Volume 13 | Issue 3 | Year 2010

A compelling contradiction pushes Union Pacific Railroad development down the track: One of the nation’s oldest companies, the enterprise became one of its industry’s most innovative.
When you crunch the numbers, this doesn’t seem so odd. After all, Union Pacific, which has become a railroad technological leader, moves nearly eight million cars. Further, transported freight includes products that American consumers need each day.

As such, Union Pacific could only continue thriving through deployment of the most advanced and innovative technology.

Union Pacific Railroad has traversed a long track since 1862, the year it was founded. A colorful and compelling part of the American landscape, it started with steam engines powered by wood and coal and eventually cleared its tracks for 200-ton diesel-electric locomotives able to transport a ton of freight more than 450 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel.

Thus, as the company evolved, it helped make rail transport one of the safest, most fuel-efficient and environmentally responsible modes of freight transportation. Our trains transport just about everything that families and businesses need: We deliver raw materials such as lumber and cement, fresh and frozen foods, automobiles and parts, and chemicals. We’re a shared enterprise, delivering the water we all drink, the paper products we use, and the grains that go into our breads, beverage and livestock feed, and much more. In fact, we touch upon much of what impacts daily life.

Our strong focus on innovation allowed us to develop and implement technologies such as:

  • Distributed power;
  • Ultrasonic wheel-defect detection;
  • Positive train control (PTC);
  • Genset locomotives;
  • Gamma ray inspection that provides optimal security upon trains.

Union Pacific has also found strategic uses for global positioning satellite (GPS) technology on its trains and virtual simulation technology for training employees who work in rail yards.

We’re a strong proponent of distributed power, which involves putting locomotives in the middle and/or end of trains rather than having all of the locomotives at the front end. Distributed power increases safety by reducing the physical forces on a train. Specifically, this makes a train less prone to derailments. For example, our technology more evenly distributes the force on rail-car couplers. Cars don’t suffer as much strain as when they are pulled in a more traditional method, where locomotives reside at the front of the train.

Distributed power also facilitates more even braking and can potentially reduce wheel and track wear. In addition, we realize a four- to six-percent fuel saving on distributed power trains versus conventional power usage.

Union Pacific is in the process of implementing an ultrasonic wheel-defect detection system at our North Platte, Neb. rail yard. The advancement is designed to greatly reduce, if not eliminate, wheel defects as a derailment cause (with as many as 400,000 freight car wheels in service at any given time, even a wheel defect rate as small as 0.025 percent can result in 100 potential derailments).

Here’s how the system works:

  • A coal train moves through a special wheel crack detection center at low speed;
  • A detection center is equipped with ultrasonic sensors placed in contact with the rim of each rolling wheel;
  • Ultrasonic energy pulses into the wheel as the wheel completes a full revolution, creating an internal image of the steel inside the wheel.

We’re also advancing Positive Train Control (PTC), a predictive collision avoidance technology that stops a train before an accident can occur. As a train moves along its track, the PTC design keeps it under the maximum speed limit and within authorized limits of its recognizable and acceptable track transport. To accomplish this, the sophisticated and expensive technology and braking algorithms (still in development) automatically slows to a safe stop, avoiding damage to freight and injury to passengers.

The Federal Railway Administration calculates an industry cost of approximately $10 billion to implement PTC. Obviously, the money will be well spent.

As far as Union Pacific’s forward movement, we’ve committed ourselves to PTC implementation in the Los Angeles basin by the end of 2012. But that’s not where it ends: Law dictates that PTC must be implemented across the rest of the country by the end of 2015. To that end, we are consuming about $200 million of this year’s capital investment with PTC development.

For us, it all comes back to locomotives, which means the Genset Locomotive. Genset technology generates significant footprint reductions, and this implementation not only demonstrates our environmental consciousness but also actually allows us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 37 percent, emissions of the oxides of nitrogen (which contribute to smog and ozone formation) by up to 80 percent and particulate matter by 90 percent. By moving beyond older switching locomotives, we are not only more technologically advanced but more environmentally considerate. And our impact is spreading across the country: Union Pacific not only pioneered the Genset, but it has more than half of all Gensets in service in the United States.

Further, Genset is an ever-developing technology. For instance, the latest version of the Genset switcher employs six traction motors for increased power compared to previous Gensets, which operated on four traction motors.

One of the Genset’s primary advantages is that its environmental benefits truly are calculated on a “well to wheels” basis, which means looking at exhaust emissions on a complete life-cycle basis, starting with the origin of the fuel or energy source down to the work performed. Much work is ongoing in terms of developing new and better locomotives and alternative fuels. When calculating true fuel savings or greenhouse gas emission reductions, it is important to include every step in the process, as we do with the Genset.

Union Pacific also employs security-focused technology that keeps watch over key installations and railroad infrastructure. Examples include:

  • The new Train Rider Identification Detection System (TriDS) recently deployed at McNary, Texas, that detects unauthorized riders while the train is moving at track speed;
  • A surveillance network that can report the location and movement of hazardous cargo within seconds;
  • Smart cameras, impact recorders and other sensors that are being piloted near bridges, rail yards, tank farms, tunnels and sidings;
  • A virtual fencing pilot program, at a cost to UP of approximately $1 million per mile, that triggers an alarm to UP’s response management communication center.

Working in a rail yard is challenging, to say the least. Union Pacific has implemented a video simulation-training program to help employees learn how to sort cars onto tracks, stop and start locomotives and uncouple rail cars all from the safety of their laptop. The software program developed for the training enables employees to become familiar with the surroundings and become more proficient, confident and safe at their new jobs before setting foot in the yard. The program is such a hit with employees that it is now being used at 45 training locations across Union Pacific’s network.

With innovations such as these and more being tested every day, it’s easy to see why Union Pacific remains one of America’s leading freight transportation companies.

Along with his UP duties, Mike Iden also serves on several technical committees of the Association of American Railroads and has chaired three committees: the Locomotive Committee, the Technology Scanning Committee and the Coupling Systems and Truck Castings Committee. For more information about UP, visit www.up.com.

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