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.
A GROWING CHALLENGE
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.