How Automation is Improving Rail Safety.

24 April 24

The latest freight rail safety statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration highlight the demonstrable impact of investment in new technology within the US rail industry. 
The overall train accident rate has fallen 27% since 2000 and on-duty fatalities reached an all-time low in 2023, according to a press release issued by the Association of American Railroads, which has declared the last decade “the safest ever for rail”. 
Other key figures gleaned from the new FRA data and highlighted in the release include: 

  • For Class I railroad employees, the rate of injuries and fatalities has dropped by 63% since 2000, reaching an all-time low in 2023. 

  • For all railroads, derailment rates have dropped 30% since 2000. 

  • Per carload, the hazardous materials (hazmat) accident rate is at its lowest rate ever and down 75% since 2000, based on preliminary data. 

  • Class I railroads’ mainline accident rate is down 42% since 2000 but increased slightly compared to 2022. 

The AAR pointed to multiple factors that have contributed to enhanced rail safety, including rail operators’ substantial financial investments, a commitment to continuous improvement, and workforce expertise. The organization emphasizes the contribution of rail technology advancements in a new white paper
“Among other things, the paper examines how carriers employ a multi-faceted strategy to safeguard its workforce and the public by addressing and mitigating the leading causes of accidents – infrastructure or track defects, equipment malfunctions and human error. 
“Railroads are expanding their use of advanced technologies to monitor the health of cars, locomotives and track in real-time, while also investing significantly in maintenance and upgrades. These advanced technologies help railroads keep tabs on equipment while in-use, enabling proactive steps to fix issues early.”* 

Automation and a Pro-active Approach to Rail Safety 

The most important takeaway is arguably the emphasis on pro-active rail safety strategies. Due to advances in IoT technology, data capture, automation, and cloud computing in the past decade, we now have much more sophisticated software tools to monitor and control rail operations, minimizing risks to rail workers and passengers, and vastly improving asset visibility.  

We can constantly monitor the condition of rail assets and customize maintenance schedules to suit each asset, utilizing data capture to track usage over time so that failures are prevented before they occur. Automation software reduces the amount of time rail workers need to spend in potentially dangerous situations, for example, conducting track repairs. 

Below we outline some of the ways automation software is being utilized by railroad operators to enhance rail safety. 

Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM) 

Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM) uses a combination of sensors and cloud-based analytics software to alert railroad operators to maintenance issues before they become problematic and/or impact on rail safety. Data collected from switches is transmitted to the cloud and then automatically analyzed by a centralized data hub for real-time insights.  
At Tracsis, our Centrix platform works by assigning a severity level to detected problems, along with a descriptive text message and a link to the switch analysis page. This information is sent to subscribed users as text messages, emails, or voice calls.  
The Centrix system enables non-critical maintenance tasks to be carried out remotely using data, reducing the need for physical inspections and the number of hours skilled engineers are tied up travelling to and from remote sites. 
Other benefits of RCM include: 

  • Better understanding of the root cause behind malfunctions 

  • Improved lifetime asset performance 

  • Better fuel efficiency and a reduced carbon footprint 

  • Lower maintenance costs 

For more insight into how RCM works, download our brochure. 

Yard Automation 

Rail yard automation involves integrating a range of components and devices through a centralized system to improve worker safety and yard fluidity. As well as remote control switching and routing, yard automation systems can be used for remote heater control, and remote-control blue flag and track protection.   
Benefits of yard automation include: 

  • Reduction in yard incidents 

  • Safe and secure remote control 

  • Increased yard throughput 

At Tracsis, we have developed a yard automation system with a simple, user-friendly interface which enables yardmasters to remotely control switches using a screen featuring a graphical representation of the yard. The clarity and simplicity of the interface was among the reasons the Tracsis yard automation system was chosen by Ferromex, the largest railroad network in Mexico, to control switching and enhance rail safety in their three extremely busy main yards, the largest of which features 60 to 70 switches. You can read the case study here.  

Automation, Rail Safety, and Continuous Improvement 

While the ethos of continuous improvement means expectations continue to shift, the latest rail safety statistics indicate we are moving in the right direction. Data-driven automation is one of the most powerful tools we have to prevent accidents and ensure rail assets are optimized for maximum efficiency and productivity.  
Tracsis is the leading provider of software-based rail solutions, trusted by railroads in North America including Class I, passenger, and short line operators. Contact us to find out more about market-leading rail technology solutions.