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New Rail Safety Technologies

 Statement of

Jo Strang,
Deputy Associate Administrator for Railroad Development,
Federal Railroad Administration

before the

Subcommittee on Railroads,
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure,
U.S. House of Representatives

April 28, 2005

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee, I very much appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today, on behalf of Secretary Mineta and Acting Administrator Jamison, to discuss new rail safety technologies.  Safety is our top priority, and the promise that technology holds to improve safety is compelling.  Recent statistics show that the industry as a whole is getting safer, but the spate of recent, highly publicized accidents shows that there is still room for improvement, and we must accelerate the rate of progress.  We are addressing these issues through better use of data, focusing oversight and inspection resources, and accelerating research in key areas. 

In general, the safety trends on the Nation’s railroads are favorable.  The preliminary data for calendar year 2004 show that since 2003, total  accidents/incidents are down 3.92 percent, and total employee casualties are down 8.75 percent.

However, not all trends are positive.  Improvements in the rate of train accidents have slowed, and significant accidents continue to occur.  Human factors and track continue to be the leading causes of accidents. 

FRA is committed to improving this record, and we are focusing on ways to prevent train accidents and–where they are not prevented–to mitigate their consequences.  I will focus my testimony on innovative new technologies that hold great promise to improve railroad safety.


Track Inspection

Track defects accounted for 34 percent of derailments over the last five years.  To address this accident cause, FRA has an active research program for developing and deploying enhanced track inspection systems as a preventive approach to reducing track accidents by detecting defects before they can cause an accident.

I wish to briefly describe some of the key systems for track inspection that FRA is currently developing: 

  1. Automated joint bar inspection system:  While derailments due to broken joint bars are infrequent, on some occasions they have severe consequences.  Current joint bar inspection practices rely primarily on visual inspection and, in a few cases, hand mapping with ultrasonic probes. These methods are not only time intensive; they are prone to human errors of interpretation and fail to detect all cracks.  To provide an alternative, FRA is developing a high-speed photo inspection system that will identify the presence of a joint bar in continuous welded rail (CWR), take a high-resolution, high-quality picture of the gage and field sides of the joint bar, and use pattern-recognition software to automatically detect a crack and create a report for use by the railroad.  Initial tests of this technology are promising.  The tests show that a prototype system mounted to a hi-rail vehicle and operated at speeds of 30 miles per hour was able to detect all cracked bars identified by visual inspection, as well as additional cracks undetected by the human eye. 
  1. Track geometry measurement systems: Track gage, which is the distance between the two rails, must be maintained to certain tolerances for safe rail operation.  Wide track gage is the single leading cause of derailments.  FRA actively monitors track geometry through the deployment of its full-scale measurement cars, the T-2000 and the T-16, on numerous rail routes supporting passenger and hazardous materials transportation.  Another specialized inspection car, the FRA T-18, has been deployed for inspections since January of this year.  It applies gage spreading loads to measure the dynamic gage widening (which is the short-term widening caused by the passage of heavy equipment), therefore allowing identification of spots with weak tie and rail fastener conditions, which may not be detectable by visual inspection.  Technology enhancements are continuously being added to these measurement cars to improve their inspection effectiveness, and to provide real-time analyses for better assessment of track conditions.  One example is the integration of Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation data with all detected defects to allow for accurate mapping of their location to within a few feet.  This capability facilitates further field inspection and removal of the defect.  Another is the deployment of optical and laser non-contact sensors for more accurate mapping of track geometry at much greater operating speeds.  Our T-16 car can be towed at speeds of up to 140 mph and still manage to measure track alignment, gage, cross-level, and profile once per foot.  Our T-18 represents an innovation in track inspection through the use of an independent axle for applying the gage spreading loads, which permits safer testing at faster track speeds.  Another promising technology currently under development at FRA is the development of intelligent systems for real-time assessment of the measured geometry based on a predicted response from an array of rail cars.  This capability will allow better identification of hazardous locations where a combination of near-defects can create a potential for derailment.  FRA is also developing an autonomous measurement system for mounting under a conventional rail car that can be more easily transported over the larger rail network.  This system has the capability of detecting serious track geometry defects while simultaneously sending their details to a remote location for a variety of purposes, including later repair.   We expect to test this system by September of this year.
  1. FRA has developed a new and more intuitive Track Quality Index (TQI) that can be calculated from the measured track geometry and displayed onboard the T-16 inspection car.  Basically, TQI visually depicts, in real time, the relative overall condition of track on a one-tenth of a mile basis in relation to the national average quality, thus allowing the identification of track segments of poor quality. 
  1.  Internal rail defects due to fatigue remain a serious problem because of the associated risk of sudden rail failure that typically occurs under a moving train.  Improvements in rail construction and maintenance practices through the use of more wear-resistant rail steel and the wider use of lubrication have increased the design life of the rail.  However, they have also elevated rail fatigue as the more dominant form of failure.  Recent trends in increasing freight axle loads, which are currently near 40 tons, have also exacerbated this problem.  Internal defects can only be identified by specialized ultrasonic or induction measurement cars that still cannot be operated at more than 10 miles per hour on the average. Also, with current inspection technology some defects may be misdiagnosed as to their true size or go undetected altogether.  Defects in the web or base sections of the rail are also extremely difficult to detect.  Both FRA and the Association of American Railroads (AAR) are pursuing inspection technology improvements in this area, which can increase the speed and reliability of automated track inspection cars and expand the range of defects that can be detected.  The techniques being pursued include using  laser-induced ultrasound and the use of guided waves.  Prototype sensors are currently under development with initial tests scheduled for the latter part of this year.

Ground Penetrating Radar

Another promising technology that FRA has identified for the diagnosis of safety-related track subsurface problems is Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR).  The study of this technology will likely result in the development of on-board sensor systems that can assess track subsurface conditions in a rapid, accurate, consistent, and reliable manner in real-time at track speed.  Currently, there is no non-destructive inspection technique available.  The goal of the project is therefore to develop an automated GPR to assess the condition of the railway track substructure (ballast, subballast and subgrade) and produce quantitative indices of track substructure condition. The GPR-derived indices will enable better maintenance and rehabilitation decision-making resulting in an improved track substructure performance.  We expect that this will result in increased safety and reduced train service interruptions through more effective use of limited maintenance and capital resources.  Ultimately, the goal of the project is to develop GPR as an important part of a comprehensive substructure maintenance management program that will lead to informed decision making for maintenance and capital improvements.  The system is intended for use on a hi-rail vehicle or a track geometry car for system-wide applicability.  The current phase of the project is to develop the hardware/software specifications for a prototype system to be installed on the FRA’s Research Platform (T-18) for field-testing in Spring 2006.  The prototype GPR system being developed will use radio frequency techniques that protect other transportation systems such as GPS from interference.


Positive Train Control (PTC)

PTC is an advanced train control technology that can prevent train collisions with automatic brake applications.  It also provides capabilities such as  automatic compliance with speed restrictions and enhanced protection of maintenance-of-way workers.

FRA’s final rule enabling PTC became effective on March 7, 2005.  The rule is a performance standard for PTC systems that railroads may choose to install, but does not require PTC systems to be installed.  Rather, FRA is promoting the implementation of PTC by sponsoring development of PTC technologies though partnerships with States and railroads; and by helping to provide the Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System, a satellite-based navigation aid (described below) that is essential for communications-based PTC projects.

Today, Amtrak and other Northeast Corridor railroads have implemented a form of PTC that supports train speeds up to 150 miles per hour.  This system works well; however, it is expensive and does not offer some operational efficiencies that may be available with newer PTC systems. Therefore, this system does not appear to be appropriate for use outside the Northeast Corridor. 

FRA’s Office of Railroad Development is currently working on PTC projects in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin.  The next challenge is to continue to drive down implementation costs.                

In addition, several freight railroads are exploring less complex “overlay” systems with a goal of increasing safety and improving operating efficiencies.  The farthest along in testing is the Electronic Train Management System (ETMS) on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.  CSX Transportation is working towards the Communications Based Train Management System and the Alaska Railroad is also working towards implementing a PTC system on its entire territory.

A significant challenge for FRA and the railroads in developing all such systems is to ensure that they are interoperable (that is, locomotives from railroad “A” having one kind of PTC system can operate on railroad “B” which has a different PTC system).

Nationwide Differential Global Positioning System (NDGPS)

The Subcommittee has asked that we also address NDGPS, which is PTC’s fundamental radio navigation system.  NDGPS is a network of reference stations that monitors GPS and transmits signals to an unlimited number of users.  These signals are used by the NDGPS receiver to improve the accuracy and integrity of GPS.  When complete, there will be approximately 130 NDGPS transmitter sites in the United States; this is the basic dual-coverage network for the continental 48 States. The NDGPS system includes preexisting Coast Guard Differential GPS sites, converts 46 transmitter sites of a de-commissioned U.S. Air Force system into NDGPS sites, and builds new sites where needed.   Currently, 92 percent of the 48 contiguous States are covered with single NDGPS, and 60 percent is covered with dual coverage.  When complete, there will be dual coverage throughout the United States to ensure the signals are always available.

Currently, GPS technology has an assured accuracy of 36 meters.  Since parallel railroad tracks are only 4 meters apart, GPS accuracy does not meet our needs.  Basic NDGPS improves the accuracy to 1 to 2 meters.  Similarly, the time it takes the GPS system to recognize that a satellite is out of tolerance and notify the users can be as much as 2-4 hours.  This is referred to as “time to alarm integrity.”  Basic NDGPS improves the time to alarm integrity to 6 seconds.  So, if a GPS satellite malfunctions, the NDGPS system eliminates the bad satellite from the position solution within 6 seconds, preventing any disruption to railroad operations.   High Accuracy NDGPS, for which the Administration is not seeking funding in the Budget, would improve position accuracy to about 10 centimeters, and time to alarm integrity to 1 to 2 seconds.  High Accuracy NDGPS would enable Automated Rail Surveying and Rail Defect Detection systems to operate at rail traffic speeds while collecting valuable data that will improve the safety and efficiency of the Nation’s rail system. 

NDGPS is an enabling technology that is used in a wide variety of non-railroad applications, including precision farming, maritime navigation, surveying, map-making, plate tectonic monitoring, and weather forecasting.    Because it is an enabling technology, many Federal and State agencies and universities have been willing to contribute funding, land, and engineering resources to the program to ensure its success.  The Federal agencies that have significantly contributed to the development of NDGPS include:  the Departments of Transportation, the Air Force, the Army, Commerce, Interior, and Energy; the Tennessee Valley Authority; and the Voice of America.  The States that have partnered with FRA in the deployment of NDGPS include California, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.  The NDGPS project is an excellent example of interagency cooperation and outstanding partnerships with States.

Passenger Equipment Safety

In contrast to the European rail system, traffic on the U.S. rail system is dominated by private freight traffic and produces a more rugged operating environment.  Passenger trains commonly share the same tracks with freight trains weighing 15,000 tons or more, and PTC is a rarity.  Highway-rail crossings are common in the United States; there are more than 250,000.  Commercial trucks in this country are much heavier than typical European trucks, so the risk of a highway-rail crossing collision with a subsequent derailment is greater in the U. S.  Therefore, we have sought to provide railroad passenger equipment safety standards that take into account our more rugged operating environment.

FRA issued comprehensive Passenger Equipment Safety Standards in 1999.  The rule’s crashworthiness standards ensure that a passenger train has features providing a superior level of occupant protection for passengers and crew in the event of a collision or derailment.  The standards require features designed to overcome most of the known reasons for deaths and injuries in previous wrecks, such as high static end strength, corner posts, collision posts, anti-climbing mechanisms, roll-over strength, side strength, truck-to- car-body attachment, glazing, locomotive fuel tanks, and emergency exits and lighting, among others.  Further rulemaking is ongoing to cover matters left unfinished.

 FRA continues to address the crashworthiness of passenger equipment as well as enhanced passenger and crew protection through our full-scale crash test program.  Our main partners in this important research are the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and Amtrak. 

Computer models have been developed to simulate a variety of passenger rail car crash scenarios.  These models, combined with the results of crash tests and field investigations of passenger train accidents, are being used to develop strategies for increasing occupant protection.  The role of these tests is to measure and compare the crashworthiness performance of existing passenger equipment and modified designs.  


FRA is now testing two components of structural crashworthiness for passenger rail equipment: a crush-zone for coaches, or cars that are coupled together and a crush-zone for cab cars, or cars that would need protection if striking an object.  So far, we have completed both designs and tested the crush-zone design for the coaches. 


We conducted a single-car test of a Crash Energy Management (CEM) coach car on December 3, 2003.  A two-car test of CEM coach cars was conducted on February 24, 2004.  We have also just completed the cab-car crush zone design.  An existing cab car will soon be retrofitted with crush zones.  This cab car, along with coach cars similarly retrofitted, will be used in a train-to-train full-scale impact test.

The test results from the single-car and two-car impact tests show that the CEM design has superior crashworthiness performance over conventional equipment.  In the single car test of conventional equipment, the car crushed by approximately six feet, intruding into the occupied area, and lifted by about nine inches, raising the wheels of the lead truck off the rails.  Under the same single-car test conditions, the CEM car crushed about three feet, preserving the occupied area, and its wheels remained on the rails.  In the two-car test of conventional equipment, the conventional car again crushed by approximately six feet, and lifted about nine inches as it crushed; in addition, the coupled cars sawtooth-buckled, and the trucks immediately adjacent to the coupled connection derailed.  In the two-car test of CEM equipment, the cars preserved the occupant areas and remained in-line, with all of the wheels on the rails. 

In the train-to-train test of conventional equipment, the colliding cab car crushed by approximately 22 feet and overrode the locomotive.  The space for the operator’s seat and for approximately ten rows of passenger seats was lost.  Computer simulations of the train-to-train test of CEM equipment indicate that the cab car will crush by approximately three feet, and that override will be prevented.  Structural crush will be pushed back to all of the coach car crush zones, and all of the crew and passenger space will be preserved.  The train-to-train test of CEM equipment, which is planned for February 2006, expected to confirm these predictions

We are currently discussing applying the results of the CEM research and development with the industry in the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee’s Passenger Safety Working Group and in the APTA Passenger Rail Equipment Safety Standards Committee.  We are also working with Metrolink, a commuter railroad in southern California, to add CEM to their next car purchase, as well as the Federal Transit Administration to determine ways to create incentives for early adoption of the results of this research. 

Advances in Locomotive Crashworthiness

FRA is also actively addressing the crashworthiness of freight locomotives.  Participants in this effort include the passenger and freight railroads, rail labor organizations, and locomotive builders.  This program has:

  1. Developed computer models and testing tools to evaluate locomotive crashworthiness;
  2. Evaluated current design locomotives for crashworthiness under common accident scenarios;
  3. Considered alternative design improvements with modeling, static testing and full-scale crash testing;
  4. Verified and validated models through full-scale crash testing; and
  5. Developed means to mitigate injuries to crew.

A total of seven tests have been conducted to date, all testing specific types of accidents that could result in fatalities in regular operations.  All tests were simulated prior to the actual crash test using computer modeling.  The model predictions closely matched the actual test results.   At least in part as a result of modeling and testing, the AAR has adopted a revised standard, S-580 (December 2004), which incorporates improvements in locomotive design.

On-Board Condition Monitoring System

Another way that FRA is striving to improve railroad safety is a project to develop and demonstrate a real-time, on-board condition monitoring system  (OBCMS) for freight trains.  The objective of the system is to improve railroad safety and efficiency through continuous monitoring of mechanical components in order to detect defects before they cause derailments.  The system monitors the condition of the bearings, wheels, trucks, and brakes.  The monitoring system has been installed on five hopper cars owned by Southern Company Services.  The OBCMS is currently being operated in revenue service on a coal train operating on a Norfolk Southern route in Alabama between a coalmine northwest of Birmingham and Gaston Steam Plant in Wilsonville, Alabama.  The Southern Company test cars are also equipped with the Timken Guardian Bearing Monitoring System, which monitors the car speed as well as the vibration and temperature of the bearings.   The system features some of the latest technology in communications and railroad bearings.

Work is currently in progress to extend the capabilities of the OBCMS to include operation of mechanical devices from the locomotive.  The devices being integrated (referred to collectively as advanced components) include parking brakes, advanced couplers, angle cocks, cut-out, levers, and a cushion unit lockout mechanism to control slack in the train.  FRA has been sponsoring the development of the advanced components through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.  These components have reached the stage of development where they can be integrated with the OBCMS.  These devices will improve railroad safety and operational efficiency since they permit various mechanical functions to be controlled remotely from the locomotive instead of manually.  The OBCMS with advanced components will be installed on five freight cars for demonstration.

Hazardous Materials and Tank Car Safety

FRA is also working hard on projects intended to both reduce the likelihood that a train accident will result in a hazardous material release and to ensure that, if a release occurs, local emergency responders will be fully prepared to minimize the damage and loss of life that might occur.  The Graniteville, South Carolina, accident, which tragically resulted in at least nine deaths as the result of the release of chlorine, demonstrates the potential for serious consequences from train accidents involving tank cars carrying hazardous material.

An important component of minimizing the impact of a hazardous material release is the emergency response.  Emergency responders are trained and generally well prepared on how to locate shipping papers on trains and read placards and other hazard communication markings.  However, it may be possible for railroads to immediately distribute the necessary information electronically to all affected emergency responders upon notification of a train accident.    The emergency responders identified that information needs to be phase specific.  While information immediately available in the first 15 to 20 minutes of a response is generally sufficient, the key element is verification to ensure seamless transition into later phases.  Initial discussions with the railroads and emergency responders show both interest and willingness to pursue an improved flow of information.  All necessary information is currently available; the missing piece is communications infrastructure to support response improvement.  FRA will continue to progress this effort as rapidly as possible.

FRA is focusing on research arising from the Minot, North Dakota, accident in 2002, which resulted in one death and 11 injuries due to the release of anhydrous ammonia.  We are working with the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center and the AAR Tank Car Committee.  Current research involves a three-phase approach to assess the consequences of tank cars involved in derailments.  The first phase is development of a physics-based model to analyze the kinematics of rail cars involved in a derailment.  The second phase is development of dynamic structural analysis models.  The third phase is an assessment of the damage created by puncture and entails the application of fracture mechanics testing and analysis methods.  The modeling work is being conducted now.  Work on tank car structural integrity will also be applicable to the Macdona, Texas, accident in 2004 (which resulted in three deaths due to the release of chlorine) and to the Graniteville accident.  This research will help improve our understanding of how tank cars fail, and that knowledge will help us improve tank car design in the future. 

In addition, an explosive-resistant coating is being used to enhance the armor protection of military vehicles in Iraq.  FRA intends to evaluate it for potential use on tank cars to prevent puncture.  The material also has a self-sealing property that could be useful to seal a hole in a tank car and mitigate the severity of incidents.  The material is a spray-on polyurea coating that has exceptional strength compared to weight.  FRA is working with the tank car industry on this project.


Thank you for allowing me to provide this brief update on current research initiatives to improve safety in the railroad industry and on the complex, technical areas of enhanced track inspection systems, PTC, NDGPS, and railroad equipment safety.  I look forward to your comments and questions on these important subjects.

Jo Strang, Deputy Associate Administrator for Railroad Development, Federal Railroad Administration
Testimony Mode: 
Testimony Date: 
Thursday, April 28, 2005
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