Think “advanced rail technology” and you might think of bullet trains or maglev systems. But what about the rails of the running freight and passenger trains? Advances in machine learning, big data collection and speech recognition tools that have transformed manufacturing, automotive, retail and social media are also being used to make vital rail operations safer and more efficient.
Alstom, which makes passenger trains including Amtrak’s next-generation Acela unit and rail signaling equipment, said it was rolling out more advanced digital circuits and sensors in North America and other global markets that use electricity flowing through the tracks to collect and share detailed information. Information like the position of a train, detecting warped wheels and monitoring track conditions. The goal is to reduce the risk of derailments and system failures, and ideally, run freight lines more efficiently by bringing trains closer together.
“There’s electricity running through the rails, and it used to say: Is there a train here? The technology hasn’t really changed much in 100 years,” Jeff Baker, Alstom’s vice president of freight and products, told CNN Business. ForbesExisting systems can also determine if tracks are damaged, detect a train’s location within only about two miles, and transmit only 3 or 4 bits of data per second, he said.
Using the company’s new digital circuitry, “we can tell where the train is within about half a mile. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s a huge improvement,” Baker said. “When it comes to (data) capacity, it’s a bit like going from telegraph to Ethernet cables. … We’ve actually turned the rails themselves into Ethernet cables.”
Soaring freight demand is pushing rail operators including Union Pacific, Burlington North Santa Fe and CSX to maximize use of their 140,000 miles of railroads that crisscross America. Their recent contract disputes with railroad workers seeking increased paid sick leave also underscore how important the industry is to the wider economy: The strikes are estimated to cost $2 billion a day in disruption to the flow of goods. At the same time, the Biden administration also wants Amtrak to expand its service and passenger capacity while ensuring improved safety. In September 2021, three passengers were killed in a fatal derailment of an Amtrak train in Montana, believed to be caused by tracks deformed by the heat.
“We’ve actually turned the track itself into an Ethernet cable.”
“There’s something called a ‘solar kink,’ where the rails get really hot and snap,” Baker said. “With this technology, we can start to predict when these things are going to happen.”
That could be an important capability if heat waves become more common, a by-product of global warming. Alstom’s signaling unit, which provides new circuit systems technology, reported revenue of 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) in the first half of its fiscal year, up 7 percent. It is scheduled to report third-quarter results on Jan. 1. 25.
The company, based in Saint-Ouen-sur-Seine, France, is installing its new circuit on the track at roughly 2-mile intervals along a heavily trafficked rail corridor, collecting transmissions at sensor-equipped “wellness centers.” Data for railway operators.
“A train will go through a suite of sensors, almost like a car wash, that will detect various things on the train — the temperature of the wheels, the rotation of the wheels,” Baker said. Using algorithms to monitor data from individual trains over time can detect “bearing degradation or out-of-round wheels, and we can perform preventive maintenance on those train performance characteristics.”
Alstom shares rose 1.5 percent to close at 25.75 euros in Paris on Friday.