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Autonomous Rail Cars

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Autonomous Rail Cars
Posted by greyhounds on Sunday, February 18, 2024 3:35 AM
OK, this one is really going to really upset Backshop. I do not care.
 
In the April issue of Trains Bill Stephens has a very interesting article on the autonomous freight cars currently under development by three start-up companies.  I had not previously been aware of one of these firms, Intramotev. They are headquartered in St. Louis. Their CEO has a PhD in engineering and is an outsider to the railroad industry.
 
Despite being an outsider to railroading he seems to have gained a very good understanding of rail freight operations.  Specifically, he has identified and understands elements of rail transportation that currently limit its ability to be truck competitive. Intramotev’s proposed system is also designed as a modification of existing rail cars and keeps their compatibility for use in regular freight trains if desired.
 
Intramotev’s proposal is aimed at improving the reliability of rail service while reducing or even eliminating nonproductive costs. That would make rail more competitive with trucks. I like it and see great possibilities. There are problems to be solved and issues to be addressed, but that’s true with any new technology.
 
Here’s a YouTube interview with the CEO,
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
                                                                                                                                   
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Posted by BaltACD on Sunday, February 18, 2024 9:02 AM

Totally overlooks track time as a shared resource for any rail movements.

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Posted by Euclid on Sunday, February 18, 2024 10:16 AM
Say you have this independent railcar system perfected regarding the railcars, their power, and control.  All you need is railroad track to run the cars on.  How do you acquire that track?
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Posted by Overmod on Sunday, February 18, 2024 10:34 AM

Any time I see a word like 'disruptive', or 'game-changing', or 'breakthrough' in a report about new technology, my BS detectors go to high range and stay there until disarmed with careful research.

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Posted by Overmod on Sunday, February 18, 2024 10:36 AM

Euclid
Say you have this independent railcar system perfected regarding the railcars, their power, and control.  All you need is railroad track to run the cars on.  How do you acquire that track?

You overlay CBTC on the existing PTC infrastructure.  

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Posted by BaltACD on Sunday, February 18, 2024 10:54 AM

Euclid
Say you have this independent railcar system perfected regarding the railcars, their power, and control.  All you need is railroad track to run the cars on.  How do you acquire that track?

You build a Interstate track structure that permits the passing of slower shipments by faster shipment at any point the faster shipments come upon the slower shipments and of course this must be operative in either direction for the shipments.

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Posted by Euclid on Sunday, February 18, 2024 11:18 AM

BaltACD

 

 
Euclid
Say you have this independent railcar system perfected regarding the railcars, their power, and control.  All you need is railroad track to run the cars on.  How do you acquire that track?

 

You build a Interstate track structure that permits the passing of slower shipments by faster shipment at any point the faster shipments come upon the slower shipments and of course this must be operative in either direction for the shipments.

 

Okay, I understand that.  But I meant my basic question was:

How does the developer of this new system featured above intend to aquire the track?  Maybe I missed it, but I don't recall him explaining his plan for trackage.  The two others in the video also fail to ask that question.  Using the private railroad trackage seems to be a foregone conclusion.

I suppose the conclusion includes the premise that every railroad should have the capacity for one more lone railcar.  But if the system intends to take the business away from trucking, it is going to need a lot of track time.  Does the railroad industry have that amount of unused track time to spare?

Is the plan that the private railroads will sell track time for this new single autonomous railcar system because the railroads will profit from that? What is the thinking on this detail by the developer and the railroad industry???  How can it be left out of the pitch???

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Posted by CMStPnP on Sunday, February 18, 2024 12:49 PM

Not this again.....Indifferent

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Posted by Euclid on Sunday, February 18, 2024 1:29 PM

.

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Posted by Euclid on Sunday, February 18, 2024 1:40 PM

Overmod

 

 
Euclid
Say you have this independent railcar system perfected regarding the railcars, their power, and control.  All you need is railroad track to run the cars on.  How do you acquire that track?

 

You overlay CBTC on the existing PTC infrastructure.  

 

 

Is it certain that the railroads will approve that work?  What would it cost on a given railroad such as BNSF or CSX?  If the track is made able by adding the CBTC overlay, is there enough capacity to add the new autonomous railcar traffic?  If not, what will be the cost of making the railroad have enough capacity?
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Posted by tree68 on Sunday, February 18, 2024 2:07 PM

I would opine - 

If there's value there, it's probably in the "last mile."

I didn't watch the whole video, but got the gist of it.  One point made was that the system was compatible with existing railroad technology.

Existing railroad technology would handle the long distance part, while the autonomous railcars would handle getting the load to the specific load/unload point.  This would require essentially dedicated track - think an industrial park.

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Posted by jeffhergert on Sunday, February 18, 2024 2:24 PM

Aren't we just rehashing a discussion we had last year? 

Jeff

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Posted by Overmod on Sunday, February 18, 2024 2:31 PM

jeffhergert
Aren't we just rehashing a discussion we had last year?

And in years past.  The difference is that there are now three companies in the 'space' (and some recent discussions on yard and terminal optimization suited to some of the operating paradigms).

 

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Posted by zugmann on Sunday, February 18, 2024 7:01 PM

Overmod
And in years past.  The difference is that there are now three companies in the 'space' (and some recent discussions on yard and terminal optimization suited to some of the operating paradigms).

Wake me if we ever get past the "tech bros giving interviews with tech bro blogs" phase and one of these "revolutionary companies" actually does something substantial besides paint a railcar or two. 

  

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Posted by BaltACD on Sunday, February 18, 2024 8:48 PM

Since track by its very nature is a 'constrained' enviornment.  Who/what is directing all these 'autonomous' car load/empties so that we don't have calamitous collisions?

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Posted by greyhounds on Monday, February 19, 2024 4:26 AM
I think this discussion has gone off track.
 
First, this is not a rehash of the topic. Autonomous railcars are an evolving innovative technology. The focus of my OP was the approach chosen by one of three start-up firms, Intramotev. We haven’t talked about this approach before.
 
I see the Intramotev approach as having certain advantages over the other two “Disrupters,” Parallel Systems and Glid. These advantages include:  1) It uses current railcar design and may be applied to existing equipment as a “Kit”. This should reduce the investment required to adopt the system and make such adoption more likely, and 2) The equipment can readily be mixed with existing equipment when desired.
 
There is no need to build new tracks to accommodate the Intramotev system. The idea is to make more intense use of the existing track. If this equipment gets on a busy main line, it will be incorporated into existing trains. The idea is to increase the use of existing assets. That would be an increased use of lower density rail lines. This would increase the reach of the current intermodal system and divert revenue from truck to rail. It should be relatively easy to develop a computer/AI based system to control movement on the lower density lines.
 
Intramotev does not, in any way, need to acquire access to track.  They are an equipment supplier not a transportation company.  The railroads can use their equipment, but Intramotev will not be soliciting freight.
 
Lastly, The CEO of Intramotev “Gets it.” He recognizes that the Achillis Heel of railroading is the need to aggregate shipments into economical train sizes.   This aggregation can readily be done on a few major lanes such as Chicago-Los Angeles. But aggregation in other high volume freight markets is difficult, slow, unreliable, and expensive.  Intramotev equipment can reduce the need for aggregation.  That’s a good thing.
 
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Posted by Euclid on Monday, February 19, 2024 9:27 AM
I don’t see any problems with this if the railroads have unused track capacity to accommodate the new Intramotev business.  I understand that Intramotev will produce the equipment, but it is not entirely clear who their customer market will be.  Is the market the railroad shippers, or the railroad industry itself?  If so, where in the video is this stated?
 

If the railroad industry is the customer, it would be very interesting to hear their perspective on this.  If the railroads embrace this as a part of their business model, and buy the equipment for it, it seems like a very workable concept. 

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Posted by Overmod on Monday, February 19, 2024 9:30 AM

BaltACD
Since track by its very nature is a 'constrained' enviornment.  Who/what is directing all these 'autonomous' car load/empties so that we don't have calamitous collisions?

Part of the definition of 'level 4 autonomous operation' inherently involves direction to avoid calamitous collisions.  

Done properly, each individual car acts as though it has a RCO operator controlling its acceleration and braking.  Cameras, sensor fusion, and some non-fake AI/ES have been more than capable of safe routine operation for decades; one notes that integrating some of the Castor FM-TV used by the Navy before 1945 would have added 'oversight' capability to the original automatic subway shuttle tried lo! these many years ago... with lots and lots and lots of passengers and not just some loose-car and LTL freight dunned in.

The operating model is only incidentally operating 'freight train' service with platooned electric vehicles rather than locomotive hauling with one crew -- whether that one crew is two men, one man, one man in a telepresence suite somewhere, or robots imitating men.  It is areas involving last-mile distribution, completely analogous to truck last-mile except keeping the move on rail as late and as long as possible -- one more-or-less immediate use would be in place of the Adtranz CargoSpeed or whatever it was called equipment for use on all that track in central New Jersey that would use two or three 'rakes' of equipment to switch all those older facilities with rail close by but increasingly limited access to congested local roadways.

If you have sufficient volume, you can increase track occupancy by platooning the cars with closed couplers and independent brakes.  If you need more volume still, you can platoon coupled, doing whatever the Federal government decides you have to do to be "safe" -- look for all sorts of lobbying and the usual political thrash; we've been over this enough in past threads for it to have ad nauseam characteristics.  But very little that couldn't be done with the equivalent of FREDs now extended to be FFEDs too.

The thing I keep waiting for these would-be Edisons to figure out is how to motor and brake a cost-effective three-piece truck so that it is safe in this proposed service, yet fully compatible with one-pipe interchange and the various running speeds and wacky excuses for maintenance that go with it.  I would mention here again that I'm still a bit traumatized by the SPV-2000 'experience' -- much of the design philosophy of which is still evidently alive and well with these brave new operating theories.  At least Parallel has given up on that idiot separate power-bogie idea... let's hope they hold to their resolve.

To me, the elephant-in-the-room issue isn't operating autonomous cars effectively, particularly as PTC comes to be costed-down.  The problem is safe switching of automonous vehicles including to all those last-mile places.  And it is neither easy nor particularly assurable.  My opinion is that you'll see both pervasive electrification and adoption of ECP before you have any reasonable method of tackling it for the 'general system'.

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Posted by jeffhergert on Monday, February 19, 2024 3:51 PM

How many class one carriers are involved in these autonomous car ideas?  Last time I checked the railroads aren't a "public steel highway."  We don't have open access at this time.

UP was working on autonomous trucks, you would think they would be interested in autonomous rail vehicles.  (Besides crewless conventional trains.)

I went to their website.  It shows and describes the vehicle.  It even shows it coupling up to another railcar, I assume for the conventional train operation they say it can support.  It doesn't show the air hoses being connected.  They mention first/last mile, but don't say how this would work.  You know, the parts about being switched into and out of customer's facilities.  It does show a rail door opening and the car moving out of the building on it's own.

They always show the easy part of the process, automating the over the road moves.  They don't show how the total process would work.  

Oh, one other thing.  Off the main track and controlled sidings, PTC doesn't work.  Those tracks aren't part of the PTC system.  They will have to come up with a way to detect other autonomous vehicles operating in the first/last mile industrial settings.     

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Posted by Euclid on Monday, February 19, 2024 5:24 PM
In watching the video for the second time, I find at 20:22, one of the interviewers asks the CEO, “So who are the customers?”  He answers with the clarification that they will be selling the equipment to the railroad industry.  So it does not rely on open access with private companies renting track time from the railroads. 
 
He lists a range of railroad operators including Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3, and also industrial railroads such as used with steel making, and mining.  They are already selling equipment to the industrial railroads, and will gradually work toward Class 1 railroads. 
 

He says there is excess capacity on all of the railroads, so that will not be a problem.  So, Intramotev will market to the railroads, equipment for them to extend their transportation service to the traffic that now must utilize trucking.  If the investment is worth the cost to the railroads, I don’t see any reason why this won’t be successful.

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Posted by zugmann on Monday, February 19, 2024 5:55 PM

The people that want to put tons of electronics, sensors, and all that tech in railcars: it's obvious they never see how railcars get handled both on the road, in the yard, and by private industry.  

There's a reason they are as crude as they are. 

About the only application I can see having any success in the short term - industries won't have to buy a trackmobile to spot cars over a pit or rack?

  

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Posted by Backshop on Monday, February 19, 2024 6:48 PM

Euclid
 

He says there is excess capacity on all of the railroads, so that will not be a problem.  

 

He says that, but is it the truth?
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Posted by BaltACD on Monday, February 19, 2024 7:29 PM

Euclid
In watching the video for the second time, I find at 20:22, one of the interviewers asks the CEO, “So who are the customers?”  He answers with the clarification that they will be selling the equipment to the railroad industry.  So it does not rely on open access with private companies renting track time from the railroads.  
He lists a range of railroad operators including Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3, and also industrial railroads such as used with steel making, and mining.  They are already selling equipment to the industrial railroads, and will gradually work toward Class 1 railroads.  

He says there is excess capacity on all of the railroads, so that will not be a problem.  So, Intramotev will market to the railroads, equipment for them to extend their transportation service to the traffic that now must utilize trucking.  If the investment is worth the cost to the railroads, I don’t see any reason why this won’t be successful.

His statement reminds me of an official looking at a 100 mile single track segment of railroad with 5 sidings and 7 trains in each direction and saying that line segment has 'excess capcity' - because every foot of the line is not occupied by a train - it is grid locked  with too many trains for the sidings.

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Posted by zugmann on Monday, February 19, 2024 7:32 PM

We have a customer that is like that.  Their corporation sees they have (for example) 2000' of track space, so they think they can handle 2000' of cars at any one time.  Never mind that the cars need to be emptied or loaded (they only have one pit to unload/load one car at a time) and you need space to move them around to do that. 

 

  

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Posted by Euclid on Monday, February 19, 2024 7:35 PM
Yes it is true that railcars, especially open top cars like gons and hoppers, get the crap beat out of them.  But they don’t have to accomplish much, whereas these powered railcars are more like locomotives which have a much more challenging job to do.  Intramotev will just have to make them durable enough if they want to be in this business.  I don’t think this point is lost on the company.
 

It’s the same with track capacity.  Maybe there is enough or maybe not.  But the CEO says that penetrating the Class 1 railroad market will be the last frontier, so it might be quite a while before that happens.  Meanwhile a lot of pieces have to fall into place, and there will be time for that.  Some railroad management may not want to go after this business model.  They might just say it is not what they do, especially if they believe it will interfere with what they do with the multi-mile-long trains.  But generally, I sense that the Class 1s are unusually interested in autonomous operation with standard equipment.  So they might be especially attracted to this Intramotev concept just to get the autonomous ball rolling.  

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Posted by zugmann on Monday, February 19, 2024 7:38 PM

This isn't the first company to propose this, and it won't be the last.  Like I said before - these concepts never seem to get anywhere.  I doubt this will be any different.  

We've been having these discussions a couple times every year for the past decade+ here. 

  

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Posted by SD70Dude on Monday, February 19, 2024 7:54 PM

For systems with excess capacity the big railroads sure have an awful lot of congestion.....

Call me when the autonomous railcars learn how to sweep snow out of switch points, and line the manual switches and derails that are found at nearly every carload customer spur.

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Posted by SD70Dude on Monday, February 19, 2024 7:57 PM

zugmann

About the only application I can see having any success in the short term - industries won't have to buy a trackmobile to spot cars over a pit or rack?

Some of our customers have big electric winches for that.  Others use a loader, a forklift or even a pickup truck as their 'yard engine'.  One or two sites even used those old car moving pry bars until quite recently, and they still might when no one is looking.

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Posted by Backshop on Monday, February 19, 2024 7:57 PM

Euclid
 

  But the CEO says that penetrating the Class 1 railroad market will be the last frontier, so it might be quite a while before that happens. 

 

That makes absolutely no sense.  If you don't involve the Class 1 railroads, where are these autonomous railcars going to travel? Are they going to go from one side of the steel mill to the other? Five miles down the shortline from the gravel pit to the transload facility?
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Posted by tree68 on Monday, February 19, 2024 9:11 PM

That makes absolutely no sense.  If you don't involve the Class 1 railroads, where are these autonomous railcars going to travel? Are they going to go from one side of the steel mill to the other? Five miles down the shortline from the gravel pit to the transload facility?

Actually, that sounds rather like a good proof of concept.  

As has been pointed out, the logical place for this is "last mile" applications.  Industrial parks being a case in point.  However, that will require that the shipper/receiver pairs have sufficient dedicated cars to cover those loading, unloading, and in transit.

The Class 1's role would be getting the car from the originating staging point to the delivery staging point, where the autonomous part can be used.  And return.  

A significant majority of railcars in use have no reason to be capable of autonomous operation.  They operate in bulk business from end to end.  And cars not in dedicated service will be floating around the system with the autonomous equipment just going along for the ride.

The idea that an autonomous car is going to travel from Chicago to Los Angeles all by itself is a bit far-fetched...

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