Union Pacific installs sensors for safety

Union Pacific installed a sensor just outside of La Grande that in the long run is meant to signal to the train crew when a derailment has occurred.

It’s just one more way the train company is investing in safety.

Tom Bartlett, who serves as the manager of methods and research for Union Pacific based in Omaha, Nebraska, was at milepost 273 Thursday morning on the UP rail line and ready to install the first SensorX in the Pacific Northwest.

Bartlett said the company has been working on the sensors for two years and have gone through a number of different prototypes. He expects the latest version will prove to be reliable and likely will be the final version.

The sensor is low cost, almost disposable, he said. When a train passes the sensor, it compiles data that can detect the weight of the wheel, including weight distribution, and measures vibrations and the temperature of the rail to make sure there is no potential for hazards.

As a train passes through a Machine Vision imaging area, lasers and cameras provide a three-dimensional model of each piece of train equipment, according to an article on UP’s website. The model and images can be viewed remotely from any Union Pacific computer. So far, the system is able to identify and measure 22 components of a train.

“I know what repairs are needed before the train arrives in the yard,” said Tom Jacobi, vice president of operating systems and practices, who oversees the implementation of technology related to operating trains.

These remote inspections accelerate cars through the yard.

“By using technology to help facilitate what goes on in a yard, we greatly reduce the risk of missed connections,” Jacobi said. “We improve the customers’ experience.”

The main thing, Bartlett said, is being able to detect a wheel that may derail and preventing that before it happens.

Since the 1970s, the number of UP derailments has declined. The number has leveled off now, but it does still happen, Bartlett said.

Justin Jacobs, corporate relations and media director for UP, said the ultimate goal for the company is to operate with no incidents.

This sensor helps them get to that goal.

One hundred forty sensors will be installed every two miles from Boise to Portland up to Spokane along the train tracks. If the sensors detect a problem with the wheels of a passing train, the dispatch center will be notified and then alert the train crew onboard to the potential problem.

“If there’s a broken wheel we usually realize it after five to 10 miles,” Bartlett said. “With this, we’ll know right away since the sensors are installed every two miles.”

The SensorX isn’t the only detection equipment the company has installed. One of the others is a paddle installed along the train track that will catch anything that may be dragging on the train.

The new technology, though, is something that can have software added to it for more safety features.

One of the few disadvantages UP has found with the SensorX is that it requires more maintenance work of the crews. UP will continue to improve the sensors to ensure that they receive consistent data and are looking to build sensors that have a 10-year lifespan.

Bartlett said he expects all the sensors in the northwest will be installed this year.

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