Norfolk Southern announced on Thursday that they have implemented the initial installation of a new type of automated inspection portals on their tracks in Ohio. This will assist in promptly identifying safety issues on trains in motion. The location of this implementation is close to where a Norfolk Southern train derailed and released dangerous chemicals, resulting in a fire in February.
The new portals, equipped with high-speed cameras, will take hundreds of pictures of every passing locomotive and rail car. The pictures are analyzed by artificial intelligence software the railroad developed. Unlike previous versions, these new inspection portals will be able to capture all sides of a train that passes through them with well-lit images.
A new portal has been installed on active tracks in Leetonia, Ohio, which is less than 15 miles (24 kilometers) away from the site of a train derailment in East Palestine in February.
Over the years, Norfolk Southern and other major railroads have made investments in inspection technology in order to enhance and potentially replace traditional human inspections, with approval from regulators. However, rail unions argue that this technology should not fully replace the expertise of well-trained carmen in conducting inspections for train safety.
Allan Zarembski, a professor at the University of Delaware who is in charge of the Railroad Engineering and Safety Program, noted the importance of Norfolk Southern’s large investment in portals. In comparison, CSX recently revealed that they had only opened one additional inspection portal this year.
According to David Clarke, the ex-director of the University of Tennessee’s Center for Transportation Research, this technology has the potential to identify defects that occur while a train is in motion more effectively than a worker stationed near the tracks.
Clarke stated that it is more challenging for a person to visually examine a car in motion compared to one that is stationary. The suggested system has the ability to visually capture the entire passing vehicle and utilize image processing to detect potential issues that may not be easily observable by a human observer along the route.
By the end of 2024, Norfolk Southern plans to have at least twelve installations of this technology throughout its 22-state network in the Eastern region. The railroad, headquartered in Atlanta, did not disclose the amount of investment made in collaboration with Georgia Tech for its development.
John Fleps, the vice president of safety for the railroad, stated that they will receive 700 images per rail car, which amounts to terabytes of data, while traveling at 60 miles per hour. This data will be processed immediately and transmitted to individuals who can promptly respond to any alerts in real time.
The railway company stated that their new system has a high success rate in detecting defects, with minimal false alarms, surpassing the capabilities of their current seven automated inspection stations.
A distinct type of flaw sensor activated an alert regarding a bearing that was overheating shortly before the East Palestine derailment. However, the crew did not have sufficient time to halt the train.
The incident drew attention to the importance of railway safety across the country and sparked demands for changes. Since then, ensuring safety has been a top priority for CEO Alan Shaw.