FRA Green-Lights Continuous Ultrasonic Track Inspection

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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Image courtesy Vossloh.

It’s a long-awaited rulemaking: The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) on Aug. 28 submitted to the Federal Register its “Final Rule on Rail Integrity Amendments & Track Safety Standards,” which the agency says “focuses more on providing performance-based outcomes, rather than prescribing exactly how companies conduct effective tests. Railroads will be expected to utilize established methods to conduct required rail inspections, but they will also have the flexibility to utilize new technologies and methods as they are proven safe and effective.” Specifically, this final rule allows railroads to use ultrasonic inspection technology augmented with global positioning system (GPS) for continuous rail flaw testing.

Sperry utilizes Roller Search Units (RSUs) to apply ultrasonics to the rail. RSUs adapt to less than perfect rail conditions thereby ensuring uniform and constant contact with the rail surface, resulting in higher defect-detection ratios. 15 ultrasonic channels per rail deliver optimum detection across the entire rail head, web, and a portion of the base. Sperry’s X-fire technology increases transverse defect detection by 30% in areas of less than perfect rail surface conditions.

The new rule enables track inspection vehicles to conduct tests while in motion, “potentially decreasing passenger and freight train delays associated with routine inspections,” FRA noted. “These updated regulations are expected to improve safety by making it easier for railroads to test rail more frequently and to identify and repair internal rail flaws before conditions degrade safety.”

Vossloh’s Rail Road Runner (RRR) rail testing trolley is used for regular inspection of short sections of track as well as switches and crossings and stations. Vossloh photo.

Current FRA regulations require ultrasonic rail test vehicles to repeatedly stop, with a manual inspection to verify indication of defects, within four hours. FRA said such frequent starting and stopping can require slow orders for trains operating in the vicinity, delaying operations. These methods limit testing to about 20 miles of track per day. In contrast, FRA pointed out, continuous rail testing typically enables evaluation of 80 to 160 miles per day.

Pandrol’s ultrasonic rail testing uses high pitched waves to identify rail defects. A full track inspection service is available, which provides an exhaustive report of the location, characteristics and urgency of all defects. Pandrol photo.

Continuous rail testing involves vehicles outfitted with ultrasonic and GPS technologies to internally examine rail without stopping, collecting detailed imaging and location data. Under the new rule, inspection vehicles transmit the information to test monitoring sites, where analysts scrutinize the data to identify suspected internal rail defects. Depending on the severity of the potential defect, a railroad has between 36 and 84 hours to dispatch inspectors. If a suspected defect is verified, FRA regulations require the railroad to immediately apply the proper remedial action—repairing or replacing the defective rail, issuing a slow order over the defect, or removing the track from service until repairs are made.

FRA estimates that one continuous test vehicle could replace three to five stop-and-verify test vehicles. “This equates to fewer test cars stopping on tracks, reducing the number of trains that slow to accommodate them,” FRA said. “Fewer trains slowing decreases the likelihood of crews exceeding maximum allowable work hours, thus decreasing the expense of unscheduled replacement crews. Ultimately, FRA estimates continuous rail testing could, in 10 years, save the industry $121.9 million.”

Mermec’s rail flaw inspection system is based on equipment connected to a dedicated bogie attached to the inspection vehicle. The mechanical interface holds all the transducers, and is designed to keep the transducers in contact with the rail providing them with the required parameters to ensure proper coupling. This system is able to inspect track at speeds up to 60 mph, dependent on track surface and geometry conditions. Mermec illustration.

“Fast-developing technologies challenge regulators to craft and revise regulations that help ensure public safety, while allowing railroads to test and implement innovative inspection methods,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Ronald L. Batory. “These modernized standards will allow railroads to implement innovative inspection methods without the burden of applying for individual waivers with well-established safety records. FRA has issued waivers for the past 10 years, allowing larger railroads to develop and utilize this technology, and the updated standards are consistent with the state of the practice. Between May 2019 and May 2020, there has been a 27% reduction in broken rail-caused train accidents, which is largely attributable to this new technology. Providing all railroads the option of using this technology presents an opportunity to improve the industry’s overall safety record. More frequent data collection will produce new data troves, facilitating more detailed research into how track defects develop and propagate over time and how those issues can be addressed before adversely affecting rail safety.”

Union Pacific’s DC-59 Rail Inspection Vehicle’s 48 ultrasonic transducers identify rail defects with high frequency sound,. It features a detachable unit, called the “walking stick,” for uninterrupted maintenance of ssidings, main line crossovers and repair rail certification. UP photo.

“For years, railroads have operated continuous rail inspection technology under longstanding waivers and demonstrated this innovation’s promise to advance safety and efficiency along the nation’s rail network,” said AAR President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “The new rule codifies those waivers and makes other important regulatory reforms. Continuous rail inspection is a proven, tested solution to efficiently and effectively monitor and maintain track health. FRA’s common sense, data-driven decision will empower railroads to more broadly adopt this technology and increase the mileage of track inspected across the network. Freight railroads are grateful for this important regulatory modernization that will help drive further innovation and safety advancements in the industry.”

The final rule takes effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register. View the final rule here: https://railroads.dot.gov/elibrary/rail-integrity-final-rule-unofficial.

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