What’s next in emerging technologies for short-line railroads? Quite a bit

By: Jeff Stagl

Full Story: Progressive Railroading

Class Is and passenger railroads are trying to push the innovation/automation envelope to boost efficiency and safety (as chronicled in a “What’s Next in Technologies” article published in Progressive Railroading’s September issue). Regionals and short lines are, too.

Some of the technologies small railroads are working to adopt mirror the Class Is: unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for bridge inspections or washout detections; various wayside devices for identifying worn or soon-to-fail components; and light-emitting diode lights for better visibility and energy efficiency at grade crossings.

Similar to their interchange partners, some regionals and short lines also are contemplating the conversion of their locomotives’ fuel source from diesel to liquified natural gas (LNG), which is cheaper in the long run and produces less greenhouse-gas emissions than diesel.

For example, Florida East Coast Railway (FECR) in June began revenue-service trials of two LNG-fueled locomotives between Jacksonville and Miami, following previous trials between Jacksonville and New Smyrna Beach. FECR — which is aiming to become the first North American railroad to employ LNG in revenue service — plans to convert its entire 24-unit mainline locomotive fleet to the gas by mid-2017, with 13 units to be converted by 2016’s end. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has approved the regional’s tender design; FECR aims to build 13 tenders to support its LNG locomotive fleet.

Small railroads welcome any opportunity to reduce expenses — fuel included — to help control costs.

“We are by our nature small businesses, so we look for technologies or methods that can help us do more with less,” says American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) President Linda Darr. “The challenge is, we’re so resource strapped, it’s more intense for us to take on a new technology because of the costs involved.”


Yet, innovation in many ways can practically pay for itself. To that end, a number of short lines are beta testing an application that would enable field personnel to conduct locomotive inspections electronically. The app — which promises to boost efficiency and productivity, and reduce record-keeping costs — is expected to be more widely available in 2018.

“They will be able to get information to a supervisor in real time, with no paper records,” says Darr. “They can get a faster response to issues.”

In addition to innovations that can help make them more efficient, short lines are interested in any technology that can assist with enhancing safety, she says. Enter the Autonomous Track Geometry Measurement System (ATGMS), which is designed to measure and transmit geometry data from trains equipped with unattended instrumentation — meaning workers aren’t at risk on track and service won’t be interrupted.

Through the ASLRRA, several short lines are working with the FRA’s Research and Development Department to pilot a ATGMS car on their system. Benton Technologies LLC, which received an FRA grant and developed the ATGMS app for short lines, is seeking approval for the second phase of field testing.

ASLRRA member Conrail also is trying to up its automation game to both boost safety and instill decision-making processes that are more cost efficient. The railroad has continually adopted information technology (IT) systems from CSX and Norfolk Southern Railway since they split up and integrated Conrail into their systems in 1999, then repackaged the data streams into a post-event basis, says Ron Batory, Conrail’s president and chief operating officer. The efforts have transformed the CSX and NS subsidiary into “one of the most innovative and efficient terminal switching service providers in North America,” he says.

The IT innovations Conrail has adopted include:

  1. a customer action railroad behavior system (CARBS) that monitors various shipper information, such as carloads, commodities and service-performance measurements;
  2. a performance attendance compensation education and safety system that tracks employees’ attendance, compensation, safety and education/certification awards;
  3. a Conrail information reporting system that uses CSX/NS car reporting systems and handheld devices to record and manage rail-car reports in real time;
  4. a yard asset GPS monitoring and utilization system that keeps tabs on all static and mobile assets in a yard on a time and motion/positioning satellite basis; and
  5. locomotive and vehicle GPS monitoring and utilization systems that track and measure asset usage.

Conrail shares CARBS information with CSX and NS to better understand customers’ needs, says Batory. Other information is provided to and extracted from the Class Is’ IT systems via Conrail’s in-house data warehouses.

“CSX and NS use their own transportation systems, then feed each other information, with firewalls to protect proprietary information. We took the CSX and NS systems and amalgamated the data,” says Batory. “Now, we handle 1 million cars a year and can micro-manage the place.”

The next step in Conrail’s automation: developing the use of technologically advanced hardware to measure the time and motion of all static and mobile assets from both an operating and maintenance perspective.

The railroad currently is using and tweaking such hardware at its Pavonia Yard in Camden, N.J., to employ a real-time analytics approach to operating a switching yard. A yard enhancement project involved more than two dozen suppliers, including Vossloh North America, UNITRAC Railroad Materials Inc., JMG Construction, Patrick Engineering, R. J. Corman Railroad Group, Icom North America Inc., Lat-Lon LLC, Progress Rail and Western-Cullen-Hayes Inc.

The Pavonia facility previously operated as a traditional electro-pneumatic gravity hump yard. After a thorough physical redesign and operating process re-engineering, the yard now functions on level ground with significantly fewer assets, and with higher productivity and less variability, says Batory.

“It’s a real-time living, time-in-motion project,” he says.