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Rail News Home C&S

December 2011

Rail News: C&S

Suppliers of dispatching technology and services factor PTC, next-level efficiencies into the planning mix


by Walter Weart

Positive train control (PTC) continues to be one of the hottest topics of conversation in railroad communication and signaling circles. It's certainly of interest to suppliers of dispatching technology.

Mandated by the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, PTC must be installed by the end of 2015 on primary routes used by passenger trains or to haul certain hazardous commodities. With the implementation deadline four years away, more than 30 U.S. freight and commuter railroads continue to develop, test and implement their PTC systems.

For example, Amtrak continues to work with Alstom Signaling Inc. to improve the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES), which also must accommodate freight locomotives that use Amtrak's lines. Amtrak officials expect to substantially complete installation by 2012's end.

ACSES includes the technology and equipment necessary to establish a central PTC office. Components for the latest iteration of the system — ACSES II — include a temporary speed restriction server, data and maintenance server, network management server and office communications server.

"Our system currently has the ability to make a positive stop of a train that fails to respond to a command or signal, something that is critical to any PTC system," says Steve Zwart, Alstom's customer director-PTC, adding that the company offers a "vital" TSR server for maximum safety.

ACSES includes an office system that integrates easily with an existing dispatch system and can be used to separate from a dispatch system through its own, small PC-based application, Zwart says. ACSES can integrate with an existing network management system (NMS) or be provided with its own NMS. In any of these scenarios, the customer still will have a vital PTC solution with all of the functionality required under the PTC regulations, Zwart says.

Amtrak isn't the only railroad that will use Alstom's system; other roads that use the railroad's tracks will, as well, including the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, MTA Long Island Rail Road, MTA Metro-North Railroad, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and New Jersey Transit.

All are committed to implementing the ACSES solution, Zwart says, adding that deployment time lines vary.

"We will be expanding PTC technology to handle more temporary speed restrictions at any given time and offer more robust support for various line boundary configurations," work crews included, he says.

Ansaldo STS-USA Inc. continues to hone its PTC technology for dispatching, too. The company's Common Operational Picture (COP) system is designed to provide a comprehensive, integrated display of all freight- and passenger-rail traffic in designated regions. The system incorporates rail dispatch overview information from multiple railroads and transit dispatch systems into one, integrated, geographically oriented screen, said spokesman Russell Glorioso in an email. COP features an open XML interface to integrate traffic control and supervision systems.

The central office dispatching systems currently in use by both Union Pacific Railroad and CSX Transportation were developed, installed and maintained by Ansaldo STS, said Glorioso, adding that the company also is upgrading both systems to support PTC.

In addition, Ansaldo STS is adding software components to the central office dispatching systems that consolidate and format outbound PTC messaging, process inbound PTC messaging, and upgrade data support and user interfaces to accommodate high-precision milepost information required for PTC operations, Glorioso said.

For vital PTC applications, Ansaldo STS offers the VitalNet™ Office Safety Server (OSS).

The VitalNet OSS encodes mandatory directives for delivery to the VitalNet Cab and provides a vital computing platform that validates train authorities, speed restrictions, work authorities and dark territory switch positions, Glorioso said. The vital protocol was developed to operate with conservative data radio bandwidth requirements. The flexible block design is scalable and enables the system's configuration to accommodate future changes.

Designing For Reliability

Other technology providers are tapping their global expertise while working closely with railroads to meet the 2015 deadline. GE Transportation — which has supplied PTC systems and subsystems outside the United States for years — has been an active participant in the FRA's rulemaking process, said Senior Product Manager Joseph Noffsinger in an email.

"Railroads have told us that they especially are concerned about constraints such as installation labor availability, cost and the disruption to railway operations to implement PTC," Noffsinger said, noting that portions of Amtrak's Chicago-Detroit corridor have been equipped for several years with GE's Incremental Train Control System (ITCS), a communications-based PTC system. "Another great concern is the reliability and availability of the systems. The railways are adding PTC on top of their existing systems, so any mission failures due to PTC problems are in addition to their disruptions today."

In response, GE has designed and tested its PTC-related offerings "for exceptional reliability and to allow customer choices for diagnostics and remote monitoring," Noffsinger said.

"We also give options in many products for redundancy of equipment and/or data communications paths," he added. "Where practical, we have put ‘hooks' into the PTC upgrades to pull diagnostic information from the older installed base systems."

GE is, and has been, supplying wayside equipment upgrades or add-in electronic systems for a significant portion of the estimated 60,000 wayside signal locations that will be integrated with I-ETMS or ACSES.

For PTC system installations, GE has developed a complete portfolio of peripherals to interface the PTC processor with the locomotive and external applications. A Locomotive Interface Gateway is designed to extract critical operational information from the locomotive control system, translate it and publish it in a new Association of American Railroads (AAR)-standard message format on the PTC network onboard for all systems to utilize. GE also is supplying the PTC3 Ancillary Card Cage for locomotive PTC systems. The open communications, command and control system platform — which complies with AAR S-9101 — can be configured with selected modules to perform multiple functions.

Other current and planned implementations include multiple off-board Cellular Data Communications Modems, including 4G; Off Board Wi-Fi Communications Modem; and a Host Processor for business applications.

An Integrated Approach

Meanwhile, RailComm is providing advanced dispatch solutions for PTC operations.

"We provide the link between the PTC Back Office Server and the dispatcher, which allows him to issue commands, says Sean Gleeson, RailComm's chief business strategy officer.

"We have worked with Lockheed Martin to design a train control system that is independent of wayside signaling equipment," says Gleeson, adding that Lockheed Martin is using technology that originally was developed for submarine tracking.

"This system has great potential for developing countries that do not already have trackside signaling infrastructure," says Gleeson.

At ARINC, the aim is to become a system integrator by bringing together multiple components or subsystems to create a complete system, officials say. That effort carries over into the development of PTC technology and related systems.

"We are working on modifications to our dispatch system software that will provide interfaces to both I-ETMS and ACSES PTC systems," says Dennis Lengyel, ARINC's vice president of surface transportation and security systems.

At the core of the development is ARINC's Advanced Information Management (AIM®) software.

"AIM is currently installed at more than 24 transit systems and it will be used by Metrolink for their commuter-rail operation," says Lengyel.

ARINC officials also are in the process of developing a new computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system for Metrolink. Phase I involves replacing the current centralized traffic control system; Phase II involves providing PTC features and the CAD to the back office server interface.

Speaking of back office servers: ARINC is helping to develop a server that will function as a "gateway" between the dispatch system and the locomotive, Lengyel says, adding that each Class I has unique office systems and operating requirements. However, interoperability requires that the onboard computers be able to receive messages in an industry standard format.

"We are working as a subcontractor to Wabtec to build a back office server that allow each railroad to continue to use their existing dispatch system, yet provide messages to the onboard system in the industry standard format, including when locomotives and crews operate over other road's track," says Lengyel.

ARINC also is working with Amtrak to replace a Centralized Electrification and Traffic Control (CETC) dispatch system. The new CETC system will provide an interface to the ACSES TSR Server. The Amtrak wayside system on the Northeast Corridor will need to be dual equipped for both ACSES and I-ETMS to enable freight railroads to operate in Amtrak-dispatched territory, says Lengyel.

"The first section to receive the new system will be the mid-Atlantic section followed by the New England section, a territory in the New York area dispatched by Amtrak and, ultimately, all Amtrak lines in the region," he says.

When PTC Isn't Part Of The Mix

Of course, PTC won't be implemented across all U.S. rail lines. That means many railroads will continue to use their existing dispatching systems. Others may contract out for dispatching services the way some of the smaller railroads contract the dispatch function to entities such as American Rail Dispatching Center Inc. (ARDC). A RailAmerica Inc. subsidiary, ARDC provides dispatching service to 43 small railroads, four of which are not owned by RailAmerica.

ARDC tries to treat clients' workers as customers, extending the company beyond just typical dispatching.

"I believe we have changed the face of short-line train dispatching," says ARDC Director Tom Murphy.

ARDC's dispatchers are trained for four to six months.

"We offer our customers a range of services including 24-by-7 dispatching, emergency response programs and, in response to the Rail Safety Improvement Act, grade crossing signal system failure reporting," Murphy says.

RailTerm, too, provides contract dispatching services for railroads in the United States and Canada. The company currently dispatches more than 3,900 miles of track serving 18 railroads, said RailTerm General Manager Marc-André Lamontagne in an email.

RailTerm has developed a state-of-the-art CTC and OCS dark territory train dispatching software used in RailTerm's two rail traffic control centers, Lamontagne said.

The firm also offers the same train dispatching software to customers who choose to perform their own train dispatching functions.

Meanwhile, the company's U.S. affiliate RailTerm Corp. provides dispatching services to a number of railroads. Among them: Genesee & Wyoming Inc.'s (GWI) St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad; OmniTRAX Inc.'s Alabama & Tennessee River Railway, Georgia & Florida Railway, Illinois Railway, Kettle Falls International Railway, Nebraska, Kansas & Colorado Railway, and Panhandle Northern Railroad; the Aberdeen Carolina and Western Railway Co.; Carolina Coastal Railway; and Washington and Idaho Railway Inc.

In Canada, the company provides dispatching services for GWI's Huron Central Railway, Quebec-Gatineau Railway and St. Lawrence & Atlantic Canada; OmniTRAX's Carlton Trail Railway Co. and Hudson Bay Railway Co.; and VIA Rail Canada Inc.

RailTerm's TrainMaster suite of applications are designed to deliver data and functionality to such users as dispatchers, maintainers, rail operations managers and support staff, said Jason Fries, RailTerm's vice president, technology, in an email. The information is accessible via web-based applications and portals.

The availability of data and interaction with the control system through the use of mobile devices, particularly for field support staff, is an area of "intense development," Fries said.

Even though many of RailTerm's customers currently aren't impacted by the PTC mandate, the company is developing a GPS-based tracking and alerting of proceed and work authority overruns as a supplemental system to its dark territory and CTC office authorities, Fries said.

Communication And Control

Regardless of whether PTC is present or a CAD system is in use, all dispatch systems must be able to communicate by voice, radio and telephone in an efficient and error-free manner.

"Any train control system must be paired with a communications system, and it must provide the ability to work seamlessly, [and] be easy to use with significant redundancy and cover all necessary channels," says Penta Corp.'s Director of Sales and Operations Bobby Chandler.

Accordingly, Penta's offerings include the cPCx Communications Control System, an open architecture, IP-based digital communications system built around the standard compact PCI platform supporting the H.110 bus architecture and IP-based telephony. The voice/data system is designed to enable voice connectivity and interoperability between the system resources.

The cPCx includes redundant hot swappable power supplies as well as redundant hot standby CommServers (master processors) running Windows 2008 server (or later) OS software, a Penta PNET Server application, and remote management and access. The cPCx can be sized from 24 to 4,000 ports. Penta also offers the SLx Switching Console, which is designed for the needs of smaller dispatch centers, as well as regionals and short lines.

"We continue to add features to make the systems more robust, such as allowing the user to set up the system based on needs including the appearance of the monitor's screen," says Chandler.

Walter Weart is a Denver-based free-lance writer.

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