Technology and training improve rail safety

While some may have you believe that railroads today still use "Civil War era technology," today's network features countless components unfathomable at the time of Lincoln. From a sophisticated system in the final stages of testing that uses multidimensional ultrasonic technology to locate defects in tracks before they cause problems, to the use of drones for track and bridge inspections, the industry increasingly resembles Silicon Valley rather than iconic black and white railroad images of days gone by.

This unrelenting pursuit for innovation has a real impact, as federal statistics show railroads are the safest they have ever been. Progress is rooted in a sound strategy: invest billions to maintain and upgrade infrastructure and equipment, constantly innovate to develop and deploy new technology, and work with local communities to train and educate individuals most closely linked to the industry on rail operations and safety. It is the best story never told, one that the public and policymakers alike should come to know and appreciate.

The intersection of technology and community partnership will be on display this week in D.C. when the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) Foundation awards CSX Transportation with the 2016 Award for Excellence in Public Safety GIS. The Florida-based railroad is being honored for its application "Rail Respond," a phone and computer based program that emergency managers use to access information about cargo traveling on CSX tracks. The program supplements the shipping papers found in a cab, possibly saving first responders time by allowing professionals to view the information from central command or as soon as they arrive at the scene of an accident.

According to Battalion Chief Dave Hartman of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department, who nominated CSX, the Rail Respond "is a dream come true for incident commanders as it directly and immediately impacts the safety and effectiveness for our responders."

Rail Respond will soon be combined with a similar tool known as AskRail, currently used by first responders throughout the country on non-CSX track. These programs are a prime example of why railroads will never stop voluntarily innovating to improve safety. No one requires companies like CSX to arm first responders with this information, but railroads dedicate massive resources to do so nonetheless.

Railroads also work tirelessly to train first responders. In recent years, through partnerships with the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI) and communities, railroads have educated more than 20,000 first responders per year. In the past two years, more than 3,300 emergency responders have been flown to Pueblo, Colorado to receive intensive, week-long training in CBR response techniques at the industry's Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC).

"Taking the training course on the road - including materials and classroom instruction in a specialized on-site training trailer equipped with valves, protective housings and other training rail props - is a major development given the time constraints felt by first responders and reinforces just how much the freight rail industry is doing to educate and train the fire fighters and emergency responders serving rural America," says Mike Cook, executive director of Hazardous Materials Compliance and Training at TTCI.

Even more have participated in the industry's free online crude-by-rail safety course, which provides web-based training for those who cannot travel to Colorado. Taken together, far more first-line responders now understand rail safety more than just a few years back.

All the while, railroads are still testing and deploying technology that will hopefully reduce the need for first responder engagement.

Consider Positive Train Control (PTC), a made-from-scratch technology which the industry continues to test and implement across its vast network. To date, railroads have retained more than 2,400 signal system personnel to implement PTC and have spent nearly $6.5 billion on a system that will automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents occur. This will curtail train-to-train collisions, speed-induced derailments and situations where trains go onto tracks under construction.

Or consider that freight railroads are increasingly using "big data" to identify trends in equipment malfunctions. "Individual factors by themselves might not be predictors of defects, but in combination they could be," says Tony Sultana, a principal investigator at TTCI. By investing in data warehouses and skilled technicians to analyze the information, railroads may be able to forecast unsafe trends before they arise.

Safety is a never ending quest for railroads they will continue to pursue.