Automated Train Operation Raises Railroad Safety Alarms
The development of automated cars has made headlines in recent years as well as raising safety concerns. At the same time, the railroads have been quietly working on Automated Train Operation, a development that could transform how freight is moved around the country.
As Virginia-based railroad accident lawyers, we are alarmed by the railroad industry’s trend to reduce crew numbers on freight trains. Now some railroad companies want to further cut their costs by developing automated trains that could cut out train crews altogether. In November, the Federal Railroad Administration published a detailed analysis of Automated Train Operations (ATO). The U.S. Department of Transportation is considering objectives to “safely facilitate increased automation” in freight rail operations.
Types of Train Automation
ATO heralds a move toward driverless trains as America is behind the curve on this technology compared to some other countries. This year, Equal Times reported on how 42 cities already run automated metro lines. In 2019, the Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto launched the world’s first automated railroad network. The French rail operator SNCF plans to develop a prototype driverless train by 2023.
The study from the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Research, Development, and Technology, considers the development of a locomotive-borne sensor platform (SP) to support automated train development. An SP entails sensors being mounted on locomotive that would alert the system to hazards and other relevant conditions. Sensors would provide a wide range of information about the environment including the size and shape of objects around the train that are miles away, the report stated. The report evaluates available and emerging sensor technology. It notes visual optical systems are “challenged by rain, snow, dust or any other optical lens obstructions.”
Thermal cameras may likely have a role to play in Automated Train Operation. They could identify operating vehicles, fires, machinery, and animals or people on the tracks ahead of the train. Like visual cameras, thermal cameras may not work as well in wet or snowy conditions.
The study notes infrared cameras have “distinctive properties potentially beneficial to … ATO.” Infrared cameras can cut through atmospheric haze and illuminate a dark environment. However, the study notes IR cameras may be negatively impacted by certain weather conditions such as falling rain and snow where IR light passes through more easily.
The FRA study considers the use of spectral cameras that use specialized optical sensors to create an image using bands from the electromagnetic spectrum. Cameras with spectral resolution can work out the compositions of objects from a distance. The report notes they are also susceptible to the weather-related lens obstructions associated with other cameras.
The study considers Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology. LiDAR systems fire high-frequency laser beams to determine the distance of objects ahead. The technology produces a 3D collage of the landscape around the train, highlighting any potential hazards. However, LiDR relies on strong signals that can be disrupted by poor weather.
The research evaluated Time-of-Flight (TOF) cameras. TOF cameras transmit a signal and then calculate the distance to objects based on how long the signal takes to return. “This gives an accurate 3D picture of the environment on every illumination cycle,” the report states. “This is useful for object ranging, tracking, as well as discerning object size and shape for object detection and classification.”
TOF also has limitations. The cameras may struggle to operate in bright settings because of the saturation of the image sensors. They are also limited by longer distances.
A more traditional technology, RADAR (Radio Detection and Ranging), is cheaper and has a better maximum range. However, the report notes a health concern. Electromagnetic energy can penetrate tissue of humans and animals and cause heating due to energy absorption. The report notes temperature sensors are another more affordable tool that could be used in Automated Train Operation. The report called for a program of field testing of the ATO technologies to evaluate their effectiveness and safety.
Automated Train Operation and The Implications for Railroad Safety
ATO and the notion of driverless trains raise job security questions for railroad employees as well as safety concerns. Supporters of ATO claim the railroads will become safer if trains are fitted with sensors. Although there is certainly a convincing case to be made for automated safety systems, we do not believe these should replace human operators. Many of the railroads have already stripped staffing and single employee train operations are now commonplace. Railroad unions such as Railroad Workers United warn single manning raises a plethora of concerns including situations where an engineer falls ill, the single employee becoming distracted, or when the employee has to deal with a crisis that requires more than one crew member.
The implications of a crisis occurring on an automated train with no operator are even more alarming. Many derailments on America’s railroads are caused by defective and damaged track. Although sensors may deal with a hazard such as a vehicle ahead on a grade crossing, they are less likely to detect defects in the rails. Many of the legitimate concerns raised over automated cars are also relevant to the railroads.
At Cooper Hurley Injury Lawyers, our attorneys help railroad workers make claims under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). We have fought for the rights of injured railroad workers and the families of the deceased for years. Please contact us for a free consultation.