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North Dakota’s history is linked with the development of the railroad. Its economy dependent upon transporting commodities to global markets using tracks that crisscross the state through cities, towns and open prairies. Generations of North Dakotans also have made a good living working for the Northern Pacific and Great Northern, and as those companies eventually became today’s BNSF Railway, many of their children and grandchildren still work to move the state’s goods by rail.

While trains may look similar to those operated generations ago, very little is the same besides steel wheels on steel rails. Today’s railroad deploys sophisticated technology across North Dakota’s tracks to make train operations safer than ever.

Rail safety data from 2017 continues to show that recent years have been the safest on record. Since 2000, the train accident rate is down 41 percent. The equipment-caused accident rate is down 34 percent, track-caused accident rate down 53 percent and the overall derailment rate down 42 percent.

The railroad industry is leveraging technology in new and different ways to prevent incidents before they occur. At a recent railroad technology showcase at the Capitol we highlighted the industry’s technology advances. Three areas where BNSF uses technology illustrate today’s high-tech railroad.

• Track inspections and maintenance  — BNSF rail detector vehicles use ultrasonic waves to detect internal flaws in the rail that go unseen by the human eye. Ground-penetrating radar helps us to understand the condition of the substructure up to 2 feet below the rail and know when to replace ballast to improve support of the track structure. Machine vision systems with high-quality photography, combined with X-ray technology allows BNSF to monitor the condition of rail ties on hundreds of miles of track each week. The data gathered helps BNSF be more precise and effective in replacing ties to bolster the safety of the network.

BNSF is determining the viability of leveraging UAV technology for inspecting tall bridges or hard-to-reach towers using high-definition cameras and is the only railroad working with the Federal Aviation Administration to test flying UAVs beyond visual line-of-sight. High-speed laser technology on track geometry cars tests track surface and alignment, and using unmanned geometry cars enables BNSF to nearly double the miles of track inspected every year.

• Equipment detectors — A network of detectors placed alongside the tracks monitor every rail car and locomotive on the tracks and alert train crews to potential problems so cars can be removed from a train before a broken wheel causes a derailment, for example. Some of these detectors sense heat or feel the force of the equipment on the tracks, while others can hear defects on wheel bearings or cracks in wheels before they are visible. Through cameras and machine learning, certain detectors can see when parts are missing or are not in the right position.

Issues identified by equipment detector and track inspection technologies are turning our employees from finders into fixers, working to prevent a problem. Through big data analytics, algorithms sort through more than 35 million readings every day and identify potential issues before they become problems. BNSF uses this data to determine the urgency of equipment repairs and to spot trends that indicate when maintenance should happen.

• Positive train control — PTC is a safety overlay and BNSF has completed the infrastructure installation of PTC on mandated routes. Using GPS, Wi-Fi and high-band radio transmissions, PTC allows equipment onboard locomotives, wayside systems and a back office server to work together to determine a train’s location, direction and speed. The system warns the crew of problems and stops the train if needed. We’re operating trains with PTC protection across our major routes in the state.

Cameras on drones, big data, predictive maintenance, stopping a speeding train. Technology at work in all aspects of BNSF’s operations is making the railroad safer for all generations who work on the railroad and for all North Dakota communities where we operate and serve our customers. We’re proud of our heritage here and committed to the future, using new and existing technology to be even more efficient and safer.

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Chad Sundem is BNSF Railway’s manager of transportation operations for BNSF for most of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.

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