Norfolk Southern tests ‘breakthrough’ track inspection technology

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) is conducting a pilot program testing what the railroad describes as a “breakthrough in track inspection technology.”

The Eastern U.S. railroad is deploying an autonomous track geometry measurement system, which Norfolk Southern (NS) says is the first technology of its kind among the North American freight railroads. While the autonomous track inspection systems available today are installed on converted freight or passenger rail cars and require an external power source to operate, the NS system is mounted on a locomotive.

“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,” said Ed Boyle, NS vice president of engineering. 

The pilot is occurring on a mainline between Norfolk, Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio, on a route that has a range of track and operating conditions, such as straight and curved track, hilly terrain and high tonnage loads, NS said.

NS says the autonomous system enables real-time, precise and quality track inspections while trains are loaded and going at track speed. The data from the autonomous system will help NS determine track activities and capital budgeting needs. NS says the system will help NS be compliant with company and Federal Railroad Administration track safety standards.

“With this innovative system, any time this locomotive is moving and pulling freight, it is testing track at the same time,” said Mike Allran, NS manager for track inspection and development. Allran helped lead the development of this system. “This gives us more robust data for use in predictive-modeling to determine track maintenance intervals, which enables us to maximize efficiencies that will generate significant cost savings.”

The railroad’s track inspection group within the NS engineering department developed this system. It is mounted in a ruggedized box under a six-axle road locomotive between the snow plow and the first set of wheels, NS said. A computer, housed inside the electrical locker in the locomotive cab, powers the system.

NS describes the autonomous system as consisting of  “lasers, gyros, accelerometers, and global positioning system sensors [that can] 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 confirm potential defects and notify track maintenance personnel.”

The railroad expects the system on the locomotive to supplement existing testing already occurring through a fleet of manned tracked geometry cars and hi-rail trucks. NS hopes to equip additional locomotives with this technology; the railroad also plans to upgrade the technology through the addition of an optical system to evaluate track components such as fasteners, rail welds and switch points.

Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.