Saturday, March 28, 2015

Top 10 Railroad Innovations of the 20th Century

More innovations

The November, 2014 issue of Trains has an article excerpted from Chapter 12 of the 506-page book American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. The list by Robert E. Gallamore and John R. Meyer is:

  1. Diesel-electric locomotives
  2. Containerization
  3. Roller bearings in sealed journals
  4. Freight car scheduling --- using computers and a system wide view to determine and track freight car routes.
  5. Wireless radio-frequency applications --- Walkie-talkies are old news. But this technology is still being developed in the 21st century to support Positive Train Control (PTC). PTC was significantly delayed because the FCC wanted each of the needed 20,000 antennas to be individually certified!
  6. Welded rail and quality materials --- by "quality materials" they mean better steel. Welded rail was introduced in the 1990s. One issue was developing rails that were strong enough to withstand the stresses of expansion and contraction as the temperature changed. It is very important that welded rail be laid at a temperature that reflects the average annual temperature for the area.
  7. Centralized Traffic Control --- developed in the 1920s, this allowed many railroads to go from double-track to singe-track routes or to increase the capacity of double-tracks. But its adoption can be slow. The Brighton Park Crossing did not change from tower controlled manual semaphores to CTC until 2007. Not all railroads converted to single-track mainlines. BNSF/CB&Q uses CTC so that both of its mainline tracks can be run in either direction. I remember riding a westbound Amtrak on the left-hand track as we passed a west-bound freight that was running on the right-hand track. Between Aurora and Chicago, BNSF/CB&Q has three tracks that can be run in either direction. Normally, M1 (the north track) is westbound, M2 is bidirectional, and M3 is eastbound. But when they are doing track work or switching local industries, you will see exceptions to this.
  8. Advanced warning and protection devices at crossings --- in addition to adding gates to crossing guards, they site adding ditch lights to the locomotives.
  9. Microprocessors: on-board, track-side, and elsewhere --- having worked with computers for over 40 years, this one scares me. We had a saying: "it takes computers to really screw things up." And the new signalling equipment installed by BNSF in Downers Grove, IL is a case in point. I have never seen a false gate closing in over 30 years with the old equipment. I saw at least a dozen in just a few months with the new equipment. I have avoided rail fanning because of the cold weather and because I get upset every time I see the new signalling equipment fail. But when I walk to the library, I can't help but watch the gates. There was a false closing during each of my last two trips to the library.
  10. Automated classification yards; unit trains --- unfortunately, many unit trains still go through the Chicago-area because the railroads that went around Chicago, e.g. Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa, where torn up. And trains have become longer, which has made them even harder to get through Chicago.
To be fair, Chapter 12 in the book is titled "Advancing Technology for American Railroads." Trains Magazine should recognize that not all innovations are because of technology.

In terms of productivity, reducing crew size from 5 to 2 and allowing crews to work at least 8 hours (i.e. removing the 100-mile workday rule) must have had a significant impact on productivity. (The United Transportation Union just voted against, by a 5-1 margin, a BNSF proposal to change about half its trains to one-person crews after PTC is implemented .)

The 1980 Stagger Act removing regulation and rates developed to address, literally, horse and buggy era issues was probably the most important innovation --- it probably saved the industry. For example, it allowed the railroads to charge market based rates for intermodal traffic. The Santa Fe has three tiers of pricing: Z trains for as fast as possible, Q trains for almost as fast, but cheaper, and S trains for an economy service. It also allowed railroads to sell or abandon branches. Unfortunately, they didn't invent how to railbank right-of-ways until after many RoWs were abandoned. I assume that railbanking removes the need to write off property by significantly reducing the property tax of unused branches.

Since working safely many times reduces productivity, independent organizations to improve safety were developed. For example, you no longer see track side workers without hard hats and safety vests. Other examples of safety rulings are that "polling" cars was banned in 1970; employees are tested for drug usage, at least after they have been in an accident; and some railroads do not allow any electronic devices in the cab, including cell phones.

Another change is diesel exhaust emissions. It is not uncommon to see pictures from the 50s and 60s where a diesel is generating more black smoke than a steam locomotive would generate. (Steam locomotives normally don't "smoke." You see it in many railfan videos and pictures because the fireman deliberately adjusts the fire to create black smoke for the "photo runs." I saw one video where you could see the smoke being "turned on" near the beginning of the photo opportunity.) Unfortunately, the older diesels are moved to yard work. This concentrates the pollution in a urban area rather than spreading it out along the country side. The EPA finally did a study in the 21st century around Cicero yard and measured higher than normal particulate pollution. Higher than normal asthma attacks suffered by urban kids had already been documented. Increased asthma is what motivated the yard pollution study.

The safety and pollution changes do not increase productivity. In fact, they reduce it. For example, EMD has had to quit building engines in 2015 because they could not meet the Tier 4 emission standard.  Organizations to improve safety and pollution were needed when they were created. But when/how do we conclude that they have done their job and are no longer needed? I can confidently predict that the workers in these organizations themselves will not conclude that they are done and that they need to find other jobs.

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