At a very basic level, railroading today seems similar to railroading 150 years ago: it consists of steel wheels traveling on steel rails. This apparent similarity, however, masks the widespread application of modern technology and numerous ongoing safety initiatives that continually improve the industry’s strong safety record. From state-of-the-art equipment to rigorous inspection protocols, here are ten of the many ways railroads invest to ensure that freight is not only shipped efficiently, but safely. Since 1980, these initiatives have helped to reduce the industry’s train accident rate by 79 percent.
Working with rail stakeholders and federal regulatory agencies, railroads set aggressive design and construction standards for the 1.4 million rail cars that move daily on the U.S. freight rail network. These standards often exceed federal regulations set by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). Most recently, the industry petitioned PHMSA to adopt more stringent requirements for tank cars used to transport certain types of hazardous materials, including crude oil.
While railroad track might look much like it did 100 years ago, advanced technology has made railroad infrastructure stronger, safer, and more reliable. Thanks to advancements in steel manufacturing, the quality of steel used for railroad track has improved, greatly expanding the average lifespan of rail to approximately 60 years. Continuously welded rail — track welded together to form one uninterrupted rail that is 1/4 mile long — is another advancement that has improved safety by minimizing the number of joints in the track. In addition, the ties that support the rail have evolved over time to last far longer and carry heavier loads.
Home to 48 miles of test tracks and state-of-that-art testing facilities and equipment, the Transportation Technology Center, Inc. (TTCI) is charged with developing and testing the next generation of advanced railroad technologies. In its world-renowned labs and test facilities, TTCI works to improve freight car component design, develop technologies used to inspect rail car components and track, develop standards to enhance the efficiency and safety of operations, evaluate bridge designs and develop equipment maintenance protocols.
Maintaining America’s vast 140,000-mile outdoor freight rail network is a job that is never done. Railroads continuously inspect their track and bridges using specialized equipment such as track geometry cars, rail defect detector cars, and bridge inspection vehicles. These specialized vehicles use laser sensors to detect track wear and tear and alert railroads to potential defects, enabling them to schedule maintenance in a safe, timely and cost-effective manner. Ground-penetrating radar is also used to help identify problems below the ground that can make track unstable. Rail researchers are also developing and testing onboard technology and structural health monitoring systems to monitor bridge health and detect bridge damage for the 100,000 railroad bridges on the rail network.
Railroads employ advanced technology to monitor the health of rolling stock such as locomotives and rail cars. Seven kinds of wayside detectors positioned along track monitor the wheel mechanisms (such as axles, suspensions and bearings) of passing trains and alert rail car owners to potential defects. This early alert system allows rail car owners to schedule maintenance in a safe, timely, and cost effective manner. Thanks to advanced inspection techniques and this network of wayside detectors, the broken wheel and rail accident rate has dropped 20 percent over the last 10 years.
Every day, more than 500 privately-owned railroads operate across an interconnected 140,000 mile freight rail network to deliver 4.8 million tons of goods. Such efficiency and fluidity is due in large part to the railroad industry’s information technology hub, Railinc. From tracking products in real time to communicating the condition of railroad equipment, Railinc transmits more than 9 million daily messages to customers. Railinc’s latest initiative, the Asset Health Strategic Initiative (AHSI), will reduce mechanical service interruptions, improve the quality of railcar inspections, and increase rail yard and repair shop efficiency. By consolidating equipment information, such as ownership information, repair and inspection history and component recalls, AHSI will result in significant safety improvements for America’s freight railroads.
Railroads adhere to strict operating procedures that are designed to ensure the safe movement of all goods, especially hazardous materials. Federal regulations and self-imposed safety practices dictate train speeds, equipment and infrastructure inspections, procedures for how to handle and secure trains carrying hazardous materials, and much more. In light of increasing volumes of crude oil by rail, railroads recently undertook a top-to-bottom review of all aspects of their operating protocols and implemented enhanced procedures to ensure that the movement of crude oil meets the highest standards for safety and efficiency.
Freight railroads are resolute in their commitment to the safety of the communities they serve. Each year, thousands of emergency responders and railroad and shipper employees receive specialized training through individual railroad efforts and industry programs. The Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC) at TTCI has trained more than 50,000 transportation, emergency response, chemical, government agency and emergency response employees and contractors to safely handle accidents involving tank cars carrying hazardous materials. Railroads also support industry partnership such as TRANSCAER® and Chemtrec. The industry trains more than 20,000 emergency responders each year through their own efforts and through these industry partnerships.
Community preparedness is critical in the event of an accident, which is why railroads work closely with state and local leaders on this issue. Railroads are actively involved in state emergency planning committees and conferences on emergency response and provide emergency planning assistance and training to local fire, police and emergency response personnel. Railroads also provide local authorities with technical information on hazardous materials shipments moving through their communities and equip train dispatchers and crews with information about hazmat on individual trains and detailed emergency response information specific to those materials.
In the rare event of an accident, railroads work to ensure that the citizens in the communities they serve are minimally impacted. When an incident occurs, railroads swiftly implement emergency response plans and work closely with first responders to help minimize injuries or damage. To that end, railroads invest in equipment — including fire-suppressant foam trailers — used to respond to accidents involving hazardous materials. This equipment is strategically located throughout the network to ensure that it can arrive quickly at the scene of an accident. Experts with railroad and product knowledge are quickly dispatched to provide support and expertise while advanced testing capabilities are provided to ensure the protection of citizens and the environment. Railroads typically reimburse local agencies for materials expended for accident response and environmental remediation. For citizens, railroads provide services to try to limit inconvenience and displacement.