RAILWAY AGE, NOVEMBER 2020 ISSUE: Identifying railcar components and tracking their health is critical to the safe and efficient operation of North America’s freight railroads. In an industry with about 1.6 million revenue-earning cars, annual equipment maintenance spending might approach $2 billion. The benefits of more efficient component tracking and equipment-health analysis are potentially significant.
The application of advanced technology is providing greater visibility into the condition of critical components, including wheels, axles, bearings, truck systems and draft systems. Because they account for the highest level of railcar maintenance and replacement costs—and have a major impact on safety—these components have been the first focus of industry technology developers.
The North American railcar fleet has traditionally been maintained under regulations and processes that relied on historic component performance across very broad railcar categories.
For example, freight car wheels have needed to be inspected visually each time a car arrives at a staffed maintenance facility. With the advent of the Equipment Health Management System (EHMS) more than a dozen years ago, the industry developed rules and repair processes for sensor-based component inspection systems that significantly enhanced traditional visual inspection processes. These rules and processes effectively prevent most undesirable incidents, even though most wheels would not experience a catastrophic failure until long after the required inspection and removal thresholds.
The Next Safety Frontier
The industry is now developing applications that promise even safer and more efficient operations.
These advances started in 2013 with the inauguration of the Comprehensive Equipment Performance Monitoring (CEPM) program, now known as the Component Tracking program. It is a multi-phase, multi-year initiative to create an industry process and related technology tools for capturing railcar equipment component data.
Component Tracking allows manufacturers to register their components in Umler®, which is maintained by Railinc, the railroad industry’s source of critical railcar and locomotive data. When those registered railcar components are installed on a railcar—i.e., when they become associated with one another—Umler users can report that association via the component registry.
Because Railinc tracks both components and equipment, this allows near real-time information for rail equipment users. Examples of components tracked include slack adjusters; brake valve control systems; side frames, bolsters and couplers; wheelsets; and pressure relief valves. Once Component Tracking was well established, industry planners recognized that the association of individual components with unique serial numbers would have benefits beyond improved tracking. Having this data would open the way to observing a car and its components as it moved across the network, deriving useful information including how many miles it had accumulated, how many ton-miles, how many empty and loaded miles, and more. It was believed this information could also provide valuable insights into how components were performing under specific conditions, leading to predictive analysis about when components would be likely to wear out or fail.
Recognizing a Better Future
This promised a revolution in how railcar safety and the component life cycle could be managed in the future.
The failure of wheel components, in particular, can cause derailments with the potential for environmental impacts, property damage, and even loss of life. Though the rail industry’s safety performance has been consistently improving for decades, industry leaders place strong emphasis on continued improvement.
(Since 1980, the U.S. railroad derailment rate has declined from 8.98 derailments per million train miles, to 1.63 in 2014, an 82% reduction, according to Accident Analysis and Prevention, Vol. 98  1–9, published by Elsevier.)
Performance data derived from Component Tracking was seen as a single source of potential reliability improvements, including:
• Condition-based maintenance criteria to improve or replace simple time-based inspection.
• Improved component manufacturing processes.
• Reduced catastrophic component failures.
Much of this work was undertaken by the Association of American Railroads (AAR) Technical Service Group’s Wheel, Axles, Bearings & Lubrication (WABL) Committee. The components under its purview generate the highest operating costs on most railcars.
Improved Component Design and Testing
Given that component reliability is critical, it made sense to look first at how technology could be applied to the initial design and testing of new components.
The WABL Committee provides critical oversight of this process. Manufacturers must submit their designs to WABL when they want to introduce new wheel, axle or bearing designs. Following WABL’s evaluation of the proposed design’s compliance with engineering and materials specifications, the committee determines whether a new component may be placed into limited test service.
With WABL’s initial conditional approval, suppliers of new wheel designs, for example, are allowed to manufacture and place an allotment of 32,000 wheels into service. Under the traditional process, the wheel supplier would provide updates to WABL about how the new wheels are performing.
To do this required coordination between a number of parties. The supplier would need to negotiate the installation of the wheels with car manufacturers and/or owners, arrange for their installation by wheel shops, and work with railroads to track the wheels in service.
Tracking the cars in service was complex. The supplier had to pull together reports from a number of information sources to demonstrate if most wheels were performing well and provide specific information about any exceptions. This data was subject to the realities of real-world operations in which some wheels would accumulate mileage at different rates, would operate under different conditions (including tonnage and weather), and be affected by other variables that could only be approximated. Following the development of Component Tracking, the WABL Committee opened discussions with Railinc to determine if a better system could be implemented by leveraging the standard and more complete data now being generated in the field.
Reinventing Not the
Wheel, But the Process
Railinc went to work and developed products that would provide more accurate wheel performance data much faster than the previous—largely manual—practices could.
In the most basic application, suppliers are provided access to data that tracks mileage accumulated by a manufacturer’s population of components, showing the installation date, mileage and removal date (if applicable). Additional information can also be provided with Railinc’s Component Performance Analyses product, including tonnage carried, impact conditions from wayside detectors, maintenance records, and causes of failure.
With near-real-time data, the accumulation of the first 200,000 miles of service would be immediately known for each wheel, as well as the equipment with which it is associated and the geographic location and current handling road of the equipment. This is where manufacturers can benefit from significant reductions in time spent identifying, locating and removing specific components. With the data immediately available from Railinc, all this information, plus the condition of targeted components, their destination, and convenient opportunities for their removal from service can be determined without additional research. This has made it possible to promptly move to the next stage in the approval process—the capture and removal of 32 wheels from service for ultrasonic inspection. Any metallurgical flaws are then analyzed.
Based on all this data, a decision can quickly be made by the WABL Committee to approve operation of the wheels for an additional 100,000 miles. Following that, 16 wheels are captured and tested. If the results are positive, the committee is able to grant unconditional approval, which allows the supplier to start unlimited wheel manufacturing to meet market demands.
This process, which was once difficult to manage and which could take years to complete, has now been greatly simplified. Newly designed wheels, incorporating state-of-the-art manufacturing techniques, can now be introduced faster at much lower cost, while meeting all industry and regulatory safety requirements.
Plus, this success opened the way to develop new applications that provide ongoing near-real-time component monitoring and analysis. These advanced systems are generating even greater efficiencies and safer operations of railcars in regular service.
Approvals to Operations
Railcar owners and railroads are applying many of the lessons learned in the component approval process to deploy technology-aided monitoring of component performance in daily operations and to utilize the generated data for predictive analytics. These analytics are making it possible to identify component degradations earlier than ever. Repair or replacement of defective components can be made before failures occur. Moreover, component users can evolve from rigid inspection, maintenance and repair schedules to more effective component condition management that both improves safety and helps increase operating efficiency.
The same data acquisition and analysis tools used in the component manufacturing approval process are now being deployed via a suite of Railinc applications designed to help users improve inspection, repair and replacement of railcar components.
These applications include the following:
• Inbound Equipment Health Reporting (IEHR) is being used by short line and regional railroads as well as Class I’s to support improved management and handling of interchange equipment that might require maintenance or repair upon arrival. IEHR scans industry systems to consolidate, analyze, and present actionable and prioritized information that helps railroad mechanical, transportation, and customer service departments make timely and correct repairs.
• Fleet Health Reporting enables proactive management of equipment maintenance by railcar owners. Fleet Health Reporting analyzes large amounts of industry data to present actionable, prioritized equipment health status information.
• Online Equipment Health Reporting (OEHR) helps railroads reduce the risk of service disruptions and safety-related incidents by providing predictive electronic inspections of equipment currently on their property. OEHR uses the most timely and accurate equipment health data, characteristics, and movement data available.
The digital analysis advances that have been made during the past decade have already produced greater visibility into railcar component service history and condition across much of the North American railcar fleet. Now, this information is being used to flag specific components for maintenance or repair, reducing the need for broad directives covering larger fleets of cars, most of which are not affected by issues with only a few pieces of equipment.
Enough data and experience have been accumulated with these systems that industry leaders can start to develop more accurate predictive maintenance and repair models that will both further improve safety and make operations more efficient. In an industry that seeks to avoid in-service component failures, the development of this technology continues to be a top priority.
Ranger Bearings Case Study
Introducing a new component in the North American railcar market isn’t easy, and for good reason.
Railcars carry virtually every type of freight—from food to fuel—and on each trip they operate hundreds or thousands of miles, empty or loaded with heavy freight, with environmental conditions that range from blizzards to desert heat. Most important, every railcar component must meet rigorous standards to protect the safety of train crews, communities and others who encounter the equipment along the way.
That’s why the introduction of new or modified components involves a rigorous qualification process.
A provider of wheel bearings since 2014, Ranger Bearings is committed to meeting the highest industry standards. According to company President Dan Conway, recent technology innovations by the railroad industry have greatly improved the process for introducing new and modified components.
“Prior to the development of digital analysis by North America’s railroads,” he says, “the introduction of new wheelset components required manufacturers to coordinate test service with a daunting number of railcar owners, repair shops, railroads and others.”
He credits past success under this manual process to the cooperative attitude of parties willing to help railcar component manufacturers introduce improved products. Still, Ranger Bearings and other manufacturers had to engage in complex, careful and intense communications when introducing new or modified components.
An example is Ranger Bearings’ Universal Backing Ring (UBR), which protects against axle and bearing contamination and fits on axles of varying diameters.
The AAR WABL Committee oversees the design, testing and monitoring of new components. So, it was the starting place for Ranger Bearings when it decided to introduce an improved UBR.
“Our first interaction with WABL,” Conway says, “was that we provide design specifications and results of initial static testing of the new UBR. Once they approved those results, we were allowed to place 32,000 in service. Then the committee required that we trace every single one of those UBRs as they accumulated mileage.”
This is where the industry’s advances in digital component tracing proved its value to Conway.
“At this point, we started working with Railinc to provide real-time data as the UBRs experienced in service conditions,” he says. “They provided voluminous amounts of information that allowed us to analyze the overall performance of our new product and—most importantly—to understand the cause of any individual failures.”
This is important because it allowed Ranger and WABL to see how many set-outs might be the result of flaws in the new UBRs, and how many set-outs might be due to factors such as wheel failures, flooding, and other issues that had nothing to do with the integrity of the UBRs themselves.
These results showed that Ranger’s new UBRs are performing well, and the data came to Conway and his team efficiently. Gone was the need to contact the various car owners, shops, railroads, and a multitude of others who were previously needed to provide reports, many of which were less than complete. This greatly reduced the number of phone calls, emails and field visits that used to be necessary.
“As we manufactured the initial UBRs,” Conway says, “we simply applied barcodes which were used to create an association with the wheelsets to which they were applied. From that point forward, we really didn’t have to coordinate anything to track them. We simply needed to request that Railinc start tracking. They secured permission from the car owners to provide data about our UBRs, and the data started flowing in.”
“Railinc’s support and professionalism is great and allowed us to provide better information to WABL than was previously possible,” he says.
The result is a tracking and approval process for new components that is both streamlined and improved.
Now, Ranger Bearings is integrating this process into the ongoing tracking and analysis of components that have their final WABL approval and operate in regular service.
“It has made a great impression with our customers and partners,” Conway says.
He cites his experience with a Class I railroad, to which he has provided complete and accurate data on a group of 140,000 bearings, including the percentage of railcar set-outs related to Ranger products.
“That percentage was very, very low, and it gave the railroad confidence that they could count on us to support reliable operations,” he says.
“We know that the support being provided by Railinc will help us introduce new products, and better service existing products in the future,” Conway says. “That gives us and our partners greater peace of mind as we continue to provide products that are critical to the reliable and safe operations of freight railroads.”