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Compiled by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
There's no doubt electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes provide a slew of benefits compared with conventional braking systems.
The brakes issue electronic signals to simultaneously apply and release brakes throughout the length of a train instead of each car applying brakes individually as air pressure moves from car to car. As a result, the technology provides benefits such as shorter stopping distances, improved train handling, and less brake shoe and wheel wear.
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been championing the technology for years. In 2005, the agency commissioned consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to study the benefits and costs of ECP brakes for the U.S. freight-rail industry. Released in 2006, the firm's report stated that the brakes are a "tested technology" that offers "major benefits" and could "significantly enhance" rail safety.
Several North American Class Is are finding that out firsthand as they continue or begin to test ECP-equipped trains in revenue service. A handful have obtained waivers from the FRA that permit them to install ECP brakes on trains traveling up to 3,500 miles — more than double the current maximum distance — and make fewer routine brake inspection stops than federal regulations currently require.
For the most part, railroad operating officials don't dispute ECP's pros. But they also don't expect to move too quickly to install the brakes on their cars and locomotives. A number of factors are slowing ECP implementation well beyond Booz-Allen Hamilton's 2005 prediction that ECP brakes would be the predominant braking system for unit and intermodal trains within five years, for general freight service within 15 years, and for all freight trains within 30 years. Among them: cost and capital constraints, logistics and a mandate that all Class Is implement positive train control on certain lines by 2015 — a costly requirement that's going to eat up major chunks of railroads' capital budgets for the next several years.
"ECP is still the right idea, but we have a couple of major hurdles before we can implement it," says Mark Schulze, vice president of safety, training and operations support for BNSF Railway Co.
That doesn't mean Class Is are squashing ECP brake pilot programs altogether. Union Pacific Railroad joined the ECP-testing world last year.
In May 2009, the Class I obtained a waiver from the FRA to operate ECP brake-equipped trains. Since then, the railroad has run intermodal trains featuring the braking systems between Dallas and the Port of Los Angeles, and L.A. and Portland, Ore.
UP is testing ECP brake equipment from two different suppliers, says General Manager of Operating Practices Larry Breeden, who declined to identify them. He did say that UP is happy with the benefits they've noted to date.
"The effectiveness of the brakes is advanced. It gets instantaneous braking, plus I can graduate the release," he says. "It gives better train control and reduced fuel consumption. You also get better brake shoe and wheel life."
ECP's continuous health-monitoring feature is a plus, too.
"If something goes wrong, you wouldn't know it with an air brake," says Breeden. "With ECP, you have a display that will tell you if something beings to fail."
Although UP doesn't yet have any plans to launch additional ECP pilots in 2010 (capital budgets haven't yet been finalized), the Class I would like to continue equipping its intermodal trains with the braking systems, Breeden says.
"That's where we've noticed a huge benefit, with stopping distance alone," he says.
Canadian Pacific officials have noted that stopping distances have been reduced by up to 60 percent on ECP-equipped coal trains it's operating between southeastern British Columbia and the West Coast. The Class I took delivery of its first ECP-equipped coal train from TrinityRail about a year ago and the second one, shortly after that, says spokesman Mike LoVecchio.
"The coal pipeline is a critical part of our infrastructure and a significant part of our operation," he says. "It also operates over some of our most geographically diverse territory. Because of that, having the added control of ECP on those trains does accrue some benefit."
Meanwhile, two other railroads have been testing ECP brakes for several years. In 2007, BNSF and Norfolk Southern Railway were the first Class Is to obtain FRA waivers to operate the trains.
Since then, NS has been installing ECP on new and rebuilt rail cars. By March, the Class I expects to have 700 ECP-equipped cars, or six trainsets, in service.
Two currently operate from Shire Oaks, Pa., to a Shelocta, Pa., power plant; two from Andover, Va., to a Clover, Va., power plant; and one from Williamson, W. Va., to Spencer or Eden, N.C., power plants. In early 2010, NS plans to begin operating a sixth ECP-equipped trainset from Shire Oaks to a Homer City, Pa., power plant, says Jamie Williams, superintendent air brakes.
FreightCar America Inc. equipped 235 new cars with ECP brakes and Trinity equipped 210 rebuilt cars with the brakes. NS installed the technology on the remaining cars in-house.
The railroad still is evaluating ECP's benefits, such as improved cycle times, reduced fuel use, and less equipment wear and tear, says Williams.
Although he didn't offer specifics on NS' future ECP implementation plan, Williams did say the railroad wants to "test all different facets of ECP by running it in different operating lanes."
"If this is the thing of the future as braking systems evolve, we want to get on board to see how we can evolve with it," he says.
So do BNSF officials. The Class I currently operates two ECP-equipped trainsets, both of which are owned by Southern Co. The trains operate between the power company's Miller, Ala., plant and the Powder River Basin. One train went into service in January 2008; the other, in January 2009.
Southern Co. equipped the rail cars with Wabtec Corp.'s ECP equipment. BNSF equipped a fleet of 12 locomotives with New York Air Brake Corp. ECP equipment to support the two trains, says Dana Maryott, BNSF's director of air brakes and director of locomotives.
BNSF currently has no plans to implement ECP on other trains.
"It revolves around what Southern Co. wants to do going forward," says Maryott. "They are still looking at the operation of the train and trying to figure out the economies of operating their trainsets with ECP."
And although BNSF officials have noted some benefits on the ECP-equipped trains, they could be a bit skewed — and BNSF execs aren't quick to attribute all the benefits they've realized to the ECP installation alone.
"One of the benefits is reduced brake shoe wear. However, since this train is under trial, we're encouraging train crews to familiarize themselves with the equipment," says Maryott. "But the result of that, of course, is greater brake shoe wear. So it's cloudy as to how much benefit they'll see."
Ditto for train speeds.
"The velocity of the trains appears to be superior to what we'd see on a conventional coal train," says Maryott. "Normally, that would be a pretty cut-and-dried measurement, but with this decrease in traffic, it's made the railroad a lot less congested, so we're seeing increases in velocity on every train."
The railroads that are operating ECP-equipped trains will continue to study the technology's benefits. The roads are providing ECP-related information to the Transportation Technology Center Inc., which transfers the data to Booz-Allen Hamilton for analysis. In 2007, the FRA awarded the firm a follow-on contract to collect and analyze ECP brake data generated by railroads that have obtained waivers.
Booz-Allen Hamilton still is sifting through all the information and is expected to complete its analysis in the first half of the year, says FRA spokesman Warren Flatau.
"We gave regulatory relief to several carriers to run the trains, but the real question is: Are they going to expand ECP? Do they favor it?'" he asks.
At this point, whether they favor it isn't really the issue. Class I officials would like to implement ECP on more trains, but many factors will prevent them from doing so, they say.
For starters, it would cost billions of dollars to equip all rail cars and locomotives with ECP, and in the coming years, Class Is will need to commit capital dollars to other forms of technology.
"This isn't to say further ECP deployment isn't possible, but we have a huge PTC mandate and with our capital constraints, it might come at the expense of other technologies," says BNSF's Schulze. "We're all struggling with that burden as we try to get other technologies that are productive into play."
The recession is affecting ECP implementation plans, as well, as railroads and car owners put rail-car improvements on hold.
"With the economic downturn, we have thousands of rail cars parked, so we're not in a mode where we are replacing any cars at the moment," says CP's LoVecchio.
And although ECP is fairly straightforward to implement for coal or intermodal trains, mixed-merchandise trains are a different story.
"The entire train has to be ECP; you can't mix and match," says UP's Breeden. "When you're talking about unit equipment, it's not as critical because you can keep the equipment together, but when you expand beyond that, it becomes much more difficult."
As with many other technologies, ECP brakes remain on railroads' wish lists. If or when the brakes are more widely implemented remains to be seen. One thing's certain: It will take far longer for ECP to become the "predominant braking system" for railroads than some industry observers initially projected.
"If you had a magic wand and could implement it with one fell swoop that would be great," says Schulze. "But it's not that easy."