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June 2008

Rail News: Rail Industry Trends

Six 'trends and drivers' must drive rail industry R&D during the next two decades, report says

By Pat Foran, Editor

Technology’s always been a bridge to the rail industry’s future, and the next half century won’t be any different. Last month, the Transportation Technology Center Inc. (TTCI), Association of American Railroads and Railinc completed the first draft of “Railroad Industry Priority Technology Goals and Directions for the Next 20 Years,” which likely will serve as the industry’s next research-and-development road map.

“We’ve been working on this for about a year now,” TTCI President Roy Allen says. “We’re trying to make it a ‘needs pull’ rather than a ‘technology push.’”

The first step was identifying what Allen terms “trends and drivers.” They came up with six:

  • capacity/increasing customer demand
  • railroads’ drive to improve productivity
  • rising fuel prices and fuel supply uncertainty
  • more stringent environmental regulations
  • railroads’ ongoing desire to improve safety and security
  • customers’ service expectations.

“The biggee is capacity,” Allen says, citing the various recent studies that suggest there’ll be a 50 percent to 80 percent increase in freight traffic during the next two decades. “Our role is figuring out how much more traffic can we get into the pipeline before adding any new pipe.”

The report identifies a range of technologies that, if nurtured and deployed, might help railroads do just that, Allen says, although many of them “work across the six trends and drivers.” On the track side, railroads likely will foster technology that:

  • reduces in-service failures;
  • eliminates unplanned maintenance;
  • eliminates accidents; and
  • increases component life.

“Those are probably the big four technology areas to attack,” Allen says. “For example, everybody knows that condition monitoring is going to continue developing, but there’s some debate over whether that’s going to stay as wayside or morph into onboard, or both.”

In the operations realm, railroads expect technology to help them integrate operations planning and management systems (“Different computer-based systems are needed to improve railroad responsiveness to changes in demand — ‘integration’ is the key word there,” Allen says). They’re also counting on continued train-control technology refinement. (“Railroads are well into train control on an overlay basis, [but] the jury is still out on vital PTC technology.”)

In the motive power arena, the industry will step up efforts to explore energy harvesting and storage, the draft report shows.

“When a locomotive engineer goes downhill and puts on brakes, he’s expending energy out as heat, so maybe we can capture that energy and use it later on,” Allen says. “There are some ideas floating out there, from flywheels to ultra capacitors, and railroads are extremely interested in that type of technology.”

Rail researchers also will continue to study advanced power systems with an eye on reducing their reliance on fossil-based fuels while also reducing emissions.

“You’re seeing some of it now, in terms of the yard switcher-type locomotives, as well as the hybrid technology,” Allen says. “We’re even talking perhaps about replacing one big, single diesel engine with a combination of engines and GenSets.”

Just how the industry will fund the necessary R&D — particularly in the motive power arena — remains to be seen.

“While we don’t directly state that we’ll need government funding, there is talk of public/private partnerships, and that’s definitely one of the areas we’ll be looking into,” says Allen, who hopes to share stakeholder feedback with industry officials in September and unveil the final report by year’s end.


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