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By Steve Zwart
Positive train control (PTC) often is discussed exclusively as a safety technology, but it'll also enable railroads to orchestrate tighter train schedules and improve productivity in a variety of ways, proponents have said. How so? What are some of those productivity benefits? And what's available on the technology front to help railroads achieve those next-tier benefits?
PTC is a set of highly advanced technologies designed to monitor and control train movements to provide increased safety. In 2008, when Congress passed the RSIA mandate, the technology required had not yet been developed. In the years since, railroads and their technology suppliers have worked tirelessly to meet the deadline and overcome the complexity and challenges involved with the creation and deployment of a reliable safety system.
PTC’' predictive technology detects upcoming conditions and enforces braking of the train when needed. The various technologies involved include a central control center or "back office," on-board redundant computers, control points and signals installed along the wayside, and a wireless network for communication between all of these locations and each train.
A good portion of the PTC intelligence resides on-board the locomotive, giving it the ability to understand its location and what’s in front of it. Using the telemetry within the train such as GPS, speedometers and odometers, and the information stored in the "track database," such as elevations, curves, and speeds, each train not only keeps track of itself. The master system also monitors each train and provides data to a control center where dispatchers and supervisory personnel can monitor the entire network.
PTC's benefits beyond safetyThe communications infrastructure is a vital element in the successful and reliable deployment of PTC as it relays critical information between several thousand components that comprise the overall solution. The constant communication required by PTC and its always-on technology has created other benefits in addition to rail safety. Despite what many people believe, the safety enhancements don’t increase productivity or tighten train schedules, as
PTC's focus is purely increased safety. However, with the PTC network in place, and the train data that is sent to the central office, system management technology can be added. This can greatly improve preventative measures to ensure trains run as they are intended, which provides improved system maintenance and more reliable train schedules.
As PTC solutions have been deployed, railroad operators have been able to leverage additional benefits provided by enhanced system management technologies. When used effectively, system management technologies provide rail operators with the ability to proactively address operational failures, decrease turnaround time by identifying and fixing broken equipment, and reduce the possibility of delayed passenger schedules and product shipments.Central monitoring for systems managementPTC networks provide management with the ability to monitor remote equipment from a central location. That includes wayside equipment and the locomotives themselves. Interoperable train control (ITC) allows dispatchers and supervisory personnel to get sub-specs that create a real-time health status of any locomotive.
System management systems quickly create an easy to understand status notification from every wayside unit, which gives the central field office the tools to drill down into the operational information of that remote unit, and can answer questions such as, "What is the current status of that signal?" or, "What are the settings on that switch?" or, "What is the temperature of that device?" Using this operational and environmental information, personnel can instantaneously determine what has failed and where.
Systems management is key for operational excellence. No matter how good a system is at enforcing safety for a train, if components of it break down and the specific issue cannot be identified, the train cannot keep running, money will be lost and deadlines missed.
When an issue arises in a system, having visibility and access to all of the equipment from a central location, to quickly determine what specific conditions exist, and to direct a field team to the problem minimizes train delays for passengers, prevents delayed shipping times and improves overall operational efficiency for the operators.
Steve Zwart is senior director of solutions and software at LILEE Systems.