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October 2008



Communication and Signal Article
Suppliers tweak train-control systems to help railroads avoid dark territory accidents



Communication and Signal

By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor

If a locomotive engineer fails to obey a red signal, a catastrophic train accident can occur. Witness the Sept. 12 Union Pacific Railroad/Metrolink head-on train collision in Chatsworth, Calif., that caused 25 fatalities and 138 injuries. A Metrolink official said the commuter railroad’s engineer, who died in the accident, ran his train through a red signal.

The possibility of a head-on collision is even greater in dark territory, a light-traffic-density area where trains are controlled by verbal or written authorities, but aren’t protected by a signaling or communication system. Dark territories are governed by strict operating rules for engineers. If rules aren’t followed, a train could derail or be involved in an accident.

Suppliers continue to develop train-control systems for dark territories primarily to provide another layer of safety in non-signaled areas. The systems are designed to prevent derailments and accidents caused by human error, such as a switch aligned in the wrong position or the issuance of a wrong authority.

Suppliers also are trying to provide systems that help railroads meet their operating efficiency goals.

“Dark territory presents challenges to safety, fuel conservation and velocity; all key indicators of a railroad’s success,” said Ron Martin, vice president of sales and marketing for train-control system supplier Global Rail Systems Inc., in an email.

Global Rail Systems provides a system that can help railroads prevent human-factor-caused accidents as well as improve operating efficiencies, such as better throughput on mainlines and in yards, Martin said.

The company has marketed the FAS-PAS™ (Fail-Safe Audible Signal — Power Activated Switch) system for automated switch control since 2002 and FAS-PAS™ system for hand-throw switch indications since 2004.

All in the approach

FAS-PAS™ enables train crews and dispatchers in dark territory to control an approaching switch and align it to the desired the position, as well as receive vital confirmation on switch position. Train crews receive information via an existing radio network or by a central dispatch or control center. In August, Global Rail Systems received a U.S. patent for FAS-PAS’ method of controlling and indicating the position of an approaching switch in dark territory.

“To complement this technology, Global Rail Systems developed a very cost-effective method to provide broken-rail detection, as well,” Martin said. “This allows the railroads to [gain] similar safety and efficiencies historically only available in Centralized Traffic Control [CTC] applications, [but] at a fraction of the cost.”

All but one of the Class Is and several short lines in the United States, Canada and Mexico have a FAS-PAS system in operation, he said, adding that Global Rail Systems is developing several products designed for all railroad territories.

Many Class Is currently are using or testing Ansaldo STS - Union Switch & Signal’s MicroLok® Object Controller (MOC) to monitor and report hand-thrown switch-point positions or control power-switch applications in dark territory, says Robert Galbraith, director of business development-railroads.

“When operating in dark territory, the most important thing to railroads is the status of a hand-throw switch point — is it in the expected position?” he says.

From switches to signals

The MOC is a programmable microprocessor device designed for vital or non-vital control and indication of wayside devices, such as switches, signals or other equipment. Applications include hand-throw or power switch machine monitoring and/or control; intermediate signal vital logic; remote device monitoring; and movable bridge miter joint alignment. Railroads can use the device to monitor switches in real time through a variety of communication methods, such as a cell phone or private network, says Galbraith.

The MOC also is part of three packaged Dark Territory Switch Solutions offered by Ansaldo STS - Union Switch & Signal to monitor and control switches, monitor hand-throw switches or use for “island of train control” to bring conventional CTC signaling capabilities to a portion of dark territory.

During the past six months, the company completed four dark territory power switch control installations for the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad Corp. using the MicroLok® II Object Controller. Power switches are controlled from a locomotive via pre-programmed dual-tone, multi-frequency (DTMF) tones generated from a VHF voice radio handset.

In addition, UP is beginning to install the MOC in its Spokane Subdivision as part of a communications-based train control project; BNSF Railway Co. is using it to monitor some power switches in Texas; and Norfolk Southern Railway is using the MOC to monitor Automatic Block Signaling (ABS) system signals aspects as part of its Optimized Train Control (OTC) project, says Galbraith.

Wabtec Railway Electronics also is working with UP on the Spokane Sub project, providing onboard and office-end systems, and with NS on the OTC project. The Wabtec Corp. subsidiary also continues to work with BNSF to implement the Electronic Train Management System (ETMS®).

The system is designed to monitor and relay movement authorities and speed limits through a digital communications network. ETMS displays data and a moving map on a locomotive cab computer, and will automatically initiate braking if an engineer doesn’t appropriately respond to movement and speed-limit warnings.

More than two years ago, BNSF installed ETMS on a 135-mile corridor between Centralia and Beardstown, Ill., most of which is in dark territory. Last year, the Class I began to install the system on a 323-mile corridor between Fort Worth, Texas, and Arkansas City, Kan.

So far, ETMS is operating as intended, providing protection of manual switches, says Jeff Kernwein, Wabtec Railway Electronics’ product line manager-train control systems.

“We’ve heard from engineers that they appreciate the system when it’s foggy because they can see on the display the location of manual switches,” he says. “That’s an unexpected side effect.”

BNSF plans to next install ETMS on a line between Forth Worth and Wichita Falls, Kan. The line includes mostly ABS, and some CTC, segments.

New in North America

Meanwhile, Alstom Transport is seeking a Class I candidate to test a new control system designed for dark territory — the company’s first dark territory solution for the North American market, says John Schultz, vice president-business development signaling. The system is based on a control system used by four mining railroads in Brazil.

The positive train-control (PTC) system links a Global Positioning System (GPS) locator, locomotive device, PTC server and dispatch or command center component — a wayside device link is optional — to not only wirelessly monitor trains using milepost markers as boundaries, but perform onboard diagnostics and manage fuel usage, says Schultz. Railroads would pay for the necessary wireless communications.

“The safety aspect is a nice-to-have, but by providing ways to optimize fuel savings and gain operational flexibility, railroads can make a business case for the system,” says Schultz.

The system can be used to obtain safety-critical braking control in dark territory as a non-vital solution or be migrated (with the addition of PC cards) to a vital system to enforce braking in ABS or CPS territory, he says.

Alstom Transport is consulting with the Federal Railroad Administration on interoperability standards the agency is developing. The PTC system can be tailored for each railroad until standards are adopted, says Schultz.

Of ‘Vital’ importance

One Class I already is testing Safetran Systems Corp.’s Vital Interface Unit (VIU), a new vital system designed to monitor and provide indication of signals, switches and other wayside devices in signaled and non-signaled territories.

The railroad is testing VIU for aspect and switch monitoring in a PTC trial project, Safetran says, adding that the system also is being evaluated for inclusion in similar PTC projects on other railroads.

Introduced in early summer, VIU transmits signal aspect and switch status information to a locomotive and/or central office using industry standard vital communication protocols.

Built-in Internet Protocol connectivity “makes it easy to distribute multiple units on an Ethernet network and still allow local access to all event logs and configuration information for a particular VIU unit from any other VIU unit on the network,” Safetran says.

The VIU can be configured using any standard Web browser, eliminating the need to install a custom software program on a user’s laptop, the company says.

The unit features a built-in keypad, display and standard USB interface for diagnostics, troubleshooting, and downloading event logs and configuration information without a laptop.

Safetran plans to introduce new VIU models in the coming months to offer combinations of vital interfaces for control and monitoring of wayside equipment, including support for vital general purpose relay inputs and outputs, vital lamp outputs, PSO 4000 track circuits and island circuits.

The company also offers a GEO-based, DTMF system that replaces hand-throw switches in dark territory with vital, power-assisted, remote-control switches controlled from a locomotive cab. The system provides positive control of dark territory switches and helps reduce “outlawed” crew incidents, Safetran says.

RailComm Inc. continues to market a dark territory control system, as well. The DOC® Dark Territory Control system can issue track authorities and restrictions via a Windows interface. A built-in train-tracking feature displays the general location of all track vehicles and can be enhanced with GPS tracking technology.

The Domain Operations Controller (DOC) system can be run from a server located in a dispatch office or railroads can “rent” the system through RailComm’s Web-based Software as a Service (SaaS) option, said RailComm President Joe Denny in an email.

SaaS provides the same functionality as the server-based DOC, but with built-in redundancy equivalent to any Class I’s network operating center, he said. SaaS customers include several Genesee & Wyoming Inc. railroads, the Buckingham Branch Railroad, Iowa Northern Railway, Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon and Austin, Texas’ Capital Metro.

“We also sell a series of additional ‘plug-in’ applications that integrate with DOC, including centralized train control, car tracking, a real-time yard map, view-only DOC, defect detector alarming and security gate control,” Denny said.

R&D is key

RailComm recently developed a database interface to RMI’s car database and to track location as cars move through a RailComm customer’s dark territory.

“We are developing technology to provide email alerts when a car is dropped off or picked up at equipped locations, such as an industrial siding,” Denny said. “We also are developing a real-time map of an industrial siding or a storage yard that depicts the specific track location of each car, the car’s identity and the elapsed time a car was placed.”

All of RailAmerica Inc.’s U.S.-based railroads are centrally dispatched from Vermont through RailComm’s DOC dark territory system. The company also has installed the systems for Ferrosur S.A. de C.V. in Mexico, and Lake State Railroad, Lake Superior & Ishpeming Railroad, and the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District in the United States.

Suppliers plan to continue developing train-control systems that offer additional functionality and wider coverage in dark territories.

They’ll also keep promoting their products as affordable alternatives to long-used, but expensive systems.

For example, Global Rail Systems is marketing FAS-PAS as an alternative technology to current high-cost CTC systems, said company VP Martin.

“FAS-PAS is the first train-control method patent issued since CTC was first introduced,” he said. “So, we are confident that when the industry starts really looking at the advantages this method provides, it will be deployed in those areas by the railroads that want to positively impact their bottom line.”



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