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— by Robert J. Derocher
For the most part, railroad mechanical folks really like the health monitoring technology that's helping them keep better tabs on their locomotives — from event recorders to automatic-engine stop-start (AESS) systems. They like the predictive technology so much, in fact, that it's ratcheted up their expectations: They want to be able to monitor even more locomotive health conditions, wherever and whenever they want the information.
"We'd like to look at the same screens and the same codes that the operations people are seeing in real time," says Bryan Sawyer, manager of technical services and quality assurance for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA), which operates light- and commuter-rail systems in the Salt Lake City area.
Cost-effective, remote, real-time health monitoring that puts mechanical departments in the driver's seat when locomotive problems crop up is the next logical step, Sawyer and others say. Some are installing such systems or plan to. For those mechanical department execs, rolling out the technology across their locomotive fleets will be a top priority in the years ahead, although the costs of implementing such systems remain a concern.
In the meantime, all roads are counting on the monitoring technology they've already implemented to continue delivering data that helps them stay the productivity course.
For UTA, remote monitoring capability might not seem mission-critical right now; the agency operates 18 four-year-old locomotives on 45 miles of track. But Sawyer says that capability will prove valuable in the future. By year's end, the agency expects to open another 44 miles as an extension of the FrontRunner commuter-rail system, effectively doubling the workload of its MP36PH-3C diesel locomotives manufactured by MotivePower Inc. As of late February, UTA was operating 29 trains a day, five days a week. Although that number isn't likely to change in the near term, the number of passengers those trains will carry is expected to more than double — from 5,900 to 12,700 daily.
More riders likely will mean more reliance on the QES-III Performance Enhancement System from Q-Tron, which is installed on those 18 locomotives, Sawyer says. The microprocessor control system monitors and issues reports on the health of several locomotive functions, including air pressure, engine temperature and performance, emissions control, electric/power loads and AESS functionality.
To date, the young MotivePower fleet has had few operational problems, but the QES-III has had an impact, says Jason Carpenter, UTA's manager of rail vehicle maintenance, citing an instance of an abnormal engine shutdown.
"We downloaded the data and narrowed it to the traction motor," he says. "You could just sit and watch what the locomotive was doing right up until [the problem] occurred."
There's another benefit to upgrading QES-III's capability to real-time monitoring: It'll help keep operating crews focused on train operations, Sawyer says. It's critical for crews to know when problems arise, and "it's much easier if we can get the information directly from the equipment," he says.
Execs at another QES-III user, Metro Transit's 39-mile Northstar commuter-rail system in the Twin Cities, also desire the ability to monitor remotely. Northstar Maintenance Superintendent John Paul Zanaska believes it would help his crews spot and solve locomotive operating problems quicker. Execs at Metro Transit, which recently spent $30,000 to add AESS technology to five QES-III systems, believe there's another advantage in a wireless remote system: reducing the "frenzy of cabling" throughout the locomotive, Zanaska says.
Another railroad that uses the QES-III system is Pacific Harbor Line (PHL), an Anacostia & Pacific Co. Inc. subsidiary that provides rail switching services to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. In addition to providing locomotive information such as air pressure, engine temperature and communications, the QES-III also may play a role in helping the short line monitor 16 newly retrofitted locomotives powered with new ultra-low-emission "Tier 3-plus" engines, said PHL President Mike Stolzman in an email.
The new engines feature a diesel particulate filter (DPF) that acts as a filter on the exhaust, he said. If the filter becomes plugged, it can cause back pressure and damage to the engine, making cylinder temperature critical.
"If there is a hot cylinder or cold cylinder due to fuel injector failure, you want to know this immediately to ensure the engine shuts down before damage occurs, or you fill the DPF with unburned fuel," Stolzman said.
That is why Q-Tron and engine manufacturer Caterpillar Inc. are working together to apply a pyrometer to monitor cylinder and DPF temperature, as well as a back pressure sensor, Stolzman said. The information then could be sent to the control system to monitor conditions, send an alarm and shut down the engine, if needed.
Stolzman also continues to follow developments in remote monitoring systems using cell modem technology. He is particularly interested in a system from Cattron Group International that utilizes wireless, remote technology to "show you a log of events of the entire fleet or a single unit [and] where there are trouble spots for communications loss or wheel slips," Stolzman said.
At CN, remote monitoring already plays a role in the Class I's overall locomotive health monitoring strategy.
In February, CN signed a long-term agreement with Wi-Tronix® L.L.C. for a fleet-wide deployment of Wi-Tronix's suite of locomotive remote monitoring solutions on new locomotives as well as units retrofitted with Wi-PUs, or wireless processing units. The Wi-Tronix system provides CN with access to locomotive onboard data, fuel conservation monitoring and improved fleet productivity. Since Wi-Tronix was selected as CN's preferred remote monitoring solutions provider in 2007, more than 700 systems have been installed on the Class I's newest EMD SD70M-2 and GE ES44DC units, and recently rebuilt GP38-2 locomotives.
CN plans to continue using the Wi-Tronix Wi-Tracker™ system for AESS operations, fuel monitoring, locomotive fault and exception-based alerting, and automatic monitoring of locomotive digital video recorder health and operating status.
Amtrak, too, is working with
Wi-Tronix on providing health monitoring for 70 new Siemens electric locomotives that will operate on the Northeast Corridor, along which some of the locomotives will travel at speeds up to 125 mph. Wi-Tronix will provide a similar system now in place on the railroad's diesel locomotives, which via cellular, satellite and wireless communication can monitor multiple locomotive functions, says Amtrak spokeswoman Vernae Graham.
"The plan is to also have the capability to download the onboard video recorder and the event recorder, the same as we currently do," she adds.
Meanwhile, Kansas City Southern is working with a supplier on "a different reporting technology system" that has been installed on 11 KCS locomotives in Mexico, company spokeswoman Doniele Carlson said in an email.
"The overall plan is to move toward a more advanced remote monitoring system," Carlson said. "The system KCS is piloting … provides a robust business solution that is not limited to providing just mechanical data. This more robust technology would provide data such as locomotive location, loading status, auxiliary component monitoring, fuel inventory and conservation records, train-handling audits, trip summary and geo-fence industry locations. The results thus far are impressive."
In short: A locomotive health monitoring system can help railroads toe the bottom line, particularly if the system is custom-tailored properly, Northstar's Zanaska says.
"It saves you on man-hours, all that time you spend looking for a problem in manuals," he says. "It can cut your time in half — and your costs."
But in many ways, he believes current locomotive health monitoring systems have "tackled pretty much everything we've seen" as to what can be monitored. The more pressing issue, he says, is how remote, real-time monitoring can be implemented. It's still a pricey option, particularly for public transit agencies, Zanaska says. But he is optimistic it will become more affordable as the technology evolves.
He also wouldn't mind if suppliers came to Minnesota to hone cost-effective wireless remote systems.
"I think we're a pretty good testing ground for engineers," Zanaska says. "Everything [in technology] seems to eventually go wireless, and then the price comes down."
Robert J. Derocher is a Loudonville, N.Y.-based free-lance writer.