Business Trends

Railroads Go High Tech, by Crain's Chicago Business

File Type: Free Content, Article
Release Date: May 2014
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train with cargo containers

In what an April 28 Crain’s Chicago Business article calls “the biggest railroad investment in a century,”  “big data is coming to the railroads, unleashing a technology upgrade so enormous and costly that it will rival the buildout of the national rail system more than a century ago.”

U.S. railroads must meet a December 2015 federal deadline to install positive train control (PTC), a system that will allow them to monitor and control trains digitally to prevent crashes. The $8 billion to $10 billion project requires railroad companies to upgrade and rewire a nationwide network of more than 50,000 switches and signals already in use; add a new network of fiber optic cable, cellular and satellite equipment; and create software platforms to run it all.

CSX Corp. estimates that it will spend $1.7 billion on its effort, which includes upgrading signals and switches along 16,000 miles of track and installing or upgrading software, hardware and communications equipment on 3,600locomotives. Union Pacific Corp. is spending $450 million this year on PTC, out of an expected $2 billion total; BNSF Railway Co. says it will spend $200 million nationwide this year alone.

Railroads banded together and spent $40 million to buy their own wireless spectrum to transmit data; they also own a company that makes some of the communications equipment needed. Yet they are warning that they don’t expect to meet the federal deadline, because so much new technology has had to be designed and created to support PTC. The system involves transforming trains into rolling communication posts, with more than 40 antennae each, including about 20 on each locomotive. “To make the new system work, railroads need to know the location of trains within about 5 feet, compared with about 500 feet now.”