Rail consultant: New York Air Brake's feat is the next step to automated railroading

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New York Air Brake's test train.
New York Air Brake
ATLANTA — One independent railroad professional sees New York Air Brake's recent automation break through as an incremental step to fully automated railroading.

Gary Wolf, principal at Wolf Railway Consulting, tells Trains that New York Air Brake's Friday announcement that it started a stopped freight train, operated it on a 48-mile-run and then slowed and stopped it — all from a computer, is another step to efficiency and safety.

New York Air Brake achieved the feat using its LEADER train handling system on a test track with an unknown version of positive train control installed. LEADER's prime competitor in North America is Wabtec's Trip Optimizer.

Wolf says that automation improves the performance of less-skilled engineers, saving the railroad fuel and increasing safety by reducing the potential for human error. Whether it’s a human or a computer in charge, running a three-mile train over an undulating grade has many variables, including how much of the train is going up, how much is going down, and any upcoming changes in speed due to curves, speed restrictions, or signal indications.

Wolf says he once worked with a western railroad which studied the fuel efficiency of a group of bulk commodity trains, testing different engineers running the same consist as it cycled back and forth with the same locomotives, cars, and tonnage. Over the roster of engineers, he discovered a 15-20% variance in how much fuel each used to make the same run with the same train. Driver assist systems such as LEADER bring each engineer up to the same level of performance, which Wolf says is better than most engineers.

Asked if some engineers could beat the computer’s performance, Wolf says that that is possible, but that averaged over an entire crew roster, the computer would win every time. He related an experience working on computer-aided dispatching, where a railroad ran tests with a computer in charge one day and a human the next. The humans performed better a few days where they knew things the computer didn’t, but over the length of the test, the computer easily won.

“It all depends on what you feed the algorithm,” Wolf says.

Wolf acknowledged that railroads are a harsh operating environment for a computer, subject to transient voltages, arcing, temperature and humidity, oil, vibration, impact forces from rolling over track; and that when a computer crashes, the train will have to stop while it reboots or waits for a human to diagnose the problem.

He doesn’t see this as a deal-breaker, though, saying that solid-state computers are only getting more reliable. If a train is stopped by a broken air hose or knuckle, tripped relay, or computer crash, Wolf predicts the response will be the same as when a crew today can’t solve a mechanical problem: send out a mobile unit to wherever the train stopped. He noted that this will be easier on western railroads where service roads often parallel the track, while tracks are often less accessible in the East.

According to New York Air Brake, the current LEADER system is used on over 5,000 locomotives worldwide, controlling locomotives under an engineer’s supervision to reduce in-train forces and improve fuel consumption. The company claims that it improves fuel consumption between 6 and 17 percent, and states that fuel amounts to 14.7 percent of Class 1 operating costs.

NEWSWIRETrains News Wire

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