Norfolk Southern deploys locomotive-based autonomous track system

Posted: 10 March 2020 | | No comments yet

Norfolk Southern’s new system provides a more robust and cost-effective way to continuously monitor track performance in near real-time.

Norfolk Southern deploys locomotive-based autonomous track system

Credit: Norfolk Southern Railway Corporation

The Norfolk Southern Railway Corporation has announced that it has become the first North American freight railroad to develop and deploy an autonomous track geometry measurement system that is mounted on a locomotive. The breakthrough in track inspection technology will enhance railroad safety and operating efficiencies.

Norfolk Southern will pilot the autonomous system on a mainline between Norfolk, Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio, with the route offering a comprehensive range of track and operating conditions, including straight and curved track, hilly terrain, and high-tonnage loads.

Vice President of Engineering at Norfolk Southern, Ed Boyle, said: “With our locomotive-based system, we use an existing asset to increase the frequency of our track inspections, without adding another piece of equipment that has to be run across the railroad. This innovative approach enhances our safety practices by permitting us to have precise and quality track inspections done under load at track speed. With this system, Norfolk Southern will provide service safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively.”

Standard commercial autonomous track-inspection systems are installed on converted freight or passenger rail cars, which require an external power source to operate and occupy space on a train that could be used to move revenue-producing freight. The new system designed by Norfolk Southern’s track inspection group provides a more robust and cost-effective way to continuously monitor track performance in near real-time.

The new autonomous system is mounted in a ruggedised box under a six-axle road locomotive between the snow plough and the first set of wheels. A computer that powers the system is housed inside the electrical locker in the locomotive cab. The system supplies timely and accurate data used for track maintenance activities and capital budgeting.

Mike Allran, Manager of Track Inspection and Development at Norfolk Southern, said: “With this innovative system, any time this locomotive is moving and pulling freight, it is testing track at the same time. This gives us more robust data for use in predictive-modelling to determine track maintenance intervals, which enables us to maximise efficiencies that will generate significant cost savings.”

The system is able to detect defects or anomalies in track geometry, including track gauge, or the distance between rails, and the elevation and curvature of track. The system transmits inspection data wirelessly to office locations, where track geometry engineers can confirm potential defects and notify track maintenance personnel.