Keeping the Trains On Time - Page 2

By Gerry Blackwell

February 27, 2004

"There's a lot of heavy engineering involved [to retrofit a locomotive for remote control]," says BNSF assistant vice president of telecommunications Fred Gatke. "We ran these units in the field and in labs for weeks and weeks, making changes and improvements. It's a maturing project."

The trainman wears a wirelessly-enabled belt pack controller -- "like a high-tech fanny pack," Gatke says. It includes buttons and joy sticks the trainman manipulates to move the locomotive ahead or back, change speed, turn on lights and so on.

In most BNSF deployments, the belt pack communicates with the locomotive computer over Wi-Fi networks. A trainman can control a locomotive half a mile away using the system.

BNSF builds the "industrial strength" Wi-Fi networks cover the whole yard. In Kansas City, it deployed between 150 and 200 access points, typically mounted 100 feet up on poles. The APs are Cisco Aironet 1200-series units, hardened to protect them from weather and lightning. BNSF also uses repeaters from Cisco.

RCL technology can and does work over narrower-band networks than Wi-Fi. The amount of data passed back and forth between trainman and locomotive is not huge. However, BNSF uses Wi-Fi for other applications as well. For example, inspectors and others in the yards carry Wi-Fi handheld computers to communicate with central systems.

Wi-Fi is also unlicensed. Until recently, U.S. railway companies did not have access to licensed bandwidth for this kind of application. Even now that the FCC has assigned some frequency, Campbell says, BNSF will continue to use Wi-Fi.

"Eventually we may have to protect ourselves if the Wi-Fi band gets very noisy," he adds. "Now that we have a set of clear [wireless] channels [exclusively for railway use], that's a big positive."

One reason the technology was pioneered in Canada is that the government there early on assigned frequency for exclusive use by railways, which they used for locomotive remote control applications among other things. (It's worth noting that this was done after first experimenting with corded remote control -- which conjures interesting images.)

The other reason U.S. railways are playing catch-up is that their unions resisted the technology and were strong enough to block its use until fairly recently. Now all top tier rail companies are implementing or have implemented RCL technology, Campbell says.

He admits, however, that labor relations over the RCL project at BNSF have not been "entirely rosy." The company didn't actually lay off any engineers -- in fact, it had to hire more because of strong growth in its business - but yard engineers didn't like going back to driving trains on the main lines because it often involves shift work and lay-overs in distant cities.

The technology was just too beneficial to resist, though. BNSF won't talk about the costs of implementation, but Campbell says the internal rate of return (IRR) on capital expended is "in the high double digits or low triple digits." An IRR of 15 percent is enough to get a project green-lighted at BNSF, so RCL was something of a slam dunk.

RCL is just one of "a myriad" of wireless projects the company is undertaking as part of its emerging technology plan, though not all are Wi-Fi.

The Optimization Alternatives Strategic Intermodal Scheduler (OASIS), implemented in intermodal hubs where trucks meet trains, uses Wi-Fi to exchange information among dispatchers, drivers and yard workers.

The next big wireless project at BNSF, still in planning stages, is the Electronic Train Management System (ETMS). It will be implemented on main lines, starting with a 110-mile test bed where ETMS will be piloted later this year. It's not remote control exactly -- there will still be a human engineer -- but it will allow the company to program in fail safe mechanisms. For example, if a train is scheduled to go from station A to station B, and it for some reason goes past station B, ETMS can shut it down.

One component of ETMS is wireless communications between train and stationery points along the route for exchange of data on train status, scheduling and so on. It likely won't be Wi-Fi in stretches between stations, but would be within and near stations.

"My personal belief," Campbell says, "is that wireless will be the biggest driver for technology innovation for the next four or five years."

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