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NS is operating the autonomous system on a mainline between Norfolk, Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio. Photo –

(Source: Progressive Railroading 03/06/2020)

Norfolk Southern Railway yesterday announced it achieved a “breakthrough” in track inspection technology designed to enhance railroad safety and operating efficiencies.

NS officials say the Class I is the first North American freight railroad to develop and deploy an autonomous track geometry measurement system that is mounted on a locomotive.

The NS system differs from commercially available track-inspection systems available today, which are installed on converted freight or passenger rail cars and require an external power source to operate and occupy space on a train that could be used to move revenue-producing freight.

“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 engineering, in a press release. “This innovative approach enhances our safety practices by permitting us to have precise and quality track inspections done under load at track speed.”

The NS track inspection group, which is part of the engineering department, developed the system, which provides the railroad with a more cost-effective way to continuously monitor track performance in near real time, NS officials said.

The system is mounted in a ruggedized box under a six-axle road locomotive between the snow plow and the first set of wheels. A computer that powers the system is housed inside the electrical locker in the locomotive cab.

The autonomous system supplies timely and accurate data used for track maintenance activities and capital budgeting. The system facilitates compliance with both Norfolk Southern and Federal Railroad Administration track safety standards, NS officials said.

As part of a pilot project, NS is operating the autonomous system on a mainline between Norfolk, Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio. The route consists of a range of track and operating conditions, such as straight and curved track, hilly terrain and high-tonnage loads.

“Any time this locomotive is moving and pulling freight, it is testing track at the same time,” said Mike Allran, manager track inspection and development, who helped lead the initiative to create the new 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.”

NS turned to defense industry firms to find commercially available components to build the system, which consists of lasers, gyros, accelerometers and global positioning system sensors.

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

The autonomous inspection system will supplement testing done using the railroad’s existing fleet of manned track geometry cars and hi-rail trucks. NS plans to equip more locomotives with the system and potentially upgrade its capabilities, including adding an optical system to evaluate fasteners, rail welds and switch points, NS officials said.

Watch this NS video for more information about the railroad’s innovative track-inspection system.

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