How We’re Making Rails Even Safer

U.S. freight railroads recently filed their plans for completing the implementation of positive train control (PTC), a set of highly advanced technologies designed to automatically stop a train before certain types of accidents occur. Given the media attention this issue has attracted in recent months, it is worth focusing on the technological innovations that comprise PTC because key components of these systems are made right here in Pittsburgh.

By Jason White, Vice President, Freight, Railways & Mass Transit BU, Ansaldo STS-US

With approximately 500 employees at our Technology Drive plant, Ansaldo STS-US makes the sophisticated monitoring systems railroads place across thousands of miles of track on the nation-wide rail network. These “wayside interface units” constantly collect information like the status of approaching rail signals, position of rail line switches and track status, among various other inputs.

For PTC to work, these monitoring systems have to be equipped with sophisticated new processors that aggregate the information coming in and relay it using radio signals to the locomotives and the railroads’ servers.

One of the biggest challenges of this new system is that the products Ansaldo makes here in Pittsburgh need to be able to talk the same language as numerous other components made by other manufacturers, all of which are ultimately put into use by any number of distinct railroads.

PTC “interoperability,” as it is known, is an immense technological and engineering challenge.

Because the message that gets relayed to that locomotive — whether it comes from a component made by Ansaldo or another manufacturer — has to be standard to be safe.

Ansaldo and each of the railroads have testing labs where every piece of this system is thoroughly evaluated in a simulated environment. Product-level testing is just the initial piece of the puzzle, followed by system-level tests — between the locomotive and wayside unit, the office and the communication network, for example — and that is a huge undertaking. There is also no substitute for the real-world environment. Ultimately, the final step is testing all those components on the actual track, the actual trains, actual wayside units, and actual communication network.

We at Ansaldo are proud to make high-tech components for this advanced rail safety system.

We are proud, too, to work with transit agencies like SEPTA and MBTA to completely manage the installation of their PTC systems.

Of course, railroads have a strong safety culture. As outlined in a Special Report released by the Association of American Railroads in January, there is a direct correlation between freight railroads’ huge private investments and their ability to continually find ways to make a safe network even safer, According to the Federal Railroad Administration, 2014 was the safest year on record for freight railroads.

At Ansaldo, rail investments are powering important technological innovations in safety technology, in addition to supporting jobs for Pittsburgh families.

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