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It took nearly two years, but the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has approved the first positive train-control (PTC) system since the agency revised signal and train-control regulations in March 2005.
Last month, the administration approved BNSF Railway Co.’s Product Safety Plan for the Electronic Train Management System (ETMS™). Now, BNSF will begin implementing ETMS on 35 lines in 17 states — as long as the Class I meets the FRA’s employee training, recordkeeping, and operations testing and reporting conditions.
A safety overlay on an existing signaling system, ETMS monitors and processes train movement information, such as authority limits, speed restrictions, signal aspects and switch position, through a digital communications network and displays information on a computer installed in a locomotive cab. The system determines train location via a Global Positioning System and automatically initiates braking if an engineer doesn’t act in accordance with operating instructions, or fails to respond to movement and speed limit warnings.
Before the FRA approved BNSF’s safety plan, officials wanted to ensure the railroad’s train operations would be just as safe using ETMS as they are without the system, says Grady Cothen, FRA deputy associate administrator for safety standards and program development. FRA and BNSF officials analyzed the system’s “reliance effect” on locomotive engineers. Sometimes, engineers become too reliant on and trusting of information provided by a PTC system, and base a train movement decision solely on the information, which might not be accurate, says Cothen.
“If I’m in my minivan, my onboard navigation system could tell me to turn the wrong way onto a one-way street because the map isn’t up to date,” he says.
BNSF officials conducted studies and provided estimates on the number of potential hardware and software failures, and the estimates were reasonable, he says.
“This is the first of four or five configurations,” says Cothen, adding that BNSF will change the system over time to match each corridor’s operating characteristics.
So far, so good
In 2003, the FRA granted BNSF and ETMS developer Wabtec Corp. a waiver to test the system on 50 locomotives operating along a 135-mile corridor between Beardstown and Centralia, Ill. Since October 2004, more than 2,000 revenue service train trips have been completed using ETMS-equipped locomotives.
“The system initiated braking as intended and no trains exceeded their authorities,” says Mark Schulze, BNSF vice president of safety, training and operations support. “And we had no false stops.”
Last year, BNSF obtained FRA approval to test ETMS on a 300-mile corridor between Arkansas City, Kan., and Fort Worth, Texas, a portion of which is used by Union Pacific Railroad and Amtrak trains.
BNSF plans to begin testing the system on the corridor by the end of the second quarter. After testing ETMS for about six months, the railroad will fully implement the system in early to mid-2008, says Schulze.
The learning curve likely will be different because the Fort Worth-to-Arkansas City corridor is not single-tracked like the Beardstown line, and accommodates more traffic and features different grades, he says.
The road ahead
By year’s end, BNSF might begin to test ETMS on the Hettinger Subdivision in North Dakota, which is in dark, or non-signaled, territory.
“However, we don’t have a formal implementation plan in place yet because we’ve focused on the FRA approval,” says Schulze.
Other Class Is also are or soon will be seeking the FRA’s approval for safety plans associated with their proposed PTC systems. Yet, the implications of ETMS’ blessing aren’t clear.
For now, the FRA hasn’t established a timetable for approving other railroads’ safety plans, says Cothen.
Consider it Exhibit A and B. That’s what Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Union Pacific Railroad, Union Tank Car Co. and Dow Chemical Co. executives must have been thinking last month after two CSX Transportation trains derailed in Kentucky on consecutive days, damaging several tank cars carrying hazardous materials and causing dozens of residents to evacuate their homes.
If the accidents involved a “next generation” tank car the FRA and private companies propose to develop, the resulting chemical spills might not have occurred. At least that’s what the public/private partners — who began collaborating on a next-generation car last year — are striving for.
Last month, FRA, UP, Union Tank Car and Dow officials signed a memorandum of cooperation to establish new federal design standards for tank cars, especially those carrying toxic inhalation hazard materials, and volatile gases and liquids.
The standards would call for strengthening a tank car’s structural integrity, including the outer shell’s material and thickness, and improving the type of insulation material used between the outer shell and inner tank to prevent chemical releases after a side impact. The standards also would stipulate thermal protection, lower profile valves and fittings, head impact limiters, pushback couplers, energy absorbers and anti-climbing devices designed to keep a tank car upright after an accident.
“We’re looking to apply the latest research and advanced technology to provide increased safety for rail shipments posing the greatest safety risk,” said FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman during a Jan. 17 teleconference.
The partners agreed to share information from ongoing FRA and rail industry research programs on haz-mat transportation, and seek best practices from other industries. They also created a project advisory panel comprising representatives from public and private rail safety and haz-mat organizations.
“This alliance demonstrates our mutual recognition that the safe and secure transportation of chemicals and hazardous materials is a shared responsibility between shippers, railroads and governments,” said David Kepler, Dow’s senior vice president of shared services, environment health and safety, and chief information officer.
The FRA plans to release a proposed rulemaking on the design standards in May and issue a final rule in January 2008.
A specific timeline hasn’t been established for tank-car builders to meet the new standards. However, a prototype car might be developed and tested sometime in 2008, and production on the next-generation car could begin in 2009 or 2010, FRA and Union Tank Car officials said.
— Jeff Stagl