Wheels, rails, and what really matters

Posted by Kathi Kube
on Thursday, April 19, 2012

I'm in Philadelphia this week for the Joint Rail Conference, in which professionals and engineering students present papers on their research into or application of new railroad technology.

The primary reason I'm here is to find ideas for our Technology column for 2013. So far, I've got some pretty cool topics to throw at you.

The first can save railroad workers' lives, and that's always important. A company has designed and already implemented devices to warn both locomotive engineers that maintenance of way crews are ahead, and it simultaneously warns the track workers that a train is approaching. Several transit agencies have already implemented the system, and I can't wait to talk with some of them, as well as the company that developed it, then describe to you what it is and how it works.

The next session was just as interesting. All over the country, communities are complaining about train horns and demanding quiet zones. At the same time, railroaders have expressed concern about safety and silence. Different companies have offered new options, such as a train horn mounted at the crossing, but another really neat and effective option has come online: directional train horns. Yes, this horn takes the same train horn sound we all know so well, and directs the sound to the crossing - not the crossing and everything else within range. It's fascinating and the potential to retain safety at crossings and still placate the communities gives me hope that we finally might have a good compromise.

Then I learned how Canadian Pacific has developed yet another wayside detector, this time evaluating the effectiveness of air brakes - are the wheels hot when they shouldn't be, indicating the brakes are set when they shouldn't be (such as errantly set hand brakes)? Or are they cold when they should be hot, meaning they're not applying on downhill grades?

After the sessions yesterday, Amtrak's Stephen Gardner presented our keynote address at the banquet. The railroad has been setting ridership and revenue records left and right these days, and so far 2012 is shaping to take its place in the record books. Despite that, huge challenges remain, including an assortment of bridges and tunnels in the Northeast Corridor that are nearing or more than a century old and badly in need of replacement.

Today, I'm going to sessions on truck and wheel design. They'll cover weld repairs for truck frames, improving casting integrity, and oxidation in railroad wheels. (Yes, this really does interest me. I can't explain it.)

In the afternoon, I'll be along on a tour of Amtrak's new Centralized Track and Electrification Control Center in Wilmington, Del., which of course means a nice train ride. It should be a great day.

Now, though, I need to send a few shout-outs to dear friends whose company I've enjoyed so much, and to new friends I've made here. And I would be painfully remiss if I failed to give my deepest appreciation to the conference organizers, especially Steve Dedmon from Standard Steel and his lovely wife, Sandy, as well as the wonderful people who've helped them. In the middle of planning this wonderful conference, they've even made sure I've had vegan meals available. Due to some allergies and other health concerns, I've adopted a vegan diet, which means I don't eat meat, dairy, or eggs. Usually when I attend conferences I just eat what I can and try to find something else to eat on my own. No need this time around. It seems like a small thing, but it's a very thoughtful consideration that I appreciate enormously. And the food that Temple University, where we've had lunches, and the Crown Plaza Hotel, where we had the banquet, have presented have been so delicious. Thank you so very much!

Every time I attend a conference like this one and spend time with railroad professionals, I am constantly reminded why I love this industry so much. We may be here for the steel wheels on steel rails, but railroading would be nothing without the wonderful people keeping everything running right.

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