American Shipper

Shake, rattle and roll

Shake, rattle and roll

TTC ensures rail industry's equipment is safe before it goes on the track.

By Chris Gillis

   In the dusty outskirts of Pueblo, Colo., there's a place where engineers put the North American rail industry's equipment to the ultimate test.

   At the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration's Transportation Technology Center (TTC) nearly every bolt, bearing, steel weld and digital device used in North American railway suppliers' latest equipment designs is put through a rigorous test before it can be used on the nation's vast rail network.

Roy Allen
Transportation Technology Center Inc.
'Safety is the No.1 priority for railroads in North America and indeed for the FRA. For many test, particularly on-track test, TTC is the only viable facility in North America.'

   'TTC acts as the test bed for the research programs of both the AAR (Association of American Railroads) and FRA,' said Roy A. Allen, president of Transportation Technology Center Inc. (TTCI), in an interview. 'Most good research is accomplished by a solid combination of analytical work, including computer simulation and testing. Tests can be conducted at TTC that would be impractical to conduct anywhere else.'

   There are about 233,000 miles of railroad track throughout the United States, of which 143,360 miles are operated by North America's freight railroads. At least 25 percent of the continent's freight moves by rail at some point during its journey from origin to destination, crossing farms, towns and cities.

   'Safety is the No. 1 priority for railroads in North America and indeed for the FRA,' Allen said. 'For many tests, particularly on-track tests, TTC is the only viable facility in North America.'

   Rail equipment, especially rolling stock, must be tested to certain technical standards and specifications as defined by the AAR and its member railroads. TTC is equipped to offer laboratory, as well as on-track tests, for AAR certification.

   Another benefit of the center to the rail industry is its ability to conduct large-scale tests away from public view. The facility is located about 25 miles outside Pueblo.

   'TTC provides an outstanding venue for proprietary developmental testing for suppliers and others,' Allen said. 'The site's location, surrounded by high plains prairie, is well away from prying eyes. Here, failures can occur in private. And sometimes failed designs are part and parcel of the process of developing a superior product.'

Accomplishments. The test center, started in 1971, was initially set up by the Transportation Department to test high-speed passenger train technologies.

   In 1988, the Reagan administration slashed the DOT center's $12 million budget. To prevent its closure, Bill Harris, then AAR's head of research, went to the FRA administrator to develop an agreement whereby the association would maintain the facility and continue to conduct research, while the federal government would still own the land, which covers 52 square miles.

   At the time, AAR had a technical department of about 100 staff in Chicago and another 50 in Washington. During the next five years, these offices were consolidated at the test center in Pueblo. Most of the TTC engineers have many years of experience working for the various railroads.

Full size derailment at the Security and Emergency Response Training Center.

   During the past 40 years, the test center has conducted numerous tests on rail equipment for the passenger and freight industries.

   In the late 1980s, TTC became heavily involved in testing and analysis into the reasons why early double-stack container trains had a significant tendency to derail.

   'This was a very new type of train back in those days and the derailment mechanism was extremely complex,' Allen said. 'But after considerable testing in TTC's controlled environment, the team discovered the problem (in the connections between the railcars) and began to develop remedies that have led to a very good service reliability record for these trains since those early days.'

   Also in the late 1980s, TTC was extensively used by EMD (formerly the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors) to develop and perfect its alternating current traction motor technology. AC traction technology has since played a major role in improving the efficiency and productivity of rail transport for bulk commodities, particularly coal, said Robert L. Florom, assistant vice president of engineering at TTC.


   By 2000, the rail industry started to embrace wayside detectors to monitor the performance of railcars. John Samuels, then chairman of AAR's primary committee overseeing the industry research program, coined the phrase 'reducing the stress state of the industry.'

   A few years earlier, TTC began developing an industry database for the collection of wayside data. 'Analysis of the data, from relatively few wayside detectors in those days, showed that there were a number of 'rogue' cars that were applying very high forces to the track structure and causing inordinate damage and safety issues,' Allen said. 'Ten years later, more and more detectors are being developed and implemented by railroads. The positive effect on safety has been profound.'

   From 2002 to 2006, FRA and the DOT's Volpe Center conducted a series of impact tests. These tests involved running one or two passenger cars into an impact wall and testing the collision of short passenger consists into a locomotive with a short freight car consist.

   'Through an excellent research program involving a combination of computer modeling and physical testing, researchers managed to develop a very successful crash energy management system that allows the impact energy to be absorbed by the ends of the car while protecting the integrity of the primary passenger seating area,' Allen said. 'From this work, standards are now being developed for potential inclusion with new passenger car orders.'

   TTC is developing a 'braking enforcement algorithm' capable of stopping trains short of the target for safety reasons, but not too short that railroad operations are impacted. This is critical to the successful implementation of so-called 'positive train control' (PTC) technology, a priority for FRA.

   'With funding from the FRA and cooperation from four Class I railroads, TTCI successfully completed proof of concept development and testing of methods for improving stopping distance predictions by adapting the algorithm to the characteristics of a specific train,' Allen said. 'This work is continuing this year to ensure that the methodology will work with different types of trains.'

High Speed. The test center currently comprises 47 miles of tracks, including:

   ' A 2.7-mile, high-tonnage loop for testing heavy axle load freight traffic.

   ' A 13.5-mile looped railroad test track with a maximum train speed of 165 mph.

   ' Wheel/rail mechanism track for curving performance tests and lubrication studies.

   ' A 9.1-mile transit test track accommodating train speeds of up to 80 mph.

   ' Precision test track that allows tests for pitch and bounce, twist and roll, yaw and sway, and car impact.

   However, the federal government has four major initiatives involving surface transportation, and these may require additional investments in track and equipment at the test center, Allen said.

   One of the big upcoming tests is expected to be with high-speed rail systems. While the test center is ready to accommodate these tests, it expects to expand the railroad test track to accommodate speeds in excess of 165 mph and build track to allow for experiments and studies to evaluate track structures shared by high-speed rail and heavy-axle-load freight traffic.

Passenger impact test at TTCI.

   'Given DOT's initiative to improve rail transit safety, and given TTCI's extensive experience in testing vehicles and train sets, I believe that TTC can play a major role in assisting the Federal Transit Administration achieve its mandate to establish and enforce minimum standards,' Allen said. 'The FTA has contacted us with a view to develop some proposals to allow for a wider range of transit testing. Joint use of TTC by a sister DOT administration will optimize federal assets while providing economies of scale.'

   In the past several years, TTC has become a destination for training security and emergency response personnel of federal, state and local government agencies. Starting in 2006 with Transportation Security Administration training for rail inspectors and significantly expanding with TTCI designated as a formal member of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium, a training role has quickly evolved at the test center for both public and private sectors, Allen said.

   TTCI and FRA have invested about $2.5 million to create North America's first unique on-track, non-revenue service communication and train control test bed. With ongoing investment, the test bed is tailor-made for evaluating PTC systems and their underlying data radio systems. With a federal mandate to develop and deploy PTC on most U.S. railroads by 2015, significant use of the test bed is anticipated starting in 2011.

   Although investments have been delayed in the freight rail sector by the economic downturn, DOT projects an 88 percent increase in demand for rail freight transport by 2035.

   'To meet this increased demand, railroads will have to make significant improvements to equipment and track reliability, reduce car out-of-service time and in-service failures,' Allen said. 'I expect that TTC will continue to play a leading role in freight rail technology for many years to come.'

International Attraction. While there are rail test centers in Moscow and Beijing, neither of these facilities offer the comprehensive level of testing that can be carried out by TTC in the United States. 'There's a lot we do that they don't,' Allen said.

   International railway suppliers wishing to supply rolling stock and track components to North American railroads must demonstrate that their products meet certain performance standards. Performance requirements for rolling stock components are published by AAR, while track component performance requirements are covered by the American Railway Engineering Maintenance Association (AREMA). TTC regularly evaluates these products to verify they meet or exceed these performance requirements, Florom said.

   The most common rolling stock components tested at TTC include wheels, axles, bearings, brake shoes, bolster castings and side-frame castings. 'Over the past few years there has been steady growth in the number of railway suppliers from India, China, Brazil and South Africa testing their products at TTC in hopes of becoming suppliers to North American railways,' Allen said.

   Florom explained that track components such as new rail steel, ties, fasteners and welding materials provided by overseas suppliers are initially assessed against AREMA specifications through laboratory tests conducted at TTC. Those that perform well in the laboratory are next installed at the TTC's Facility for Accelerated Service Testing (FAST) for evaluation under simulated North American heavy-haul freight operation conditions. Track components that survive at FAST are then considered safe for testing at revenue service mega sites on the Union Pacific Railroad or Norfolk Southern Railway.

   'With the renewed interest in high-speed rail in North America, we anticipate testing passenger equipment development for Europe, Japan, and China at TTC as these technologies are implemented in North America,' Allen said.