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The Impact of Sensor Technology on Railway Safety Systems

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Railways have served as the land-based veins of global commerce and transportation since the early 1800s. As with every great leap forward in technology, new challenges and risks arose as well. Every railway engineer’s worst nightmare is a collision or derailment. Oftentimes these tragedies can be linked back to human error.  Railway engineers began to ask themselves: what can be done to help reduce this problem?

New systems have been developed to make sure that these tragedies can be limited as much as possible. In this article, we’ll explain how high-tech railway safety systems are playing a huge role in making train transportation much safer for cargo and passengers alike.

Positive Train Control

Passenger trains carry millions of people per day, and in each of those trains, the passengers' lives rest in the hands of the railroad engineer who controls the train. (Fun Fact: In the United States, “railroad engineer” applies to people who operate trains, as well as those who design them.) It’s an awesome responsibility, and the vast majority are very experienced and qualified at what they do. But there are so many different things a railway engineer has to pay attention to, including the dashboard, obstructions on the track, pedestrians and vehicles nearby, and track signals. Under these conditions, errors can and do occur.

Positive Train Control, or PTC, is a railway safety system that acts as a type of autopilot for trains. PTC uses a combination of advanced sensor systems and GPS to reduce unnecessary risk and prevent crashes in the event that an engineer becomes unresponsive. Sensors are used to transmit and receive data between the train itself, the control room server at the station, a system of wayside signals, and satellites for GPS navigation.

According to the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-Right-Of-Way Association, a PTC system must be able to:

  • Enforce all speed limits, permanent and temporary
  • Prevent train collisions and derailments
  • Allow railway workers to work safely

The purpose of all this is to make sure everyone knows where every train on a given rail network is at all times. Before a train with an operational PTC system leaves the station, the server at the station transmits travel information to the train’s onboard computer. As the train progresses on its journey, its speed and position are tracked by GPS. Along the tracks, a network of sensors called wayside units track the train’s progress and send information down the line to switch track alignments, and also transmit data back to the station computers.

Railway Safety

A PTC system prevents two trains from accidentally ending up on the same track, as well as trains ending up on the wrong course or traveling into work zones. All trains integrated into these innovative railway safety systems are tracked at all times, and if something goes wrong, the whole network knows about it.

But PTC’s benefits aren’t limited to navigation. The system also tracks the train’s speed and calculates appropriate braking for upcoming curves in the travel path. Under normal circumstances, these decisions are left up to the engineer, but if for some reason, the engineer does not respond in time, the PTC will intervene by electronically taking control of the brakes to slow down or stop the train.

As you can see, there’s a lot going on here. PTC is a very effective railway safety system, but such a large and complex radio communication network requires many different component systems to function properly. Setting up a PTC system is a huge job, as many wayside units are required and each system must be customized for the rail network it serves. An error in any one of the sensors could have serious or even dangerous consequences. Fortunately, at Novel, we manufacture some of the best wayside positive train control units in the industry.

In the United States, major infrastructure investments are on the horizon, including new high-speed railway construction. Exciting new proposals like the Dallas-Houston Bullet Train will require the latest in PTC technology to keep passengers and railway workers safe. Our team of world-class engineers stands ready to meet safety challenges of all current and future locomotive projects. If you’d like to learn more about how we can put our skills to work for you, reach out and let us know how we can help.

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Topics: Positive Train Control

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