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Rail technology development is in full swing at Union Pacific Railroad. UP is developing or integrating various communications, information, locomotive and hardware technologies to drive innovation, improve service, enhance employee and public safety, bolster environmental stewardship and increase financial returns. Following is a sampling of those technologies.
UP previously relied on visual inspections to identify outer cracks on wheels, but many times a crack splits a wheel from the inside before it's visible. For the past year or so, the railroad has used an ultrasonic wheel crack detection system to inspect all wheels on coal trains. Trains roll past a wheel crack detector at a slow speed. Since the railroad implemented the system, there have been no coal train derailments caused by wheel failure. UP is the only railroad that's using the technology, according to the Class I.
Wayside diagnostic systems now review 14 million data points per day. Hot box detectors use infrared scanners underneath the rails to assess the temperature of rail-car bearings. UP recently connected all 4,400 hot box detectors systemwide into a single network to determine trend lines and better identify bearings before they reach temperature thresholds that could lead to failures.
All new locomotives now feature automatic stop-start systems to eliminate unnecessary idling. UP also is retrofitting older locomotives with the systems and more than 70 percent of the locomotive fleet now is outfitted with the equipment.
UP was the first railroad to equip all of its locomotives with GPS, according to the Class I. GPS helps manage locomotive flow, and monitor temperatures and fresh-air exchanges in refrigerated rail cars in real time. In addition, the railroad tracks trains through GPS on smartphones and provides customers a "trip" sheet including all measurements during a movement.
UP is helping the rail industry develop "mote" technology, which would enable railroads to install a radio frequency identification tag containing numerous sensors on rail cars, according to the Class I. The sensors include an accelerometer to monitor vibration and flat spots on wheels, digital temperature sensors for wheel bearings, pressure
gauges to monitor tank-car pressure, and sensors to monitor when car doors are opened or closed. In addition, since standard rechargeable batteries are too expensive and unwieldy to maintain, UP is developing "energy harvesting" to use the kinetic energy that naturally occurs as cars travel to recharge a battery through a capacitor. The sensor technology will enable the railroad to develop correlations between all data points to better forecast preventive maintenance needs, improve safety and increase train reliability.
UP is in the process of retiring its 1970s-era mainframe computer — which runs the transportation control system — and replacing it with a series of server farms. The project started in 2005 and will be completed sometime in 2014 or 2015. The transportation control system manages locomotive routing, train traffic flow and train plans, among other functions.
UP has developed smartphone and other personal device applications designed to enable customers to track their shipments and equipment, and make gate reservations at intermodal facilities.
The railroad uses gamma ray inspection technology to detect people or hidden devices on trains. The Class I also recently deployed a Train Rider Identification Detection System in McNary, Texas, that can detect unauthorized riders while a train is moving at track speed. In addition, smart cameras, impact recorders and other sensors are being piloted near bridges, yards, tank farms, tunnels and sidings, and UP is implementing a virtual fencing pilot program at a cost of about $1 million per mile.
UP spent two years developing its first Rail Operations Simulation program that recreates the Cheyenne, Wyo., yard in a virtual setting so employees throughout the system can learn basic switching operations and railroad terminology. The railroad now uses various virtual reality training programs, which are safer than field exercises and help workers become more comfortable with work processes before they set foot in a yard, according to the Class I.
Source: Union Pacific Railroad