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The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently denied a U.S. freight railroad permission to use autonomous track inspection technology, a loss for those promoting greater use of automation to enhance rail safety and lower costs in the supply chain. Unfortunately, railroads face steep barriers to deploying the latest technologies as they must comply with outdated regulations and attempts to modernize these rules incur significant pushback from organized labor. If FRA will not expedite greater use of autonomous track inspection technology, Congress should step in.
Track-related problems are one of the primary causes of train derailment. To ensure railroads are safe and reliable, frequent inspections occur to identify and fix any defects. In the past, these inspections were manual: Track inspectors would visually inspect the rails using specialized equipment to measure and check track conditions, ensuring it is in a good state of repair. As a result, manual inspections are costly, both because of the cost of crew and the time involved, but also because these inspections can impact the use of railways, causing traffic delays.
More recently, railroads have begun testing autonomous track inspection technology. Specifically, railroads use autonomous track geometry measurement systems (ATGMS), which record key data about the rail, including gauge (distance between rails), curvature (sharpness of a curve), superelevation (difference in height between two rails), and more. These systems also document the specific location for these measurements and transmit the collected data over wireless networks, allowing inspectors and operators to analyze the data in real-time. Using real-time data means there is a better chance to detect tracks in need of emergency repairs.
Norfolk Southern has pioneered an improvement on ATGMS by mounting the inspection technology directly on the locomotive rather than having it on an attached car. This change means that whenever the locomotive is in operation, it is collecting track inspection data. Collecting more safety data gives operators more opportunities to identify trends showing degradation of the track, which would allow for preventative maintenance. Using a locomotive-mounted ATGMS also benefits the railroad, since other ATGMS are typically installed in a repurposed car, taking up space on the train that could otherwise be used for freight.
FRA approved Norfolk Southern’s initial pilot of this technology in 2020. As part of the pilot, Norfolk Southern received an exemption from complying with the frequency of FRA’s manual visual inspections. Over a series of phases, FRA allowed the company to reduce the number of manual inspections from twice per week to twice per month for a segment of its rail representing a mix of grade, weather, and traffic conditions. Last May, after the tests proved successful with no degradation in safety, the company petitioned FRA to allow it to permit the use of ATGMS equipment throughout its entire rail network in combination with the reduced (twice per month) inspections that proved effective during its pilot program.
Unfortunately, FRA denied the petition. The FRA’s justification for its refusal is weak at best. The first reason FRA gave is that “although the test program was successful under the specific conditions and metrics tested, reducing visual inspections introduces a certain amount of risk.” In other words, change involves some uncertainty. If FRA wants to use this as its standard, then it will never be able to approve any future proposal. The other reason FRA gives is that other railroads are still testing undergoing their own pilot tests. While FRA should continue to evaluate these programs and proceed with discussions about updating its regulations to make better use of ATGMS, there is no reason these initiatives cannot proceed in parallel.
So why else might FRA have denied the petition? The sole comment filed with FRA in this docket came from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED). BMWED is the union that represents the workers who inspect and repair tracks. Not surprisingly, the union is not in favor of the use of automated systems that reduce the need for manual inspections by its members. Railway labor has a history of opposing efforts to cut staffing costs with the introduction of labor-saving technologies. For example, rail worker unions similarly opposed a reduction in crew sizes made possible by positive train control (PTC)—advanced safety systems designed to stop collisions and other accidents.
FRA should not stall the adoption of ATGMS. Safety should always be a top priority, but technology and innovation can assist with that goal. FRA should set the performance standards for safe operation but allow the use of emerging technologies to meet those goals. If FRA will not modernize its efforts to allow railroads to use autonomous technologies, then Congress should step in, either through oversight hearings, or if needed, through a new directive to take a comprehensive look at modernizing its existing regulations to account for emerging autonomous technologies.