The new systems combined with a dashboard feature for headquarters executives will give the Federal Railroad Administration near-immediate access to track inspection data, says the agency’s Chris Schulte.

Dec 31 2009

Why Handheld Devices are Transforming the Federal Railroad Administration

Agency upgrades handhelds used by track inspectors to keep the nation's train routes safe.

A freight train, often hauling more than 10,000 tons at speeds of 50 miles per hour or more, is nothing to mess with. Yet one of a freight train’s greatest potential enemies is microscopic: a bubble of air that can hide undetected for years inside a steel rail before growing into a crack that can splinter under a train and send bulky cargo containers, hazardous material tank cars or passenger cars off the tracks.

Though wrecks from defects declined from 2005 to 2006, “we have been finding more and more defects over the past half-dozen years,” says Chris Schulte, a Federal Railroad Administration railroad track safety specialist and supervisor.

To help it pinpoint and report such internal rail defects quickly, FRA plans to couple a plan for hiring new inspectors with a strategy for rolling out updated information technology tools. The agency intends to replace its outdated handheld systems with new handhelds capable of supporting geospatial data and using wireless links to beam information back to the FRA chiefs and data analysts who search for patterns or clues that foretell potential problems.

All Aboard

Often underfunded, FRA has begun to attack the rail problem and track-caused derailments with new urgency. FRA Administrator Joseph Boardman, who was New York state’s commissioner of transportation for eight years before becoming FRA administrator in 2005, has not only added renewed purpose to the mission, but many veteran employees say privately he has given their morale a boost.

Boardman has moved rapidly to increase FRA’s track inspection capabilities, adding three new automated track inspection vehicles — one to detect weaknesses in the track structure that could cause rails to dangerously spread apart, and two vehicles that can determine whether the width between rails is acceptable, whether the two rails are level and whether the shape of each rail meets federal standards.

These vehicles do not have to stop to mark defects. They broadcast the location of each defect, giving rail crews accurate Global Positioning System coordinates so they can immediately dispatch workers to the spot to make repairs.

Over the years, FRA has deferred to the railroads to detect internal defects, but Boardman wants to end that hands-off approach, especially after a series of wrecks earlier this year caused by internal rail flaws. He is adding eight new inspectors with experience in dealing with such defects. Nonetheless, Boardman does not want to add significant numbers of new personnel.

“It’s technology we need, not a lot of new inspectors,” he says.

Less With More

No matter how good the technology, it is not possible to eliminate the human element. Individual inspectors must go into the field, perform visual inspections, talk to railroaders and report back to headquarters.

Boardman and his lieutenants have launched a plan to get the information quickly to headquarters in Washington, sort it and look for trends. Under a program launched in 2006 called the National Inspection Plan, all inspection and accident data is sorted to identify potential safety “hot spots,” broken out by railroad, by location, by type of problem and by other factors.

Personnel and equipment from around the country can then be deployed to these hot spots to perform intensive onsite inspections.

To help speed the flow of information from the field to headquarters and back, FRA is equipping its inspectors with a variety of devices that include notebook and tablet PCs, GPS-enabled handheld personal digital assistants and wireless broadband cards.

FRA has been using notebook computers in the field for 13 years, although only recently has technology been adequate to support the agency inspectors’ needs, says Arnel Rivera, staff director of FRA’s Knowledge Management Division. The agency is retiring its former generation of Hewlett-Packard iPAQ handheld PDAs because of operating system incompatibilities and problems with holding a charge when a GPS device is used.

Using computers in the field in the heat and dust — or blowing snow and rain — of a railroad environment has been a challenge, Rivera says.

“FRA tested to see if it was feasible to do away with handheld PDAs and replace them with a single device. We had earlier acquired Fujitsu tablet PCs to replace some of the older units in the field. We explored the possibility that a tablet PC could serve the functions of both the handheld iPAQ as well as do normal notebook chores,” Rivera says. “Through our field-testing, we discovered that our inspectors found the tablets to be too bulky to be carried around and that they generated too much heat for them to be able to cradle the units for any decent amount of time.

“We concluded that for our track inspectors, it was necessary to continue the use of GPS-enabled handheld PDAs to record inspection findings and focus on providing our inspectors with broadband-communication capabilities to improve the exchange of information. The wireless broadband cards were just recently distributed to our field inspectors, and we continue to experience some isolated coverage problems.”

Chain Reaction

Another problem has been Internet blind spots, especially in parts of West Virginia and other remote areas, now that FRA has switched to broadband.

“FRA continues to address the isolated broadband coverage issues that some of our field inspectors are experiencing,” Rivera says. “We are testing the use of external antennas and signal amplifiers as well as looking into alternative service providers. We are also continuing to maintain a few dial-up accounts for those field staff who are unable to get high-speed connectivity.”

Adds Schulte, “At worst, we can do a dial-up and download.”

230,000 Miles

The railroad track spanning the United States
SOURCE: Federal Railroad Administration

Rivera says FRA is now field-testing the Motorola/Symbol MC35 handheld PDA as a potential replacement for its iPAQs. “We are still in the early stages of testing, but the device seems to be able to address the issue of battery life when using GPS better than the iPAQs did,” he says.

“We are currently working on being able to consolidate the large quantities of data that we collect and being able to present the most critical elements to FRA’s leadership in an effective and timely manner,” he says. “This will be accomplished through the use of dashboards, which will summarize information at the highest level and allow for the users to drill down to obtain details as they deem necessary.”

The Federal Railroad Administration has about 60 handheld units in use among federal and state track inspectors.

“We are still evaluating the Motorola MC35 units,” FRA spokesman Warren Flatau says. “Two are being tested internally. Once we make the necessary software modifications to integrate the application into the new GPS device and ensure that the handheld device properly syncs with our inspection program, we will acquire 10 additional units and have inspectors field-test them.”

If there are no unforeseen complications, the agency expects to complete a rollout to all inspectors by March. The hardware costs will be approximately $120,000, Flatau says, and software modifications, training and technical support will cost an additional $120,000.

On the iPAQs, FRA runs its apps under Microsoft Windows Pocket PC, but “we hope to use MS Windows Mobile going forward,” he says.

To house data for the Track Data Management System (TDMS), FRA maintains a Microsoft SQL Server database. To get the data to headquarters from the field, “inspection data from the iPAQs is pushed to the notebooks, which run the Railroad Inspection System for the PC, using Microsoft ActiveSync to upload the inspection files,” Flatau says. On the back end, the agency generates reports using Active Server Pages and SAS.

As part of the upgrade, FRA will make database revisions so that it can wed the GIS data gathered for the Automated Track Inspection Program with the other information gathered by inspectors on location. TDMS can translate the geometry points — the GPS-based coordinates about track locations and the locations of possible defects gathered by the inspection vehicles and by inspectors using their GPS-ready equipment — into GIS records. FRA is “in the process of integrating that with our traditional inspection data,” Flatau says.

The ultimate goal is to make all of this data more readily available for decision-making. For the past several years, the analysis of the data gathered by the automated track car inspection program and by the inspectors required a lot of review and manipulation of data to create reports and to study track conditions. But the dashboard capability will give the agency near-immediate access to the information, Schulte says.

It is a new application that will not be ready until 2008, Flatau says, but once complete it will be available to users across the department.


<p>Photo: Andrew Kist</p>