Keeping the Trains On Time

By Gerry Blackwell

February 27, 2004

Wi-Fi is being used by some railway companies for remote control of locomotives.

Wi-Fi is turning up in the darnedest places: Burlington Northern & Santa Fe (BNSF), the venerable railway company, is using 802.11 networks in its rail yards to enable a mind-boggling Remote Control Locomotive (RCL) system, and it will soon be using Wi-Fi on its main lines to help control trains.

It's not the only railway doing this either.

The RCL project at BNSF has been in the works for almost three years and was launched a little over a year ago at its Argentine yard in Kansas City, Kan. The company will deploy the technology in all of its yards by 2005.

The amazing thing is that wireless remote control of locomotives is not actually that new. What's new is using Wi-Fi to enable it. The technology has been in use in Canadian rail yards for almost ten years -- just not using 802.11.

If you think that remotely controlling several-ton locomotives over a wireless network sounds like a dodgy proposition safety-wise, think again. The main reason BNSF and other railways say they are deploying this technology is to increase safety. What's more, they have statistics to prove it's succeeding.

The fact that the technology also reduces labor needs and speeds the process of assembling trains -- hooking cars together in the right order, which is where RCL systems are used -- is just "a nice side benefit," according to Jeffrey Campbell, BNSF's vice president of technology services and CIO.

To understand how this application works and why, it helps to be able to picture one of the company's rail yards. The Argentine yard is about five miles long by two miles across, with 30 to 40 separate tracks. All day long, and into the night, locomotives shunt cars from track to track, pulling them apart and moving them together to assemble trains in preparation for trips.

In the past, an engineer sat in the cab of the locomotive, a switchman operated the switches, and a trainman clambered between cars, coupling and uncoupling and connecting and disconnecting brake hoses.

The engineer and the trainman talked over a radio but there were frequent miscommunications -- due to static on a channel, loss of line of sight or just the fact that it was dark out.

"I say, 'Whoa,' you hear, 'Go' - and boom, you've got an accident," Campbell says. "A back strain or worse."

In the yards where BNSF has implemented the RCL technology, there are no more engineers. Right off the top, the company reduced its labor requirement for this type of work by a third.

The retrained trainman, now called a remote control operator, controls the locomotive himself using a wireless remote controller on a belt pack. The technology makes the process safer because it eliminates the opportunity for miscommunication.

Where it has implemented RCL, BNSF has seen a 17-percent reduction in "incidents" -- anything remotely approaching an accident, which they are obliged by federal regulation to report. More impressive, it has seen a 70-percent reduction in reportable injuries related to activities where RCL is used.

BNSF uses remote control locomotive products from GE Transportation Systems (GETS) in its Wi-Fi RCL deployments. There are other remote control system vendors -- Canac and Cattron-Theimeg, for example -- whose products use licensed bandwidth (Wi-Fi/802.11 uses unlicensed radio spectrum).

The locomotives, often the oldest ones in the company's fleet, must first be retrofitted with a wall-mounted laptop-like wireless computer. The computer is connected by various electro-mechanical means to the locomotive's controls.

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