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Rail News Home Norfolk Southern Railway

May 2009

Rail News: Norfolk Southern Railway

Suppliers aim to provide hump yard automation systems to help railroads handle more freight cars in less time


By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor

Freight railroads’ traffic volumes are down significantly this year, so the number of rail cars flowing through hump yards is nowhere near what it’s been the past few years. But no matter the volume, getting cars through the yards as quickly as possible remains a key element to reducing dwell times, maintaining transit times, increasing yard efficiency and controlling operating costs.

To achieve their throughput goals, railroads turn to hump yard control systems, which can automate processes at arrival and departure tracks, control car movements from the hump lead to bowl tracks, monitor train-building operations and help maintenance forces identify equipment-repair issues.

The systems help Union Pacific Railroad hump yard managers obtain a more accurate car inventory, says Director of Signal Engineering John Zmijewski, adding that systems also make it easier for managers to flag hazardous materials-carrying cars.

However, the control systems could do more to help UP better manage its maintenance dollars, he says. For example, it’d help if the systems could provide combined data for all hump yards vs. each individual yard.

“Is a switch throwing slow? Is a car rolling in an unexpected maneuver? We need to obtain diagnostic and maintenance reporting data across all yards,” says Zmijewski.

Hump yard control system suppliers are trying to heed the call. They expect to continue carrying out what’s been a long-running mission: to develop new systems or add functionality to others to offer the best possible yard automation options.

Ansaldo STS USA is defining requirements for next-generation hump process control systems that would improve the coordination and hand-off between terminal and mainline operations, says Rob Galbraith, the company’s director of business development for railroad systems. The systems would facilitate a more efficient and prioritized movement of cars from the receiving yard to the classification hump process to the bowl and, ultimately, to the departure track, where trains are assembled, he says.

For now, Ansaldo STS USA offers the STAR II Hump Process Control (HPC) system, which features advanced software algorithms designed to precisely control car movements from the hump lead to final coupling in the bowl track to optimize yard throughput. The system includes a configurable, flexible platform that can be adapted to specific customer needs and an operating system that provides real-time process control.

Ansaldo STS USA also markets the STAR NX entrance and exit system, which is designed to facilitate the control and movement of switches via a PC-based platform with Windows user interface.

‘Star’ power

The company has marketed the STAR II and STAR NX systems since mid-2007, when Ansaldo STS acquired RM Star Inc., which developed the systems. The RM Star Group was merged with the Ansaldo STS USA Yard Group, which continues to handle new system installations and the maintenance of existing systems, such as those installed at CSX Transportation’s Rice Yard in Waycross, Ga., and various Conrail, Union Pacific Railroad and Mexican yards, says Galbraith.

At 2008’s end, Ansaldo STS USA cut over STAR II and STAR NX systems at BNSF Railway Co.’s Northtown, Minn., hump yard. The project involved 56 tracks and six group retarders. The company currently is installing systems at the west side of UP’s Bailey Yard in North Platte, Neb., which involve 56 switches and seven group retarders; and a STAR NX system at UP’s Colton, Calif., yard, which involves 110 controlled switches.

Railroads continue to tap technology to boost efficiency and further optimize car classification with a minimum occurrence of misroutes, says Galbraith.

“We try to keep the system current and constantly update platforms to ensure the right car is on the right track to the right train,” he says.

In tune with outbound processes

Global Rail Systems Inc. is trying to accomplish the same goal with its Modular Yard Automation (MYA) system, which can power and line all switches at a yard’s trim end, where humped cars are assembled at departure tracks.

“The system helps railroads process more cars at the outbound side,” says Global Rail Systems Vice President of Sales & Marketing Ron Martin, adding that powering and lining all switches means trains don’t have to keep stopping while each switch is hand-thrown.

The MYA system includes the following standard and/or optional features: switch machine, switch occupancy zone and switch control sub-systems; a communication sub-system; yard management software; and system components.

About six months ago, Global Rail began offering its own switch machine as an MYA system component. The company also provides switch zone detection and protection circuits.

“If a switch is occupied, the circuit won’t let the switch be thrown,” says Martin. “It helps prevent derailments.”

So far, three Class Is have standardized or are beginning to standardize the circuits, he says.

During the past two years, Global Rail has installed MYA systems at a Kansas City Southern yard in Laredo, Texas, and a CSXT yard in Mobile, Ala. The CSXT yard — which isn’t a hump yard, per se — went from processing 500 to 600 cars per day to 1,600, says Martin.

“Hump yards are expensive and have lots of costly equipment, “ he says. “MYA can essentially replace a hump yard for a fraction of the cost, and there’s virtually no maintenance costs.”

Throughput breakthrough

Maintenance is a key issue at hump yards, which are expected to handle high levels of throughput and shorten the mean time to diagnose and repair equipment problems, suppliers say.

Trainyard Tech L.L.C. has taken that issue to heart. The company provides hardware and software tools with its CLASSMASTER™ rail yard process system that are designed to help maintenance forces quickly identify and repair any faulty equipment, said VP of Engineering Dan Niemiec in an email.

Trainyard Tech also recently added a planning tool to CLASSMASTER that enables a yard operator to “look ahead to see how the tracks will be filling up as the train is being humped in real time,” said President John Aliberti in an email. In addition, the company now offers lightning arrestor modules that provide a health indication back to the system, he said.

Perhaps the biggest change for both the CLASSMASTER system and Trainyard Tech itself occurred last month, when the company acquired the PROYARD™ control system line from GE Transportation. The acquisition tripled Trainyard Tech’s installed base, and will provide more service and maintenance opportunities, Aliberti said.

“Additionally, it provides us with the opportunity to work with a new set of customers to help them find solutions to their requirements,” he said.

Trainyard Tech plans to add some of CLASSMASTER’s more advanced car-control features to PROYARD systems to improve performance.

The company will offer both systems, but “since our CLASSMASTER system is built in an open, modular platform, there will be opportunities to take portions of the CLASSMASTER and integrate them with PROYARD,” said Niemiec. “PROYARD customers now will have the option to upgrade parts of their existing system and include those pieces as part of a future upgrade.”

During the past nine months, Trainyard Tech has placed CLASSMASTER systems into service at Norfolk Southern Railway’s Roanoke, Va., and Bellevue, Ohio, yards, and the Terminal Railroad Association’s Madison Yard in Venice, Ill.

In summer, the company expects to install systems at the Belt Railway Co. of Chicago’s East and West Clearing Yards, and NS’ Norris Yard in Birmingham, Ala.

Within its ‘domain’

RailComm Inc. also is obtaining additional business for its Domain Operations Controller (DOC®) Yard Automation System. Last month, the company announced CSXT is expanding its DOC system at Rice Yard.

RailComm will modify an existing DOC server to add control for 39 additional GE HydraSwitch machines in the yard’s pull-back and forwarding areas. The DOC system includes redundant auto failover and entrance/exit routing capability, providing a yardmaster selection and cancellation control of individual and through routes within the controlled territory.

RailComm also continues to add functionality to the DOC system, which was introduced about 10 years ago and is “very expandable,” says President and Chief Executive Officer Joe Denny.

The company is adding a blue flag protection system to BNSF’s Havre, Mont., yard to provide coordinated switch control capabilities and help increase throughput. In 2007, the company installed a blue flag/derail protection system at the Havre yard’s diesel shop. After the yard system is cutover in summer, the Havre facility will gain shared control between the diesel shop tracks and other transportation tracks, says Denny.

The system will provide the transportation and mechanical departments coordinated control of common-use tracks, he says. Trim tracks will be controlled by the transportation department from one DOC workstation, while a derail/blue flag protection system will be operated by the mechanical department from another workstation.

BNSF already has installed the blue flag system at its Tulsa, Okla., yard and CSXT has installed it at Rice Yard.

Currently, RailComm is turning its attention to departure track processes. Within the next few months, the company plans to introduce ExacTrek, an automatic car tracing, mapping and control system designed to monitor cars as trains are built at departure tracks.

Eye on train-build accuracy

Cars traced through a hump yard all the way to departure tracks are about 99 percent accurate when checked against the yard’s database, but the accuracy rate falls to about 80 percent as consists are assembled at departure tracks, says Denny.

“It’s a manual process,” he says. “There is room for errors, especially at shift changes.”

RailComm is nearing completion of the R&D phase for ExacTrek, which will automate car tracing functions and boost the accuracy of placing the right car on the right train, he says.

In addition to more automation features, railroads continue to seek hump yard control systems that are reliable, don’t require much maintenance and can self-diagnose performance problems.

A lot more technological innovation is on the way to address those demands, suppliers say. Trainyard Tech not only is developing new functionality for its systems, which are based on industrial and factory automation technologies, but creating valuable features during the installation phase, said Aliberti.

“The technology the CLASSMASTER is based on lends itself to a continuous-improvement process,” he said. “Every project that we do results in enhancements that can be rolled back into our installed base.”


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