Remotely Controlled Locomotives

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Remotely Controlled Locomotives
Posted by PJS1 on Saturday, March 21, 2020 7:09 PM

I was in Temple, TX this afternoon, and I saw two BNSF remotely controlled locomotives.  One was a GP38-2 and the other was an SD40-2.  It appears that they had been recently outshopped, i.e. neat paint job, clean, etc.

Assuming these locomotives can be operated from the ground, how far away can the controller be and still have control of the locomotive?

What would happen if the controller had a heart attack while controlling the locomotive and fell over dead?  Or maybe just fell?

I am sorry that I don't have anything political to say, but I'll work on it.

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Posted by jeffhergert on Saturday, March 21, 2020 7:59 PM

I was once RCO qualified but haven't played with them for over 15 years.  I still have my RC vest that the box attaches to in my locker. 

I believe it's less than a mile. Where long pull backs may happen regularly, they have installed repeaters.  Many places with regular assigned remotes have the leads toward the end of the RC zones equipped with pull back protection.  Unless overridden, it used to be a switch on the locomotive, it passes over transponders in the track that will stop the remote engine from leaving the zone.  As long has the tonnage of the cars being handled is within the braking capacity of the locomotives.  These came out shortly after I went into engine service, but I think the engine will announce when passing over the transponder how far before it will stop on it's own over the radio channel the crew is using.

The remote box also has a vigilance or alerter button similar to road locomotives.  it needs to be acknowledged every so often.  If the person falls, or just leans too far over, there is a tilt mechanisim built in that will stop the engine.  It will also broadcast a 'man down' message over the radio channel in use by the switch crew.  It is a required test when first linking the box at the beginning of the shift.

The battery falling out of the control box of any box linked to a remote engine will also stop the remote.  I know from experience.  

Jeff

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Posted by zugmann on Saturday, March 21, 2020 8:08 PM

We didn't have repeaters for our robot engines, but if you got more than 70 or so cars away from the engine, it was a crap shoot whether you would have communication or not.  

 

And I've had engines with antenna problems that lost communication if you were standing right beside them.  

 

Our pullback protection didn't give distance.  It just announced when it was starting over the transponders, and then if it hit one of the "zero speed" transponders.  When it hits the latter - it stops.  But that's after it is being slowed down by the previous ones.  And there's also GPS fences on top of that.  So the engines have virtual stopping transponders, even if the physical ones would fail.  There were times we got a loaner engine from another yard, and it wouldn't work until the yardmaster would call whomever and have them reset the fences to the ones for our yard.  

 

 

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Posted by caldreamer on Saturday, March 21, 2020 9:37 PM

I think it is dangerous to have a man on the ground watching his train with an active track next to him.  No matter how vigilent he may try to be his main focus working his train.  Working in a yard is a dangerous enviroment for workers in the yard. .

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Posted by zugmann on Saturday, March 21, 2020 9:40 PM

caldreamer
I think it is dangerous to have a man on the ground watching his train with an active track next to him.  No matter how vigilent he may try to be his main focus working his train.  Working in a yard is a dangerous enviroment for workers in the yard. .

Even if I'm not using a RCO, if I'm working as a conductor, I'm still on the ground focusing on my train...? I don't get what you are getting at. 

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Posted by SD70Dude on Saturday, March 21, 2020 10:04 PM

Jeff and Zug covered the failsafe and pullback features pretty well, but there are legitimate safety issues with Beltpak operation.  Mainly due to poor training and allowing relatively new employees to be handed the controls. 

On CN most Beltpak yard jobs are considered undesirable by most employees (this may vary from railroad to railroad).  So they fall to junior employees with very little experience.  The training course is laughable, a few extra weeks and suddenly a new hire is allowed to control a 10,000 ton yard movement. 

We have had many accidents over even my relatively short career where Beltpak operators misjudged their speed in relation to the tonnage they were handling, or continued to use locomotives that were badly in need of servicing because they were told to and did not know any better. 

"I hit the STOP button and it didn't stop!"

Compounding matters, Beltpak crews are 'encouraged' to switch without air on the cars as much as possible, to save time.  And even when the cars are on air, CN's system does not allow the operator to release the automatic brake while moving, so the operators try to use only the independent brake as much as possible.

Here's an incident caused by handling too many cars without air:

https://tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/rail/2016/r16t0111/r16t0111.html

And the classic Fraser River fire, caused by a current CSX Vice-President:

https://tsb.gc.ca/eng/rapports-reports/rail/2007/r07v0213/r07v0213.html

Combined with the rough handling of inexperienced employees, this puts a huge amount of extra wear on the locomotives, and I find that Beltpak crews are not nearly as productive as those with an Engineer.  While they did allow for the elimination of many Engineer positions, I don't think Beltpak in its current form actually saves that much money. 

Another side effect of the rough handling and accidents is that CN is running out of yard engines.  We are now seeing SD40's and even SD60's being equipped with Beltpak, as the GP9 and GP38 fleets continue to thin.

Greetings from Alberta

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Posted by zugmann on Saturday, March 21, 2020 10:13 PM

SD70Dude
Combined with the rough handling of inexperienced employees, this puts a huge amount of extra wear on the locomotives, and I find that Beltpak crews are not nearly as productive as those with an Engineer.  While they did allow for the elimination of many Engineer positions, I don't think Beltpak in its current form actually saves that much money. 

engineer+2 ground employees > 2 RCOs > engineer + 1 ground employee > 1 RCO

 

I was lucky. When I trained to be RCO, I mostly worked with set-back engineers, so I learned a lot more than most.   Of course I was never afraid of using air with big cuts.  We have since lost our remotes (PSR frowns on yard crews. Everybody has to be a local).  I do kind of miss them.  It was nice to quietly work and not have to constantly talk into the radio. 

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Posted by PJS1 on Saturday, March 21, 2020 10:31 PM

Thanks for the insights everyone.  I appreciate it. 

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Posted by caldreamer on Sunday, March 22, 2020 8:47 AM

I was talking about the belt pack operator standing too close to the next track and getting hit by a locomotive or car because they were concntrating on moving their train.  Why railroads allow this usafe operation is beyond me.  A heisler in the cab can control the train and  be safe as well as control the train so thier would no runaways.

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Posted by BaltACD on Sunday, March 22, 2020 8:57 AM

caldreamer
I was talking about the belt pack operator standing too close to the next track and getting hit by a locomotive or car because they were concntrating on moving their train.  Why railroads allow this usafe operation is beyond me.  A heisler in the cab can control the train and  be safe as well as control the train so thier would no runaways.

From the Carriers point of view, such actions are already prohibited by the Book of Rules and Safety Rules.  That being said, Beltpac operators control their own destiny in the most basic of ways.  Every incident you are identifying has happened no matter the form of opeations that are employed.

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Posted by zugmann on Sunday, March 22, 2020 11:26 AM

caldreamer
I was talking about the belt pack operator standing too close to the next track and getting hit by a locomotive or car because they were concntrating on moving their train.  Why railroads allow this usafe operation is beyond me.  A heisler in the cab can control the train and  be safe as well as control the train so thier would no runaways.

Accidents can happen, but it really doesn't take that much concentration on getting a RCO train to move.  

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Posted by jeffhergert on Sunday, March 22, 2020 2:58 PM

caldreamer

I was talking about the belt pack operator standing too close to the next track and getting hit by a locomotive or car because they were concntrating on moving their train.  Why railroads allow this usafe operation is beyond me.  A heisler in the cab can control the train and  be safe as well as control the train so thier would no runaways.

 

As opposed to the switchman reading his list while there is movement on another track.

Actually, that doesn't happen too often, either scenario.  Usually only one crew at a time is working one lead of a yard.  True, another job or road crew may be working the other end or moving down an adjacent track.  Usually crews will notify each other of when that will happen.  Still there is a rule in the book, a very old one that predates radio, about being aware of movement on any track.

Speaking on one person crews, this has already happened with some yard crews.  I know of some industry jobs, where they leave the yard and go pull and spot industries on industrial leads, that have at times been operated by one RCO alone.  Not one RCO and a non-linked helper, but Foreman only to leave the yard and go across town and return.

When they first proposed RCO on my area, there was a letter from the FRA about what they could and couldn't do.  It had 9 or 10 items.  I don't remember all of them, but one was that the primary operator (the one controlling the movement with the box - You can have two boxes linked, but only one primary at a time.  Control can be passed back and forth as needed.) could not be riding the side of a car while doing so.  A few days later there was another letter from the FRA on the subject.  The only difference was one item was missing.  The one about controlling movement while riding a car.

Jeff 

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Posted by BaltACD on Monday, March 23, 2020 6:10 PM

jeffhergert
 
caldreamer

I was talking about the belt pack operator standing too close to the next track and getting hit by a locomotive or car because they were concntrating on moving their train.  Why railroads allow this usafe operation is beyond me.  A heisler in the cab can control the train and  be safe as well as control the train so thier would no runaways. 

As opposed to the switchman reading his list while there is movement on another track.

Actually, that doesn't happen too often, either scenario.  Usually only one crew at a time is working one lead of a yard.  True, another job or road crew may be working the other end or moving down an adjacent track.  Usually crews will notify each other of when that will happen.  Still there is a rule in the book, a very old one that predates radio, about being aware of movement on any track.

Speaking on one person crews, this has already happened with some yard crews.  I know of some industry jobs, where they leave the yard and go pull and spot industries on industrial leads, that have at times been operated by one RCO alone.  Not one RCO and a non-linked helper, but Foreman only to leave the yard and go across town and return.

When they first proposed RCO on my area, there was a letter from the FRA about what they could and couldn't do.  It had 9 or 10 items.  I don't remember all of them, but one was that the primary operator (the one controlling the movement with the box - You can have two boxes linked, but only one primary at a time.  Control can be passed back and forth as needed.) could not be riding the side of a car while doing so.  A few days later there was another letter from the FRA on the subject.  The only difference was one item was missing.  The one about controlling movement while riding a car.

Jeff 

On CSX, when I was still working, RCO's were not permitted on Main Tracks - yard operations only.  Since I have been gone for exceeding 3 years now, that may have changed.

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Posted by zugmann on Monday, March 23, 2020 11:53 PM

jeffhergert
As opposed to the switchman reading his list while there is movement on another track. Actually, that doesn't happen too often, either scenario

I've known a few switchman that didn't read their list too often.  Whistling

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Posted by jeffhergert on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 7:44 PM

BaltACD

 

 
jeffhergert
 
caldreamer

I was talking about the belt pack operator standing too close to the next track and getting hit by a locomotive or car because they were concntrating on moving their train.  Why railroads allow this usafe operation is beyond me.  A heisler in the cab can control the train and  be safe as well as control the train so thier would no runaways. 

As opposed to the switchman reading his list while there is movement on another track.

Actually, that doesn't happen too often, either scenario.  Usually only one crew at a time is working one lead of a yard.  True, another job or road crew may be working the other end or moving down an adjacent track.  Usually crews will notify each other of when that will happen.  Still there is a rule in the book, a very old one that predates radio, about being aware of movement on any track.

Speaking on one person crews, this has already happened with some yard crews.  I know of some industry jobs, where they leave the yard and go pull and spot industries on industrial leads, that have at times been operated by one RCO alone.  Not one RCO and a non-linked helper, but Foreman only to leave the yard and go across town and return.

When they first proposed RCO on my area, there was a letter from the FRA about what they could and couldn't do.  It had 9 or 10 items.  I don't remember all of them, but one was that the primary operator (the one controlling the movement with the box - You can have two boxes linked, but only one primary at a time.  Control can be passed back and forth as needed.) could not be riding the side of a car while doing so.  A few days later there was another letter from the FRA on the subject.  The only difference was one item was missing.  The one about controlling movement while riding a car.

Jeff 

 

On CSX, when I was still working, RCO's were not permitted on Main Tracks - yard operations only.  Since I have been gone for exceeding 3 years now, that may have changed.

 

One of the items as I recall, was not taking the RCs out on a main track outside of yard limits.  Most of the industry jobs didn't require going out on a main track outside of yard limits.  There were a couple, one was a yard to yard transfer and one had to access customers, that used a CTC equipped main track.  The letter didn't say anything about that.  We didn't use track and time, just signal indication.  For a couple of customers, it was a signal to go north with verbal permission when done to return south to the yard.

Jeff

    

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Posted by SD70Dude on Tuesday, March 24, 2020 11:20 PM

zugmann
jeffhergert
As opposed to the switchman reading his list while there is movement on another track. Actually, that doesn't happen too often, either scenario

I've known a few switchman that didn't read their list too often.  Whistling

I've worked with a few who didn't bother bringing them. 

On CN, yard assignments can be required to operate up to 25 miles outside the designated terminal limits.  Edmonton has several jobs that travel over 5 miles one-way in CTC on a daily basis.

Greetings from Alberta

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Posted by NP Eddie on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 1:53 PM

I never liked RCO operations. They started after I took a buy out from the BNSF in 2000, finally retiring in 2004. There are too many distractions for a switchman to operate a locomotive and switch cars.

Look at the number of RCO fatalities reports from the NTSB and Transport Canada. I also understand that fatalities happen when engineers are in the cab.

The BNSF had to replace RCO with an engineer at St. Paul's Midway Yard because the switching of intermodel trains took too long and the RCO link was lost because of long cuts and a elevation change (higher) when switching Midway.

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Posted by BaltACD on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 2:31 PM

SD70Dude
On CN, yard assignments can be required to operate up to 25 miles outside the designated terminal limits.  Edmonton has several jobs that travel over 5 miles one-way in CTC on a daily basis.

The National Agreement in the US allows for Yard crews to operate 25 miles outside their terminal.  The caveat, is that the crew must also meet the FRA's qualifications on the territory. 

In many locales, yard crews do their best to ensure they ARE NOT QUALIFIED on those 25 miles.  It then becomes a urination contest between management and the employees that boils down to 'Boss, are you ORDERING me to operate on territory that I am not qualified on?  Boss, are you going to be responsible for any mistakes I make because you ordered me to operate in a territory I AM NOT QUALIFIED ON!  RCO operations compound the issues.

YMMV

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Posted by Deggesty on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 3:16 PM

Would such a boss who ordered an employee to work in territory the employee is not qualified on understand the need for qualification? If he does not understand the need, should he have such authority?

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Posted by BaltACD on Thursday, March 26, 2020 6:08 PM

Deggesty
Would such a boss who ordered an employee to work in territory the employee is not qualified on understand the need for qualification? If he does not understand the need, should he have such authority?

Welcome to 21st Century railroading. At the time of the occurence, the 2nd level supervision doesn't care what rules or procedures 1st level supervision breaks, overlooks or threats issued to get the required task accomplished.  Threats of Insubordination are rampant.

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Posted by jeffhergert on Thursday, March 26, 2020 6:38 PM

Speaking of territorial qualifications.  The FRA has issued some Emergency Waivers because of covid-19.

One of the things temporarily waived is the need to be territorial qualifed.  There are regulations for it, they can't just furlough half their crews and say they're short handed.  When truly needed because of a true shortage caused by quarantine of those sick or infected, they can use a crew member on a district they're not qualified on.  The railroads are expected to first try to use someone who had been previously qualifed, but who's qualification had expired.  If an engineer is used who has never been qualifed and the train is equipped with operative PTC, they can run 40mph.  If no PTC, then they can only run at restricted speed.  

https://www.railwayage.com/regulatory/fra-responding-to-industry-joint-petition-issues-emergency-waiver/?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=13754  

The actual letter from the FRA.

https://www.railwayage.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Emergency-Waiver-Letter-03252020.pdf 

I've already told the wife that I'll probably end up roaming the system before it's all over.

Jeff

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Posted by zugmann on Friday, March 27, 2020 12:57 PM

I love the part about if an engineer is qualified but the conductor is not - there are no restrictions.  There's your 1-man precursor right now.  Don't worry, I'm sure if something happens and some local DA with eyes for the governor's mansion is trying to throw you in jail the rest of your life the FRA will have your back.

*crickets*

 

 

 

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Posted by Deggesty on Friday, March 27, 2020 2:38 PM

Jeff, I'm waiting to read your posts from the west coast after you become the only engineer available to take trains there.Smile

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Posted by Falcon48 on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 1:51 PM

jeffhergert

 Duplicate post deleted.

 
caldreamer

I was talking about the belt pack operator standing too close to the next track and getting hit by a locomotive or car because they were concntrating on moving their train.  Why railroads allow this usafe operation is beyond me.  A heisler in the cab can control the train and  be safe as well as control the train so thier would no runaways.

 

 

 

As opposed to the switchman reading his list while there is movement on another track.

Actually, that doesn't happen too often, either scenario.  Usually only one crew at a time is working one lead of a yard.  True, another job or road crew may be working the other end or moving down an adjacent track.  Usually crews will notify each other of when that will happen.  Still there is a rule in the book, a very old one that predates radio, about being aware of movement on any track.

Speaking on one person crews, this has already happened with some yard crews.  I know of some industry jobs, where they leave the yard and go pull and spot industries on industrial leads, that have at times been operated by one RCO alone.  Not one RCO and a non-linked helper, but Foreman only to leave the yard and go across town and return.

When they first proposed RCO on my area, there was a letter from the FRA about what they could and couldn't do.  It had 9 or 10 items.  I don't remember all of them, but one was that the primary operator (the one controlling the movement with the box - You can have two boxes linked, but only one primary at a time.  Control can be passed back and forth as needed.) could not be riding the side of a car while doing so.  A few days later there was another letter from the FRA on the subject.  The only difference was one item was missing.  The one about controlling movement while riding a car.

Jeff 

 

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Posted by Falcon48 on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 1:53 PM

Not sure, but this may be the FRA document mentioned in Jeff Hergert's post.

https://railroads.dot.gov/elibrary/remote-control-operations-questions-and-answers

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