Constructing Connected Railways of the Future

For more than 200 years, railways and railroads have been a part of the transportation landscape. Starting with the steam locomotive and evolving into electric railways within the first 100 years, railroads and trains have covered a lot of ground in terms of innovations.

Within the last 30 years, advancements such as high-speed bullet trains and construction of the Channel Tunnel have made rail travel even better.

But what is to come with the railways of the future? Besides every passenger train and station being equipped with Wi-Fi for all, what developments are in store for the railroad and how it gets constructed?

A High-Tech Future for Rail

There has been a lot of buzz around the concept of a hyperloop. The concept of shooting passengers and freight in pods at speeds of nearly 700 miles per hour is still relatively new, but the technology itself, has a lot of people talking.

The other buzzworthy concept is maglev trains. These trains already exist in Asia, but are quite complex to create. These trains are said to be levitated and propelled forward by magnetic force and they must go in a straight line, which means in this day and age involves being constructed underground for a straight shot.

Those are the out-of-the-box—far into the future—concepts that may get off the ground, but there are also some more near-future, what some folks might consider, more realistic things happening with smart trains and railway construction today.

Terry Bills, global transportation industry manager, Esri, says, “We break rail into passenger and freight, but two key trends are occurring in both. First is the movement to high-speed rail. The second trend is to train control systems.”

Looking at high-speed rail, China is now targeting high-speed freight rail to Europe as a major development goal, and is currently building a large internal high-speed network in China. Europe already has a well-developed high-speed network throughout the major cities.

With train control systems, it is mostly about safety. After the 2008 Northridge train crash, Congressional legislation mandated that the Class 1s and passenger rail systems had to implement positive train control technology on all of their routes.

Bills says, “It is safe to say that the rail system of the future will contain major elements of automated control systems. From the freight side, they already have run computer models to optimize fuel consumption given elevation gains and losses, and while the engineer is currently manually implementing these controls, it would be just as easy to fully automate train control. So we will see much more automation of train speeds, and greater efficiencies in train operations.”

The railway will additionally prove to be a safe and economic method of freight and passenger movements.

Joe Perry, business developer and project manager, All American Track Inc., says, “Areas that are currently troublesome such as bottlenecks, single mainlines, and bridges in despair will be solved through railroad capital programs and government grants. Road crossings in high-traffic areas will be solved through grade separations, which completely separate the flow of the rail traffic from that of the streets.”

The railway will run with high levels of sustainability and earth friendly practices whose roots can be traced back to the efforts of today.

“All rail, spikes, and other track material (OTM) will be recycled and reused. New, greener methods of repurposing railroad ties will be utilized versus today’s disposal methods. Railroad engines will be emission free with a possible solution from lining solar panels on the outsides of rail cars,” Perry adds.

Working on the Railways

There have been significant advancements in the design and construction of rail. Rail design is moving to 3D and includes the integration of multiple technologies.

Bills says, “A rail planner and design engineer will often collaborate, integrating 3D design tools, geographic information system, and project planning software to create 4D and 5D designs. New terrain data collection technologies such as airborne light detection and ranging gather very accurate and detailed terrain data, which is used to calculate grade, and determine detailed grading plans, which are entered into automated grading equipment. The rail planning and design process has significantly moved to 3D, and that in turn generates much more precise designs for construction.”

On the construction side, machinery has become much more automated, with computerized grading plans, and because the designs are so much more precise, there are generally fewer change orders as the project progresses.

Perry explains, “Global positioning systems (GPS) and drone technology will provide construction engineers with the data to build track quickly and precisely. The data will feed directly into computer-aided design and then to the railway construction equipment. Increased safety technology will be integrated into the railway of the future. The machines that will still require humans to run them will have large viewing screens with cameras on all sides, allowing the operator to see everywhere the machine is operating. Equipment will have proximity sensors that shut off the machine if it is about to contact another machine, vehicle, or person.”

All these advances will help minimize labor, create a safer jobsite, and automate processes to improve productivity. This will drastically change how processes are done in the future compared with how they are done today.

Perry explains, “In today’s tie installation, an operator is required to command each machine to function. Someone is required to place each railroad tie, plate, spike, anchor, and then tamp and regulate the ballast. In the future, specialists will be required to see that the drone machines are properly placing the ties, plates, spikes, anchors, and drones in the back are tamping and regulating.”

The advancements in technology for railway construction will help the industry more forward and ensure quality on the project.

Bills says, “The rail industry relies on precision—careful testing of the track for a wide variety of defects—and there have been a large number of technology and equipment advances to help railways maintain their precision.”

Still, the benefits of all this emerging technology often comes back to one core and fundamental principle—creating a safer jobsite.

“Future technology will preserve human life by eliminating accidents. One will have to look in the history books to find the last fatality on the railroad. Railways will be constructed and maintained faster and more effectively than today, providing maximum productivity and minimal downtime,” Perry adds.

The possibilities for the railways of the future are many. The visual from 200 years ago of contractors doing very manual labor to build railways across the country is slowly being replaced with drones, models, sensors, and more, redefining what it means to be working on the railways.

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