Feature Story

IoT can help improve rail safety

by Scott Gurvey

IoT is changing the way train disasters are reported and managed.

Can the Internet of Things help prevent disastrous accidents? Experts say yes. IoT is already changing the way disasters are reported and managed.

My New Jersey Transit train from Montclair pulls into Hoboken station a few minutes before 8am. Track #2. I've made this trip so many times I do it half asleep.

Little did I know that in less than an hour another train will pull into the station,  but will not stop. It will careen through the safety bumper and crash into a platform filled with people, before coming to a rest at the edge of the historic waiting room building. The force of the crash causes the ceiling to collapse, and falling debris kills a woman waiting on the platform. More than one hundred people will be injured, including the train operator.

Courtesy: NJ Governor's office

Both the reporting of a disaster and the management of the ensuring crisis has changed due to technological advances over the years. I remember the Hoboken crash like it was yesterday, even though it happened on September 29th, 2016. Within seconds, half the cell phones in the conference room where I was about to start a meeting, the subject ironically being, "What to Do When the Reporter Calls", began beeping, signaling breaking news. Within minutes, pictures began appearing on social media, followed shortly by live videos from the scene.

see also: Companies pave new pathways to business ready IoT technologies

IoT and Disaster Prevention

The true promise of the Internet of Things is in the ability to prevent disasters from occurring in the first place. The idea is to empower the "things" so they can avoid hazards without, or perhaps in spite of, human help.

IoT defines a paradigm in which we are surrounded by intelligent "helpers". These connected instruments:

·  Are aware of their state and their local environment.

·  Are able to communicate with other nearby devices.

·  Can change their state in response to changing circumstances.

New Jersey Transit (NJT) is the third-largest state-wide transit system in the United States. Many of its rail routes cover significant distances and operate in a wide-variety of weather conditions and over difficult terrain. To cope with these challenges, it uses heavy duty trains with electric and diesel-electric engines. The trains must be able to reverse direction at the end of a route, but often operate from terminals, like the one at Hoboken, which lack a turn-around loop. The solution is to place a "cab car" at the opposite end of the engine. This car carries passengers, but also displays the same data seen in the engine, allowing an operator remote control of the engine. Instead of turning the train around, the operator just walks to the other end and is ready to head out in the other direction.

See also: How the internet of things is keepig trains on track

With these features, the train is already equipped with most of what it needs to take an active role in disaster prevention. Only communications and control logic needs to be added to give the train the ability to change its state in response to threats.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued only a preliminary report on the Hoboken crash. According to investigators, the train, moving 8 miles per hour as it approached the platform, accelerated to more than 20 miles per hour at the moment the operator should have applied the brakes. Some reports suggest the train operator suffered from undiagnosed sleep apnea. The NTSB has not yet determined of cause in this accident, but the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is the agency with the power to regulate the industry, has been suggesting since 2004 that operators be tested for sleep apnea.  A proposed rule is now under consideration.

Halûk Gümüşkaya of Gediz University says this is "exactly the type of disaster IoT can prevent." The train's control system, knowing that the train was traveling at 8 miles per hour and was approaching the end of the track simply would not allow the operator to increase speed and would apply the brakes bringing the train to a complete stop before it arrived at the bumper.

Congress has been trying to get the railroad industry to adopt what is called Positive Train Control (PTC) for many years. Several companies, including Cisco, which estimates almost $30B will be spent over the next 15 years on IoT projects for the railroad industry, have been working to design network solutions to implementation challenges. The railroads have asked for extensions of mandated deadlines to install the new equipment, citing both the enormity of the project and its cost. 

IoT is expected to reduce those costs both by making the communications infrastructure ubiquitous, allowing the railroad industry to piggyback rather than build its own infrastructure, while also reducing the cost of equipment through the development of standard sensors, control systems and communication protocols.

In addition, Umberto Malesci, CEO at Fluidmesh Networks, says "beyond safety, the Internet of Things is creating the opportunity to enhance the operational efficiency of railways." For example, "by tracking exactly the path of a train every day, its braking actions, and the sliding and slips of wheels, a train operator can develop an extremely precise predictive model that will tell the maintenance staff when to check a train and when to send it in for maintenance."

see also: IoT and intelligent transportation

While avoiding disasters remains the primary goal, the efficiencies that come with implementing an IoT approach to data gathering and situational awareness are convincing selling points.  Knowing when the toilets need service, and the snack bar needs restocking, will go a long way to improving the customer experience and that will lead to greater revenue.


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