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Rail News Home C&S

May 2012

Rail News: C&S

Railroad communications technology: from cellular to radio to satellite to Wi-Fi


by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

When Will Geeve began working in the communications and signaling department at the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad (IHB) 13 years ago, copper cables were used for just about every communication function needed, with the exception of where the short line used radio communications. During the past decade, communications technology has evolved "by leaps and bounds," says the railroad's manager of communications and signal.

"Now, we're trying to get as much off copper as we possibly can, and we've almost successfully done that," Geeve says.

That's because copper cables are costlier to install and maintain than, say, a cellular or wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) connection. By upgrading to newer technologies in as many areas as possible, IHB workers can communicate more reliably and efficiently, using easier-to-maintain equipment.

IHB is representative of the shift to digital communications that's taken place at many U.S. railroads during the past decade. The themes might be different, but the story's the same: Roads have transitioned to communications technology that enables workers to do their jobs better, gets shipments to customers more efficiently and helps railroads keep up with the ever-changing digital world.

In recent years, cellular communications have become one of the most popular platforms railroads are using due to its convenience, ease of use and relatively low maintenance. For example, CN uses cellular to download information from wayside locations, pull information from wayside equipment inspection systems, or access base radio stations off main and branch lines, says Chief of Engineering Technology Dwight Tays. The Class I's workers use a cellular connection to obtain track authorities, access emails and track inspection requests. And, some of CN's locomotive systems — such as GE Transportation's Trip Optimizer, and New York Air Brake Corp.'s Locomotive Engineer Assist/Display & Event Recorder and Wi-Tronix L.L.C.'s Fuel Efficiency Monitor — operate with a cellular connection.

Norfolk Southern Railway, too, uses cell phones to transmit data between field sites and central offices. The railroad also uses cell phones as a backup in case leased circuits fail when transmitting code line data from traffic control points to the dispatch center, says Brian Sykes, chief engineer, C&S engineering.

There's An App For That

Like most other railroads, CSX Transportation provides cell phones to field workers and conductors to communicate with each other and to central offices. But the Class I is taking its cellular strategy one step farther by deploying cell-based applications. CSXT has an onboard wireless reporting system for conductors, and has launched mobile applications for track inspectors, signal maintainers, truck drivers and intermodal yard operators.

CSXT now offers a mobile app for shippers, as well. In fall 2011, the railroad launched a ShipCSX application customers can download onto iPhones or Android devices via the iTunes store. The application enables customers to track freight shipments across the Class I's network and provides customers with rail-car specifications, such as equipment dimensions and weights.

At IHB, cellular devices are used to transmit crossing gate issues to the operations center and to transfer Automatic Equipment Identification tag reader data to the mainframe system in the central office, where the information is then placed in a car management database.

Cellular devices are making it easier for IHB engineering staffers to complete their field work, as well. Employees who are out in the field surveying can use a device to send information via a data network to a computer in the back office rather than logging all the information at a site.

"We use [cellular] for just about anything and everything we can use it for, and I think a lot of railroads are going that route," says Geeve. "In most cases, it's more cost effective."

But cellular communications aren't always reliable, particularly for railroads that operate in remote locations.

"It's not a network we can control, there's not 100 percent uptime and it doesn't provide us system-wide communications coverage across the network," says Tays, adding that CN has good cellular coverage on its U.S. tracks, but spotty service in the northern parts of Ontario and British Columbia. "It's not the optimum choice for mission-critical activities."

As a cellular backup, CN turns to satellite communication — an expensive option, but one that works well in remote locations, says Tays.

"Data throughput is not always as good as you'd like and there's a bit of a time lag, but in northern Ontario, satellite is far superior to cell," he says.

NS also uses satellite on a limited basis, mostly in areas that do not have reliable telephone connections or for disaster recovery. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, NS workers brought in a temporary satellite dish to restore communications as crews repaired infrastructure in the area.

Railroads are using Wi-Fi for communication needs in remote locations, as well. CN has built its own Wi-Fi network using the corporate communications backbone and is using it to transmit information to crews in yards. The railroad's C&S officials are considering a pilot program to test Wi-Fi in remote territories where there's no cell coverage.

Cellular and Wi-Fi are relative newcomers to the communications mix, but that doesn't mean railroads are letting go of the one communication method that's been in their arsenal for the past century, albeit with some upgrades along the way. And the mode will become even more relevant as railroads advance positive train control (PTC) implementation.

Radios are used for communication between train dispatchers and locomotive engineers, train dispatchers and MOW crews, and MOW workers and signal maintainers.

"The infrastructure that's been built and developed over the years has been designed to provide essentially universal communications on the entire railroad network," says NS' Sykes. "Trains anywhere on our network can, at any time, establish real-time communication with the train dispatcher, and it's very reliable."

Meeting a Mandate

Particularly now that many railroads have purchased new radios as part of their effort to comply with a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandate requiring all public safety and business industrial land mobile radio systems operating in the 25 kHz bandwidth to convert to 12.5 kHz bandwidth by January 2013. Known as narrowbanding, the effort will enable the creation of additional channel capacity within the same radio spectrum and support more users.

By replacing old radios with new, state-of-the-art equipment, railroads are using digital technology and voice-over-Internet Protocol — a technology that makes voice calls using a broadband Internet connection instead of a regular phone line — making radio communication more efficient and reliable than ever before.

At this point, most railroads are in the final stages of narrowband implementation. In the meantime, a couple of Class Is are already planning ahead for how they might meet future mandates. NS, for example, has replaced about 80 percent of its radios with equipment that is very narrowband-capable in case the FCC mandates a further conversion to 6.25 kHz — or very narrowband — in the future, says Sykes.

C&S officials at CSX are preparing for a possible very narrowband conversion, too. This year, the Class I is launching a very narrowband pilot on two subdivisions to test the use of digital radio communications available on the spectrum.

‘We're considering further deployment, but no decision has been made at this time," says McCreary.

Going forward, reliable radio communications will be essential for railroads implementing PTC. Those roads will need coverage on 220 MHz data radio spectrum, which will become the common platform for PTC-equipped locomotives, and wayside and office equipment, says CN's Tays.

At this point, railroad C&S officials are concerned that PTC 220 L.L.C. — an alliance between all Class Is that own the nationwide license in the 220 MHz spectrum — doesn't possess enough spectrum to provide all the PTC access that will be required. The railroads are sponsoring studies to analyze the spectrum requirements and capacity.

"The common consensus is that we have adequate spectrum to protect PTC requirements on the majority of the network, but there are a few hotspots with a lot more traffic, and we're studying to see what the adequacy is of the spectrum we own," says Tays, adding that study results won't be available until later this year.

Leveraging PTC

In the meantime, railroads are pressing ahead with PTC implementation.

"The plan is to add 220 MHz data radio at every voice base station we have, and add 220 MHz radios at each wayside location to get data radio access to all locations where we have to install PTC," says Tays.

CSXT's PTC communications strategy calls for using cellular Wi-Fi and 220 MHz data radios onboard locomotives. The Class I's wayside network will use an IP-based system, says McCreary.

"We have no plans for wayside 220 radios. That's a unique difference," he says, adding that CSXT instead will meet wayside-to-locomotive communication requirements by beaconing wayside messages from the railroad's existing wayside messages from adjacent 220 MHz base station radios.

The approach will enable CSXT to leverage its previous investment in wayside IP networks, says McCreary.

"All the little signal bungalows on the railroad tracks will be outfitted with two IP communications platforms and we have four Internet technologies we can choose from: traditional MPLS phone circuit, cell, satellite or wireless Ethernet extension," he says.

It's no secret that many railroads have taken issue with PTC's staggering implementation cost versus the safety benefits it could provide. That's why many roads now are looking to leverage that investment in any way they can.

"You can use the data radio for other things and there's nothing in the [PTC] protocol that would inhibit you from doing that — it's a matter of how much bandwidth and capacity you have and can use," says Tays.

Although the 220 MHz spectrum does have limited capacity, railroads could use it for activities that require minimal data transmission that's not in continuous use, such as for wayside inspections or hot-box detector data transmission, he adds.

"PTC is time consuming and it's expensive, but because you're doing all that work, it provides an opportunity to achieve some benefits elsewhere," says Tays. "We recognize the cost-benefit of PTC is not good, but if you're going to spend that much money, how can you use it to benefit the corporation?"


Browse articles on railroad communications technology communications technology C&S cellular radio communications railroad radio digital radio satellite communications Wi-Fi railroad Wi-Fi narrowband positive train control PTC Indiana Harbor Belt CN Canadian National Norfolk Southern CSX cell phones Dwight Tays CN Brian Sykes Norfolk Southern Will Geeve Indiana Harbor Belt Henry McCreary CSX

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