Signals: Going...going...gone(?)...

NW Mailing List nw-mailing-list at
Sat Jan 13 03:53:31 EST 2007

Thanks, Ned. It will be interesting to see what
railroad signaling in 2017 will be like....

Best wishes,


--- Ned Wright <parkview12004 at> wrote:

Efforts to update train safety take a step forward
By GREGORY RICHARDS, The Virginian-Pilot
© January 12, 2007
Last updated: 9:37 PM

Norfolk Southern Corp.'s effort to develop a
computerized train control system took a step forward
this week when federal regulators approved the first
such system for another big railroad, Burlington
Northern Santa Fe Corp., which operates in the West.

Known as positive train control, these long-awaited
systems promise to improve railroad safety and

Displays in the locomotive cab will warn train crews
of dangerous conditions, such as excessive speed or a
misaligned switch in the train's path. If the crew
fails to act, the system will automatically apply the
train's brakes to prevent accidents. The systems also
will pinpoint train locations at all times, allowing
railroads to operate more trains over the same set of
tracks by decreasing the distance between them.

The Federal Railroad Administration gave Burlington
Northern, based in Fort Worth, Texas, the go-ahead
Monday to implement the technology on 35 freight lines
in 17 western states.

"This is a major achievement that marks the beginning
of a new era of rail safety," Federal Railroad
Administrator Joseph H. Boardman said in a statement.
"The steps FRA and railroads are taking show that
applying positive train control technology can work
and will provide important safety benefits."

Traditionally, railroad dispatchers told train crews
to proceed, switch tracks, slow and stop with signal
lights mounted along rail lines and with radios.

With positive train control, global positioning system
satellites, digital data communication networks,
track-side monitoring units and computers in the
locomotives do the job.

Norfolk Southern, based in Norfolk, concluded
preliminary testing last month on its still developing
computerized dispatching system on a 114-mile stretch
of track between Columbia, S.C., and Charleston, S.C.
The tests, started in 2005, focused on monitoring
track switch positions and train locations.

"Everything has worked as anticipated," said Norfolk
Southern spokesman Robin Chapman.

Later this month, the railroad will begin operating
freight trains with the system on the route.

Norfolk Southern also has started designing its train
control system's most significant part, which will
allow dispatchers to use the data to actually control
trains, Chapman said. This phase will allow the system
to stop a train if a crew doesn't follow operating
instructions, such as those for speed and following
distance. Subsequent testing should be completed by
the summer of 2008, he said.

What Norfolk Southern is developing differs from what
Burlington Northern had approved: Norfolk Southern's
system could eliminate signal lights while Burlington
Northern's will work with them, the companies said.

Such positive train control systems have been on the
National Transportation Safety Board's list of "Most
Wanted" safety improvements since 1990 because of
their potential to prevent accidents.

Such an advanced control system might have prevented
the Jan. 6, 2005, wreck of two Norfolk Southern trains
in Graniteville, S.C., which spilled chlorine gas into
the small mill town, killing nine, including the train
engineer. A switch set in the wrong position diverted
a train passing through the town to a side track,
where it collided with a parked locomotive.

A positive train control system would have shown
dispatchers and the train crew the position of the
switch long before the train arrived.

Norfolk Southern hasn't estimated the cost for
deploying positive train control throughout its
21,200-mile track network in 22 states, the District
of Columbia and Canada, Chapman said.

Burlington Northern also hasn't calculated a cost for
rolling out its system, said spokesman Patrick Hiatte.
But the railroad industry has estimated that
implementing such systems along the main lines of the
country's rail system could cost $4 billion to $6

The railroads had sought to pay for the high-tech
system in part by reducing the size of train crews,
from two or three employees to just one, a move that
would allow them to cut thousands of jobs.

Railroad labor unions say they back positive train
control, but not at the expense of smaller crews that
they say would jeopardize train safety. The railroads
deny such a move would lessen safety.

But that's all off the table for now. The United
Transportation Union, which represents conductors, won
a lawsuit last year preventing the railroads from
bargaining over crew size in the ongoing contract

"There is no technology available today to replace two
sets of eyes in the cabs," said Frank Wilner, a
spokesman for the conductor's union.

Reach Gregory Richards at (757) 446-2599 or
gregory.richards at

© 2007

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