Digital communications, for safety’s sake

Written by Larry Seward
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Larry Seward

Far too often, when the National Transportation Safety Board investigates a rail accident, it concludes that poor communications proved to be a critical factor, including breakdowns in communication between rail operators, dispatch and maintenance crews.

In five accidents in New York and Connecticut from 2013 to 2015, the NTSB cited such communications flaws between train personnel among the causes, with outdated technology often to blame. The NTSB also cited communications troubles in concluding what caused several Amtrak-related accidents.

Railroads, especially short lines, are at a communications crossroads as they prepare for future digital radio communications standards as they address today’s essential communications needs. Many short lines, which still use devices built for wideband analog communications, are plagued by spotty coverage, poor voice quality, inadequate range and weak battery life.

A Motorola Solutions survey found that eight-in-10 rail operators use both two-way radios and smartphones for communication even though a digital-capable radio would allow their personnel to rely on just one device to communicate with smartphones and two-way radios. We all recognize the danger of depending only on cellular telephones to run your railroad operations.

Reflecting the increasingly antiquated communications systems, the Association of American Railroads recommends that railroads move to ultra-narrowband technology before the Federal Communications Commission orders the migration. This is necessitating railroad operators to examine and evaluate the latest technology and, looking to the future, invest in state-of-the-art communications systems.

Many railroad operators have urgent communication needs and don’t want to wait for the looming FCC transition deadline to narrowband to make the shift to digital. We want to have technology in place to help us operate more safely and efficiently, which means a need for both analog and digital today.

Also, the Federal Railroad Administration’s ban on the use of personal electronic devices by the railroad employees while operating trains and in other settings has spurred a push for communications devices that deliver reliable communications among multiple railroad teams.

As railroad operators, we grasp the importance of safety. The Motorola Solutions’ survey of rail transportation companies found that 72% of operators rank safety as their primary concern. They recognize that any lost or miscommunication in the rail yard or on the main line can trigger, in the very least, lost time, equipment or track damage—and, at worst, injury or death.

Safety is the biggest driver for the switch to digital communications solutions. Short line rail operators, which possess a leaner, more flexible operation than larger Class I railroads, are leading the charge in turning to such advanced communications system.

A growing number of short line railroads are relying on advanced digital radios such as Motorola Solutions’ MOTOTRBO™ that lets them continue to use analog channels for interoperable rail communications while benefitting from digital features that deliver intercompany communications. These help rail hub operations, on-site communications and maintenance crews, among others.

One company that has improved safety through communication is Watco. As one of the largest private short line operators in the U.S., Watco updated radio communications to enhance safety and productivity across North America. Watco worked with CDL Electric, a Motorola Solutions Channel Partner based Pittsburg, Kan., to move to a digital-capable radio solution. They improved their coverage and clarity of communications while retaining the ability to connect with Class I rail lines, such as Union Pacific and BNSF, that still rely on analog systems.

For example, when hooking up rail cars, employees must know exactly how far to push to connect them. This requires seamless coordination between ground crews. Our customers need to find new, ultra-reliable equipment that will take productivity, efficiency and safety to the next level. Since equipping workers with digital radios, we’ve seen customers gain marked improvement in communications reliability and transmission clarity.

Railroad operators employing digital communications are finding that the radios and other devices give them several benefits, including trusted connectivity and coverage; unparalleled battery life; a continuous path for digital migration; and an extended range of communication.

Railroad users of digital-capable communications praise its benefits. It’s time to put the days of standing on the back of locomotive to get reception behind us.

Larry Seward is President and CEO of CDL Electric, Pittsburg, Kan., which provides a wide array of railroad services, including electric, power, signal crossings and two-way radio communications.

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