomotives.
And suppliers will continue to keep close tabs on the PTC rollout as they aim to meet their rail customers' expectations — which are the same as they've always been.
"All the railroads are looking for is a power supply that's reliable, easy to install, easy to design and doesn't cost a lot," says Ameresco Solar's Griswold.
Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, N.Y.-based free-lance writer.