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— by Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
In the Communications and Signals (C&S) Department, there's no end to the challenges facing the managers who help run or mold it for Class Is, short lines and passenger railroads. Not with positive train control (PTC), microprocessor-based equipment and other technological changes that need to be addressed now and in the coming years.
For Kansas City Southern, the top three department challenges reflect not only emerging technology, but an evolving workforce due to retirements and new hires. The top three are: hiring new talent to keep up with attrition; training new employees to backfill the knowledge lost to retirements and keep up with technological changes; and gaining access to track for C&S maintenance work amid increasing traffic.
To address the first item, the C&S Department is working closely with the Human Resources Department to ensure recruiting is performed in the "right forums to secure appropriate talent," says KCS Vice President and Chief Engineer Jeff Songer.
For example, the C&S department previously has used Internet postings and newspaper ads to recruit workers, but now plans to rely a bit more on local job events and other publications, such as trade magazines, says Songer.
In terms of training new employees, C&S Department officials are identifying training methods that can address technological advancements, such as PTC and GE Transportation Optimization Solutions' RailDOCS web-based asset database for signal inspection reports. The training would involve a combination of classroom and field exercises.
"New-hire training and development, and succession planning are keys to the future," says Songer, adding that KCS plans to identify additional training opportunities at its in-house facility.
The department also plans to soon bring onboard one or two new engineers who would take on some signal engineering responsibilities associated with PTC and capacity expansion. They would devote more time to PTC than engineers do now, says Songer.
Because track time figures to be an ongoing issue for performing C&S maintenance work, just as it is for MOW projects, KCS is trying to implement some of the technology available through its dispatch system to enhance information available to field employees. C&S Department heads also are partnering more with local transportation managers to obtain consistent eight-hour curfews "day in and day out," says Songer.
"Workers can be more productive because they know exactly when they will be on the track," he says. "We gain cost efficiencies because of that and get less down time."
Other efficiencies can be gained by providing field workers remote access to inspection filing processes, bulletins and other functions. So, KCS is seeking ways to provide field employees — who currently use laptops — tablets or other remote devices. The Class I is piloting a few devices now and likely would need 100 of them for the initiative.
"We've had connectivity issues in remote areas and there's been some re-entering of data," says Songer. "We're looking for readily available devices to help streamline field reporting."
CSX Corp. already employs mobile devices for signal maintenance work and continues to deploy mobile technology. To gain more efficiencies, department officials recently began working with consultants to study work processes and every aspect of signal construction, "which has grown more challenging with the demands of PTC," says CSX VP of Engineering John West.
The Class I subsequently applied lean manufacturing techniques to the production of bungalows and other components at its Savannah, Ga., signal shop, and implemented quality and production controls to signal construction work in the field. Savannah shop employees recently designed and perfected a mobile wiring harness frame that facilitates pre-wire templating and bundling prior to installation in a bungalow, says West.
"This was one of several process improvements that reduced average signal house build time by approximately 18 percent," he says.
For PTC work, CSX analyzed how to better procure the necessary materials, deploy equipment and personnel, test newly installed systems and report work consistent with company protocols and federal regulations.
"Our new approach, founded upon industrial engineering techniques and process improvements, is working well and continuing to evolve," says West. "Even after PTC is complete, the anticipated growth on our railroad and the need to meet even more precise service commitments to our customers mean that train control systems must continue to advance."
MTA Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) is analyzing a few things in its C&S Department, as well. Similar to the Class Is, LIRR continues to research available electronic recordkeeping systems to replace traditional paper-based systems — perhaps via a tablet or laptop — to capture and store FRA-required signal test records.
The commuter railroad also continues to research grade crossing technologies that could boost safety, such as LED flasher/gate lighting, and a possible pilot program with the New York State Department of Transportation and Volpe National Transportation Systems Center involving the installation of "gate skirts" to deter pedestrians from passing underneath a lowered gate, says William Hogan, LIRR's chief communications and signal officer.
"New Jersey Transit has one installation of the gate skirt, and it's been effective," he says.
Other research projects call for determining the feasibility of installing solar cells on top of a signal bungalow at a crossing to provide AC power through an inverter, and evaluating a pilot program with the track department that involves the use of rail brush technology to remove pectin deposits on top of the rails that interfere with the proper shunting of crossing approach circuits.
In addition to research, LIRR is focusing on implementing measures that will ensure the workforce is better qualified to test, repair and maintain C&S equipment, especially because of evolving signal technology, says Hogan.
In early 2011, the railroad rolled out an online learning management system (LMS) that features more than 7,000 pages of resource documents, such as signal training reference materials, OEM manuals and service bulletins. The LMS website is updated as necessary to ensure the department's 340 employees have access to the latest information, which also can be accessed at LIRR's headquarters and via smartphone, says Hogan.
"There's a tremendous amount of training material available to help field personnel, and they don't have to carry around large and heavy books," he says. "We plan to enhance the LMS over time and increase the data that's accumulated."
The C&S Department also is in the process of upgrading its training facilities so workers become more familiar with processor-based technologies.
The current facility includes a fully operational interlocking equipped with a relay-based non-vital supervisory control system. As part of a two-year effort, LIRR plans to install a US&S Microlok system and Alstom's Integrated Vital Processor Interlocking (iVPI™) control system.
"This configuration will allow for interchangeable control of the interlocking, and can be utilized for training, testing and employee qualification exams," says Hogan.
Differences in emerging technologies and training approaches are a big reason LIRR is a charter member of the Signals Training Consortium, a three-year effort involving more than 20 passenger railroads that plan to develop a federally accredited apprenticeship program for railroad signaling. The effort — which began late last year and might be completed by late 2016 — has been endorsed and funded by the Federal Transit Administration, American Public Transportation Association, participating agencies and their respective labor unions, says Hogan.
"We want to make sure we're all on same page when it comes to basic signal training, and cover the basics," he says. "The gist is to get more young people involved in railroad engineering."
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) also is partnering to advance C&S training. The agency is developing a rail communications curriculum with the Los Angeles Trade Technical College to help train both current and new employees, says LACMTA Manager of Wayside Systems Daniel Lindstrom.
"We have 13 separate systems to maintain and it takes a lot of knowledge to keep them running," he says.
And more systems and changes are on tap. The agency is transitioning from an old analog radio system to a digital, very narrowband radio system provided by Icom America Inc. that will provide more channels and capacity, says Lindstrom, adding that the cutover is scheduled to occur by Nov. 1.
In addition, LACMTA is installing more cameras and analyzing a system that can monitor people walking along rights of way to boost security, and beginning to adopt Alstom's iVPI system that's designed to seamlessly integrate vital and non-vital communication functions. The agency has installed an iVPI on the Red Line and plans to install one at Foothill yard within a year, says Director of Wayside Systems Aredemi Omotayo.
Part of the iVPI adoption involves training. LACMTA has a simulator that can replicate system functions in the field, says Omotayo.
"We can input a problem into the system so workers can learn to troubleshoot without affecting operations," he says.
There's another tool C&S workers are trying to get accustomed to, more so in the field environment: a laptop. On July 1, LACMTA finished installing laptops in 18 signal maintainer trucks. The agency's 50 maintainers can use the computers to input signal test data and order parts in the field instead of traveling to a shop to do so, saving one hour per worker per day, says Omotayo.
"So far, we've gotten positive feedback from 75 percent of workers who are comfortable with the technology, and frustration from the older guys who aren't that comfortable," he says. "But we show them it makes their lives easier, and they're buying into that."
The Buckingham Branch Railroad Co.'s C&S workers soon will face a learning curve after the short line installs new office and wayside radio equipment.
A Scout radio system supplied by Avtec Inc. will be installed by September's end at a cost of $220,000, says Systems Administrator Matthew Miller.
The railroad's communications service provider is eliminating a frame relay circuit system for backbone technology and no longer will maintain that leased-line service, so the short line needs to switch over to a Verizon cell network, says Buckingham Branch President Steve Powell.
Bridging radio and signal networks will save the railroad money, cutting monthly bills by about 80 percent and annual costs by about $100,000, says Miller.
"Our end result will be a more reliable network that will meet the demands of data security and control the cost of operations," he says.
The system also will enable the short line to do more data recording — such as communications between a train and track crew — and provide a remote back-up site for the traffic control/dispatch center, says Powell.
Buckingham Branch also is in the midst of a $12 million signal modernization program along 125 miles of track that the short line is counting on to boost efficiencies and reduce costs. The nine-phased project began in June 2010 and is slated for completion in late 2015.
The railroad's existing pole-line system includes wayside signals with incandescent lamps that were installed in the 1930s or 1940s. The system will be replaced with an Ansaldo STS solution featuring LED wayside signals controlled by Microlok II microprocessor-based controllers and Microtrax electronic track circuits.
"This upgrade offers many savings. The LED signal lamps are projected to last up to 10 years before failure, far better than the best incandescent lamps," says Manager of Engineering Terry Wildermuth. "The signal codes are now sent through the rails versus the open air pole line, so the difference in time and cost to maintain is tremendous."
In addition, rain, snow and ice storms no longer will damage wires on pole lines and create red signals, says Powell.
"There also will be less routine checking needed by maintainers and we'll need less equipment in the field," he says.
The Indiana Rail Road Co. (INRD) is modernizing some C&S equipment, too. The regional is replacing older crossing equipment with newer models, such as GE Transportation's ElectroLogIXS XP4 crossing predictors. The XP4 incorporates constant warning time and motion detection control, crossing island train detection, vital input monitoring and relay drive output control, and ground fault detection.
"We will install more XP4s as time and money allow," says Brian Hall, INRD's communications and signals supervisor.
The XP4s also are part of training exercises the railroad is conducting this year to help workers better understand the crossing predictors, as well as Progress Rail's Micro Hot Box Detector system. For the past two years, INRD has worked with Progress Rail to help train workers on new signal equipment, says Hall.
"It's been four years since we did training on hot-box detectors, so we need some formal training on that," he says.
Similar to other railroads, INRD continues to analyze a host of signal equipment that promises certain efficiencies and/or cost savings. The regional is investigating several crossing monitoring systems that could issue alerts if a crossing loses power or has a false activation; yard automation systems offered by Global Rail Systems Inc. and RailComm L.L.C.; and an integrated broken-rail detection system. The yard automation and broken-rail detection systems are part of INRD's five-year plan.
The detection system would be installed in Illinois, where some older welded rail is more prone to breaking, says Hall.
Overall, freight and passenger railroads are trying to take a bend-but-don't-break approach to keeping up with C&S trends while prepping for what might be the trends of tomorrow. Ensuring the right people are in place and have the necessary skills is a big maker or breaker, KCS' Songer believes.
"The next few years are critical to identify and develop our future generation of managers," he says.