NS Deploys New Track-Inspection Technology

Norfolk Southern (NS) announced it has developed and deployed an autonomous track geometry measurement system that is mounted on a locomotive, enhancing railroad safety and operating efficiencies.

Autonomous track-inspection systems that are commercially available are installed on converted freight or passenger rail cars, requiring an external power source to operate. The new NS system is mounted in a box under a six-axle road locomotive between the snowplow and the first set of wheels, with the system’s computer housed inside the electrical locker in the locomotive cab.

“With our locomotive-based system, we use an existing asset to increase the frequency of our track inspections, without adding another piece of equipment that has to be run across the railroad,” explained Ed Boyle, vice president engineering. “This innovative approach enhances our safety practices by permitting us to have precise and quality track inspections done under load at track speed. With this system, Norfolk Southern will provide service safely, efficiently, and cost-effectively.”

Developed by the company’s engineering department’s track inspection group, the new system provides a more cost-effective way to continuously monitor track performance in near real-time. The system can detect defects or anomalies in track geometry, including track gauge, or the distance between rails, and the elevation and curvature of track. The data it supplies is used for track maintenance activities and capital budgeting and facilitates compliance with Norfolk Southern and Federal Railroad Administration track safety standards.

As part of a pilot program, Norfolk Southern is operating the system on a mainline between Norfolk, Va., and Portsmouth, Ohio. The route offers a range of track and operating conditions, including straight and curved track, hilly terrain, and high-tonnage loads.

Track Inspection and Development Manager Mike Allran, who helped lead the initiative, said, “With this innovative system, any time this locomotive is moving and pulling freight, it is testing track at the same time. This gives us more robust data for use in predictive-modeling to determine track maintenance intervals, which enables us to maximize efficiencies that will generate significant cost savings.”

Norfolk Southern plans to equip additional locomotives with the system and potentially upgrade its capabilities.

“Our team is committed to helping Norfolk Southern achieve industry leadership in the use of advanced technologies to enhance safety, increase operating efficiencies, and better serve our customers,” Allran added. “The development and deployment of our autonomous track-inspection system is one more way we are making progress toward that goal, generating benefits for us and all our stakeholders.”