Going Solar

By Robert Reynolds

Today’s passenger and freight rail systems are experiencing unprecedented demand. This is the result of a combination of factors, most notably, the rising costs of alternative transportation. Rail transportation can move many people and large freight quantities much more economically and safely than virtually any other method. And there’s every indication that demand will increase.

According to a study by Cambridge Systematics1, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (U.S. DOT) estimates that the demand for rail freight transportation — measured in tonnage — will increase 88 percent by 2035, driven by population growth, economic development and trade. Though not directly estimated, this study reflects increases in passenger rail by looking at trend data for the long-distance Amtrak and local commuter passenger rail services that are currently operated over rail freight lines.

The study further estimates that an investment of $148 billion (in 2007 dollars) for infrastructure expansion — new tracks, signals, bridges, tunnels, terminals and service facilities in the primary corridors — over the next 28 years will be required to keep pace with economic growth. Of this amount, the Class I freight railroads’ share is projected to be $135 billion and the short line and regional freight railroads’ share is projected to be $13 billion. Without this investment, 30 percent of the rail miles in the primary corridors will be operating above capacity by 2035, causing severe congestion that will affect every region of the country and potentially shift freight to an already heavily congested highway system.

The increase in rail traffic leads to congestion and accidents which result in loss of lives, equipment and revenue. To help prevent and control this congestion, railways will need to more effectively monitor all trains in transit. Wireless monitoring technologies powered by solar solutions help turn this monumental task into something much more manageable and may even result in revenue generating opportunities for rail systems.

“If you are going to create jobs and a long-lasting platform for the future it’s rail, rail, rail and rail,” Vice President Joe Biden stated earlier this year in Delaware. “It’s about time we took the railroads and made them the national treasure they used to be.”

It is obvious that these systems are critical. Unfortunately — as is often the case — it took a tragedy to bring about needed change. In September 2008, a Metrolink train failed to stop for a red light signal, resulting in a collision with a freight train, killing 25 and injuring more than 138 passengers. Investigators later confirmed that the driver was text messaging while working. In June 2009, two subway trains violently collided in Washington, D.C., killing nine and injuring dozens more — the worst accident in the 33-year history of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. While investigations continue, these collisions are an indication of the growing issues facing the U.S. transportation infrastructure, including the failure of signaling and communications systems.

With the goal of preventing railroad fatalities and injuries, Congress passed the HR 2095, known as the Rail Safety Improvement Act, in October 2008. No later than 18 months after its enactment, each Class I railroad carrier and all other rail entities must develop and submit to the Secretary of Transportation a plan for implementing a positive train control system. In laymen’s terms, HR 2095 requires that carriers build a command and control system across their entire route.

Systems requiring power within the command and control system include automatic equipment identification (AEI) readers, control points, dragging equipment detectors, electric switch locks, grade crossings, hot box detectors, intermediate and approach lit signals, repeater locations and wayside signaling.

A nationwide improvement in railroad safety is a challenging order — and finding reliable power to operate these command and control systems is at the heart of it. Obstacles to implementation include spotty power (at best) along rural and small metropolitan routes and the lack of control at passive rail crossings. In addition, there are 250,000 passive rail crossings on roadways that are unmanned and marked only with the RXR crossing signs. And there’s often no power for track control or surveillance.

As if congestion issues weren’t enough, the convergence of safety requirements with new and aggressive enlargement of higher speed rail requires resilient, tolerant systems to accommodate loss of grid power due to a hurricane, flood, tornado or other unforeseen acts. As rail operators address (or analyze) these infrastructure issues and legislative requirements, they are realizing that solar and other battery-based solutions can provide the answer for delivering effective, reliable power for wireless communications systems in order to deploy mission-critical command, control and surveillance devices.

Rail operators are now sitting down to analyze the current situation and make the necessary plans to design and deploy these improvements. Some of the issues include how to:

  • Set up a ubiquitous solution to collect real-time data from all points on the rail network.
  • Secure cross-walks and other “interference” points along the rail route by adjusting speed and track usage of individual trains to accommodate weather conditions and issues at railway crossings.
  • Prevent railroad trespasser accidents, incidents, injuries, and fatalities.
  • Eliminate dead-spots along the rail lines by offering complete visibility of power, data and network equipment.
  • Engage in real-time monitoring of all trains on parallel and similar train routes.
  • Proactively manipulate the schedules and speed of individual trains to help eliminate congestion and improve the overall efficiency of the multi-city train route.
  • Determine what monitoring and control technology will provide the best solution.
  • Decide how to supply reliable power to the chosen solutions.

Using the power of the sun was often not a consideration for rail operators, even as recently as five years ago. While they recognized the benefits, operators were deterred by the perceived high costs, network security and reliability issues of solar and wireless technologies. The solar, security and wireless industry players were often their own worst enemies in that the technologies didn’t have standards of interoperability. For solar in particular, design considerations often lead to under-sized systems which failed prematurely or experienced regular downtime.

But reliability issues exist even for areas with access to the power grid. As an example, American Electric Power (AEP), owner of the nation’s largest electricity transmission system, discloses on its Web site that over the last five years, the amount of time on average that a customer is without power has trended in a slightly negative direction, and the number of outages has increased. The company states its long-term goal is to move to the next generation of smart grid technology to bring about significant improvements.

While future enhancements to the grid will be welcome and can solve some of the command/control system needs for railways, the need for power alternatives in the rail industry has not only endured but could well increase as more and more trackside communication systems are rolled out. “It can be cost-prohibitive or sometimes even impossible to go with cabled power as the power supply for trackside radio deployments,” says Nick Edouard, business development director at Nomad Digital Limited. “It’s often problematic to get grid power to remote trackside locations, directionally drill under right of ways or cross existing infrastructure.”

Today, rail personnel are looking for the earliest possible detection of potential issues. Device intelligence (analytics) will be required in urban areas as well as remote locations to monitor train status, reduce congestion and errors, enhance communications and execute protocols. Having these technologies where they are most needed will require communications with sensing and reporting devices wherever they are used. The improved reliability, reduced costs and adoption of IP-based standards will make solar and wireless technologies an even more attractive option.

Improvements to the wireless network infrastructure, coupled with an array of new integrated devices, are changing the game in the rail industry and making solar power plants a viable solution. “Wireless IP broadband networks have proven that they can satisfy the reliability, bandwidth and security requirements needed for mission-critical applications,” says Mike Bailey, vice president of engineering and operations at Tropos Networks of Sunnyvale, Calif. “We have seen command, control and surveillance applications on wireless networks becoming increasingly critical as rail operators continue to improve the safety, security and on-time performance of their transportation systems. Solar power, power bridges and UPS products are all essential design components.”

Technologies have evolved to the point where it is now financially feasible and reliable to use solar power, and the convergence of disparate technologies is providing new opportunities for integrated solutions. Wireless telemetry systems are now using the latest encrypted 4G or Wi-Fi technologies. IP video and surveillance technologies are more intelligent, integrated and are very power-budget friendly to operate. Wireless IP technologies using (initially) Wi-Fi and (eventually) 4G LTE/WiMAX technologies have matured to be able to support a much broader deployment and are designed to take advantage of the new wireless spectrum now available.

Because of these technological advancements, the cost to deploy solar is lower simply because the power draws are lower and the commonality of power requirements reduces power transformations. Nevertheless, systems require proper design with rugged and reliable equipment. As a cost avoidance, solar power plants usually save the end-user significant amounts of budget over trenching.

A U.S. Department of State designer who plans security for airports in Central and South America as well as in the Middle East described the challenges presented when installing perimeter surveillance with cameras and wireless radios in the most remote of locations. His airport projects typically involve potential terrorist staging areas and/or those where contraband issues exist. Therefore, video and wireless networks are critical. These “hotspots” present a myriad of challenges. Gate locks need remote power/UPS coverage and perimeter fence lines need intrusion detection systems. Both of these applications need overlapping surveillance. Trenching through the tarmac under any condition is nearly impossible. Trenching around the tarmac is not only costly but during rainy season any copper in the ground is likely to have issues. Remote entrances or lengthy fence lines are very difficult to cover. Because this DOS contact believes in solar power plants, he plans the optimal device location and either connects to existing power, uses solar or connects to a light pole using a power bridge. For any node he considers critical, he uses outdoor UPSs for reliability and transient suppression. Runway and perimeter lighting is controlled by the control tower, and video surveillance cannot be powered by the same system. To address these challenges, the DOS contact has found solar and wireless networks to be very functional, effective and reliable and will continue to deploy them.

While the initial discussion amongst tier-1 rail and passenger rail carriers has revolved around the associated costs to implement positive train control, the possibility of new service revenues for rail carriers should not be overlooked. One emerging example of having to implement a wireless network across the rail line is the ability to vastly improve cargo tracking services for customers of rail carriers. Automatic equipment identification is a radio frequency (RF) system whereby electronic transponders mounted on the side of rail cars communicate to trackside readers. The immediate service could be real-time tracking of a particular intermodal railcar.

Another more subtle but highly lucrative area would be to allow customers using rail transport to track the location and status/condition of the cargo in real-time. RFID, radio frequency ID technologies, have developed to the point where customers can utilize the rail carrier’s wireless infrastructure to track cargo and provide immediate status. In addition, any cargo lost in transit can be tracked from loading to customer receipt — reducing if not eliminating cargo lost in transit. “Rail carriers will be able to provide new value-added services to its cargo customers once the investment of putting a positive train control system in place,” says Alex Hardie, president and CEO of Earth Services Corp., an alternative energy consultant.

“Reduced loss of inventory and increased visibility and status of cargo in transit are just two lucrative services rail carriers will be able to offer as part of the investment of a wireless train control system.”

So what’s the best way for rail operators to harness the power of the sun? First, design the command/control security system and place the equipment where it provides maximum functionality. Then, answer the following questions:

Where is the grid in relation to the power needs? Can you simply connect to local power?

If so, is the node important enough to add a UPS and/or lightning protection?

For each node, what equipment is being powered? Don’t leave anything out.

What is the voltage required for each device? Stay with the same DC voltage if at all possible.

What is the wattage required for each device? Take into account the effect heaters/blowers will have on the wattage.

What is the location of the installation? Be sure to take into consideration the weather and environment.

Critically important: 

How many days of autonomy for solar (possible days without sunlight)? Remember, greater autonomy equals greater reliability. For important applications, Solis Energy recommends five days or more.

How many hours of UPS backup time?

How many hours without a recharge for power bridge applications (for gang-switched light poles)?

If connection to the grid is available and can be done with reasonable effort, using this solution and a UPS is usually the most cost effective.

The use of solar and wireless technologies, rather than cabled infrastructure with fiber optics and utility power, is gaining a foothold as rail operators seek a cost-effective solution for command/control and surveillance systems. Rapidly evolving and converging technologies, ready-to-integrate systems and “smart” solutions for continuous outdoor power will bring even more opportunities. With manufacturers evolving new solar-related products to address gaps — such as command and control remote systems, integration into multiple systems and more — the long-standing goal of providing an end-to-end failsafe system for complete train control is now achievable.

Robert Reynolds is the founder and CEO of Solis Energy.
1 Commissioned by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) at the request of the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission.