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— by Angela Cotey, senior associate editor
The number of derailments in the United States has steadily declined during the past decade, plunging nearly 50 percent between 2004 and 2013, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. More sophisticated technology has been developed to help detect track and wheel issues before they become problematic, and new safety and training programs have been implemented to help workers more easily identify and report potential rail and equipment defects.
But that doesn't mean derailment risks have subsided. Freight traffic continues to climb, and many railroads are transporting record amounts of crude oil, meaning more hazardous materials are shipping by rail. Similarly, passenger railroads are carrying more riders and operating more trains.
With some recent headline-making incidents gaining national attention, the public has raised concerns about the safety of trains and the goods and people they carry. Rail safety officials are working to not only ease those concerns, but remain diligent in their quest to maintain as safe an operation as possible.
For officials at CN, the July 2013 derailment of a Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway crude-carrying train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people was a "watershed moment," says Vice President of Safety and Sustainability Michael Farkouh.
"It prompted us to take a step back and say, 'We're doing well, but what else can we do?'" he says.
Shortly after the Lac-Megantic derailment, CN established a cross-functional team charged with conducting risk assessments for each corridor.
"The goal was to understand the effectiveness of our lines of defense and see how we could further strengthen them," says Farkouh.
Team members examined the network milepost by milepost, examining population density, environmental vulnerabilities such as waterways, technologies already in place and areas where detection measures could be bolstered. As a result of the assessments, CN in November 2013 announced it would spend $10 million to enhance risk mitigation and increase rail and wheel flaw detection capabilities.
The effort is largely technology-based, with new systems being installed at strategic locations. For example, CN's core routes have wayside inspection systems located every 12 to 15 miles, but some secondary routes have longer intervals between the systems.
The Class I is adding wayside equipment units at more than 40 new sites to detect hot bearings, hot wheels and/or dragging equipment. By alerting train crews of an issue, the detectors could prevent or at least minimize the severity of a derailment by giving engineers enough notice to bring a train to a controlled stop, says Farkouh.
CN also is relocating some of its wayside equipment in an effort to better protect the cities through which it operates.
"As populations have grown, we realized some of these detectors were located within a city and should be moved out a bit to create a better line of defense into the entrance of the city," says Farkouh.
The Class I plans to have all additional wayside equipment installed by the end of the year. Also by year's end, CN expects to take delivery of an autonomous box car that will monitor the position, curvature and alignment of track. Because the car won't be manned and essentially can operate day and night, it will be able to test more track than the geometry cars the railroad already is using, says Farkouh.
In addition, CN safety officials are working to implement an optical track inspection system designed to use imaging to identify defects. The system will be installed onboard one of the railroad's tandem geometry cars.
"These optical readers will look at the track structure for missing bolts, broken bars and other [track] elements," says Farkouh. "This is an emerging technology, so we're trying to see how we can leverage it even further."
While CN has been emphasizing derailment risk mitigation through technology of late, the Class I hasn't shifted focus away from what it believes to be its biggest safety asset: its people. The railroad has hired 14,000 new workers since 2010, including 3,500 in 2014, due to both attrition and growth. Today, 40 percent of its workers are millennials, most of whom are rail industry rookies.
To address training needs, CN has established centralized training facilities in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Chicago to provide classroom and field training for new workers, as well as employees who are seeking to be retrained or take on a new position. Whether they are training to become a conductor, track worker or carman, all are taught to keep an eye out for track or train defects.
"We show people what defective track looks like, what defective wheels look like, and teach them what sounds they should and shouldn't ... [from] a train," says Farkouh.
CN's more centralized training and additional risk mitigation technology are just the latest efforts in a long-standing push to prevent derailments. During the past decade, the number of derailments on CN's network have steadily declined, says Farkouh.
The same goes for Union Pacific Railroad, which has noted a 23 percent reduction in derailments during the past 10 years, said spokesperson Calli Hite in an email. The railroad attributes the decline to a robust derailment prevention and risk reduction program that includes: using lasers and ultrasound to identify rail imperfections; forecasting potential failures by tracking acoustic vibration on wheels; performing a real-time analysis of every rail car moving in the system each time it passes a trackside sensor; and conducting regular safety training programs to teach employees how to identify potential derailment risks.
In recent years, the Class I has implemented new safety technology to help mitigate derailment risks. UP has installed ultrasonic wheel-defect detection systems that scan each wheel in the coal-car fleet every 60 to 90 days, to eliminate derailments caused by broken wheels. The railroad also has implemented wayside detectors that identify potential failures in rail equipment components, said Hite.
Like CN, UP also has stepped up derailment prevention efforts as public concerns about the risks of shipping crude by rail have grown. In September, the Class I boosted its rail inspection program on mountain passes in the West. With increasing amounts of crude being shipped from North Dakota shales to West Coast refineries, UP leased two additional track geometry cars to supplement cars the railroad already owns to inspect track daily, according to an Oct. 19 article posted on the Sacramento Bee's website.
The new cars will patrol mountain routes such as the Donner Pass and Feather River Canyon, and grades outside Dunsmuir in Northern California, as well as UP's looping line over the Tehachapi Mountains and a line on the Cuesta Grade in San Luis Obispo County. The geometry cars also will inspect mountain passes in Washington, Oregon, Utah and Nevada, according to the article.
Execs at MTA Metro-North Railroad are working to minimize the risk of a derailment caused by a track or wheel defect, too.
In 2007, they began studying the possibility of employing a wheel impact load detector (WILD) on the commuter-rail system after dealing with wheel flats for many years, most prevalently in the fall months when crushed leaves on tracks cause wheels to lock during braking.
The detectors, which use sensors applied to track to measure the stress induced by a passing wheel, are more commonly used by freight railroads in areas involving heavy axle loads. In those cases, a wheel defect could lead to rail fatigue and damage running rail, says Metro-North Senior Vice President of Operations John Kesich.
In the commuter-rail environment, a flat wheel wouldn't necessarily cause damage to the track since trains aren't carrying the heavy cargo that freight trains do. Rather, the wheels could damage the vehicle itself. For example, in 2009, a flat wheel caused a fatigue fracture in the axle of a Metro-North rail car, causing the wheel to fall off. Shortly after the incident, the railroad installed WILD systems on four tracks in the Park Avenue Tunnel leading toward Grand Central Terminal, which all Metro-North trains enter each day.
The agency worked with United Kingdom-based DeltaRail Group Ltd. to install the WILD system, based on DeltaRail's Wheelchex product, says Kesich. The system monitors all 1,050 pieces of Metro-North rolling stock, which equates to 8,400 wheels.
"It's easy to generate a wheel defect on any given day, and it's hard to expect human beings to check these wheels with a high degree of accuracy every single day," says Kesich.
While Metro-North is able to monitor its own equipment using the Park Avenue Tunnel WILD system, safety officials also want the ability to assess the freight and Amtrak trains that operate on its right of way. In March 2013, a Providence and Worcester Railroad train lost a wheel and derailed on Metro-North's New Haven Line, impacting Amtrak's Northeast Corridor service. And in July 2013, an overloaded CSX Transportation garbage train derailed on the Hudson Line, disrupting commuter-rail service for several days.
The incidents prompted Metro-North safety officials to pinpoint two sites where they wanted to install impact and hot bearing detectors in 2015. The agency has begun the procurement process to install the systems on the New Haven Line near Green's Farms and the Hudson Line near Scarborough.
Meanwhile, Metro-North is in the process of procuring an autonomous track geometry measuring system that will be installed onboard trains. Agency officials will use the information they gather to identify track geometry anomalies early and, in turn, minimize the chance that a track defect would cause a derailment, says Kesich.
Metro-North plans to purchase four units and mount them on each type of train equipment they operate: a diesel locomotive, a diesel-hauled coach, and M8 and M7 electric cars.
"That will give us inspection coverage for all three of our mainlines as well as our branch lines," says Kesich.
The track monitoring systems will complement the in-depth inspections that Metro-North performs semi-annually using a staffed track geometry car. As with the impact detectors, the track inspection technology enables agency workers to closely and more efficiently monitor all 750 of Metro-North's track miles.
By leveraging technology, improving worker training and continuously analyzing infrastructure and equipment, railroads such as Metro-North, CN and UP aim to take a balanced approach to derailment prevention.
"We're trying to work smarter, not harder," says Kesich.