Railroads Get Rolling with Remote Monitoring

The oldest form of travel since the horse and carriage, trains have been pulling their weight for centuries and continue to be a vital part of our transportation infrastructure.


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Today’s railroads work harder than ever. A growing economy and ever increasing world trade has rail traffic levels at all time highs, straining existing rail system operations beyond their capacities. Operators can still lose track of the whereabouts of a particular locomotive or train car. There is no system to enable operators to effectively monitor a diverse fleet, with forty-year-old locomotives rolling along side sleek, new high-speed bullet trains.

Railroad companies want to take advantage of the tremendous revenue opportunities that come with a strong demand for their services. To do so, they must find more efficient, reliable, safe and secure ways to stay on track. They need technologies that enable them to carefully and continuously monitor their fleet utilization, manage fuel and implement predictive maintenance to keep trains up and running.

A railroad’s primary obstacle to managing a geographically and technologically diverse mobile fleet is the lack of a common data interface. Electronic systems on board locomotives vary widely depending on their purpose, manufacturer, model and age. Each system has a unique physical interface and data protocol. Even though the information collected is similar, until now there has been no universal data format. Furthermore, there is no universal standard for data transfer using wireless network communications to collect data from onboard systems.

This is changing with the development of new products and services that provide remote monitoring information, with real-time reporting and analysis, across diverse fleets. Wi-Tronix, a company that provides technology to wirelessly monitor high-value mobile assets, understood the challenges of having diverse data formats. Focusing on mobile assets such as locomotives, haul trucks, industrial equipment and marine vessels, they made it their business to bridge the gap between the various data formats used by different manufacturers of onboard monitoring equipment. Wi-Tronix created a universal interface platform that renders system data from a wide array of onboard electronic devices into a common, standards-based data format. It is now possible to manage an entire fleet as one cohesive network blending new and old locomotives and equipment from different manufacturers.

A ruggedized computing platform, called the Wi-PU (Wireless Processing Unit) is installed on each locomotive, and taps into each onboard system. The Wi-PU includes Ethernet, USB, serial and discrete I/O connectivity in order to connect with external systems such as engine controllers, data recorders, fuel monitors, digital video recorders, remote control systems and analog sensors. Each Wi-PU is equipped with state-of-the-art wireless technologies and an embedded Global Positioning System (GPS) module, which includes Differential GPS (DGPS) correction and can locate a mobile asset to within 3 meters.

To exchange data and control information between the Wi-PU on board a mobile asset and the remote tracking applications, a robust, real-time messaging architecture was needed that would serve as a universal foundation for current and future applications. A commercial-off-the-shelf, industry standard solution from Real-Time Innovations (RTI) enabled getting to market within five months.

RTI provides high-performance messaging middleware based on the Object Management Group’s (OMG) Data Distribution Service standard. The DDS implements a publish-subscribe model for sending and receiving data, events and commands among the nodes. Applications that produce information create topics, for example “Temperature” or “Location,” and publish samples associated with that topic. The Data Distribution Service (DDS) delivers each sample to all subscribers that declare an interest in that topic. The DDS publish-subscribe model virtually eliminates complex network programming for distributed applications. It also supports mechanisms that go beyond the basic publish-subscribe model including support for a variety of hardware and operating systems.

The key benefit is that applications that use DDS for their communications are entirely decoupled. Very little design time has to be spent on how to handle their mutual interactions. In particular, the applications never need information about the other participating applications, including their existence or locations. DDS automatically handles all aspects of message delivery, without requiring any intervention from the user applications, including determining who should receive the messages; where recipients are located; and what happens if messages cannot be delivered. Thus, new nodes can be added at anytime and will be able to send and receive messages from existing nodes.

Perhaps its most important capability, the DDS provides Quality of Service (QoS) properties for controlling the data flow. The QoS can be set to ensure that each application has the most current data available, enabling real-time analysis and notification of events. With the availability of real-time data, an operator can take corrective action when a problem occurs instead of after the fact.

The DDS middleware is used by both the Wi-PU’s onboard software and the back office applications. Software running on the Wi-PU collects onboard information from the GPS, the data recorder, fuel level monitor and other sources. It then translates the data into a universal format to be disseminated via the DDS for use by a variety of fleet monitoring and management applications. Typically, onboard data is transmitted over a CDMA cellular network. GSM, WLAN and satellite networks are also supported. Refreshed data is published about every five minutes (Figure 1).

Wi-Tronix also provides the infrastructure to make up-to-the-minute fleet data available via a data visualization Web service. Integration with the railroad customer’s existing back office applications is also available. Railroad operators are able to view current location and operational status information about their fleet at any time simply by logging on to the secure Web site. There, an interactive, auto-refreshing map shows the location and direction of each train. A color coding gives an immediate indication of whether the engine is running, if the train is moving, and the speed it is traveling. Operators can drill down into detailed location and status information by clicking on the symbol for a particular train. A “breadcrumb” view gives detailed information about an individual train including the route traveled, the operating conditions, and events along the way (Figure 2). It is also possible to zoom in on geographical information and see 3D terrain models, bird’s eye view and satellite imagery. This results in a highly visual and immersive Web experience because the comprehensive mobile asset tracking database is now integrated with the Microsoft Virtual Earth platform (Figure 3).

In addition to the Web interface, a number of alerting, notification and logging options are provided to apprise owners, operators and maintainers of actual or potential problems. To aid in predictive maintenance, the tracking application sends e-mails, text messages and trip reports when onboard sensors report out-of-bound conditions. For example, traction motors are used to power the driving wheels of a locomotive. Failure of a traction motor can stop a train in its tracks. (Where else?)

Typically, before a traction motor ceases to function, it will start to exhibit ground fault relay errors, particularly in wet conditions. Often the locomotive crew will just reset the fault and not report the incident. Eventually, the reset will stop working and the train will be halted, restricting the flow of all other trains scheduled to use that same segment of track. However, when locomotive maintainers discover a pattern of ground faults via alerts or traction motor overload statistics, they can schedule the locomotive for shop time. In these cases, the repair team finds the problem in advance and thereby avoids a costly road failure.

In addition to predictive failure alerts, operators can be notified of events such as emergency brake applications, train overspeed and low fuel. Event information helps railroads better manage resources and further improve their response to potential incidents.

Most of the information the railroad needs to monitor their fleet is captured in the event recorders, similar to the black boxes used on airplanes. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) requires that a working event recorder be deployed on the leading locomotive of all trains operating above 30 MPH on the U.S. rail network. The specific information captured by the event recorder and the format of the data varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. However, all recorders typically include a set of basic signals. These include speed, direction of travel (forward or reverse), time, distance, throttle position, operation of brakes, and status of cab signals (if the locomotive is equipped).

Traditionally, the information from the event recorder has been of limited usefulness, because it has been difficult to access the data remotely in real time. Therefore, it has been used almost exclusively for post-processing after an incident, or on an occasional basis when a technician was sent into the field to retrieve the data. With the current technology, railway operators can now have a complete, up-to-the-minute snapshot of all their locomotives along with rules-based wireless alerting based on all available onboard data.

This technology is deployed, or on order, for over 2,700 mobile assets across North America. This includes Class I, Regional and Short Line railroads. BNSF, Florida East Coast Railway and CN (Canadian National Railway) are all using Wi-Tronix solutions. Additionally, the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Office of Research and Development is using the technology to improve crew safety, operational efficiency and homeland security through its Advanced Concept Train Project. This project includes a revenue service proving ground for technologies such as biometric monitoring applications for crew timekeeping, safety and locomotive security purposes. For example, restricted access would allow personnel to operate a locomotive only during their assigned shifts. Possibilities continue to evolve.

Trains will be rolling with us into the future. Though rooted in the industrial revolution, railroads continue to evolve and remain a crucial mode of transportation. The information age affords an exciting landscape and is a welcoming destination, bringing wireless communications, real-time networking, universal data platforms and sophisticated management software. These technologies now offer the fundamental improvements in safety, security, efficiency and service that railroads require to keep them rolling for a long time to come.

Bolingbrook, IL.
(888) 948-7664.

Real-Time Innovations,
Sunnyvale, Ca.
(408) 990-7400.