Teddy Bear – Operating a railroad safely requires signaling

“Operating a railroad safely requires signaling.”

Major suppliers sell major signaling systems to major railroads for major bucks. But what about those small freight railroads, even those with some passenger service? Do they really require the traffic control systems that are offered to them; the ones that involve extensive investment in wayside infrastructure, communications, and back office systems?  Additionally, what about those railroads that are being planned for difficult terrain subject to extreme weather, a lack of power, theft of equipment, and a lack of trained maintenance personnel? Do they need to confront these hardships on top of extensive investment and on-going maintenance costs to provide for a safe railroad?

While signaling does provide for safe operations, that is not its purpose.  Signaling is used to provide capacity. It is possible to operate a railroad very safely without signaling, as well evidenced in North America. Specifically, nearly half of the freight trackage in N.A. operates as non-signaled territory (albeit only 20% of the traffic) meaning that there are no track circuits, no wayside or cab signals, and no code lines as required in Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) systems. The only technology requirement is that of some form of wireless communications that can be either commercial (satellite, cellular) or private network sufficient to provide for voice communications.  That’s it for the infrastructure.

As to the vitality (i.e., the integrity of train movement), as noted in the post “There’s nothing vital in dark territory.”, the computerized conflict checking process is the simplest of a traffic control process that doesn’t permit two trains to be in the same portion of track at the same time. In a way, this is not unlike the most ancient traffic control system based upon track occupancy referred to as token block. The key difference is that dark territory is programmed whereas token block’ vitality can be readily compromised by lack of discipline with the manual efforts required; indeed this is the case in some countries where it is still in use.

The only issue with dark territory is the time required for the iterative, manual process of the dispatcher transmitting the movement authorities to the train crew followed by the rolling-up of the authorities once the train crew has reported the train’s progress.  With such a simple process, a decent size freight or passenger railroad can operate safely. Additionally, there are even ways to tweak dark territory operation to improve capacity even further, e.g., digital transmission of authorities, automatic roll-ups, embedded signals (without CTC), and the ability to throw switches from the locomotive.  Lastly, with the combination of dark territory and Positive Train Crew (PTC), the railroad is assured of a safe operation both as to dispatcher errors and train crew errors respectively.

Also, Dark territory is really, really inexpensive. However, don’t expect those major suppliers or consultants to share its existence with small to medium railroads. First of all, those supplier don’t have a dark territory deliverable or mindset, and second, there is nothing for them to sell as to infrastructure and complex back office systems.

The team of railroad professionals at Maendeleo Rail is well experienced with dark territory operations as well as PTC. We can readily address the alternatives as to processes and wireless technologies, as well as determine the level of throughput that can be delivered for freight, passenger, or mixed traffic. Since we’re independent of any suppliers, and instead look to partner with railroad operators, we provide low cost, highly efficient solutions.

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6 Responses to “Teddy Bear – Operating a railroad safely requires signaling”
  • Surprised:

    I like your idea of thinking behind the lines and beyond to ‘the usual’ path. Matter of fact is that in such business high cashflows are encountered and interest to get a bigger share of that are obvious. Everybody dealing with a commercial entity is aware of that.

    However, it seems there are some major flaws in your statements.

    ‘Safe procedures’ for dark territory are age old and can be downloaded for free. Every major railway undertaking has such procedures. The safety level you can generally get with these procedures are limited to the ‘human factor’ – 1 failure in 1000 actions is the rate. Double operators, add 4 eye principles, train people, limit working schedules, etc. help to increase this level. Still the human is the weak link and this is the reason to invent technical systems.

    It is in fact very easy to demonstrate that just the opposit is true – use the most advanced systems like CBTC signalling. And your CAPEX will be reasonable and OPEX very low for maximum performance on a line. The major costs are in the trackwork and rolling stock. So you would want as low an investment in these items or in other words maximum performance. Its easy to make every line almost absolutely safe – just use one train. Thats it. Extremely expensive.

    Have 1 or 2 major accidents on the line and this will cost you the CAPEX for the signaling system – easily.

    Did you ever work as consultant in major projects? Did you have well educated counterparts, did you go through due dilligence with banks? Conflict of interest investigations? There is extensive knowledge on how to setup projects with own staff, external advisors, audits, consultants, contractors and site supervision to avoid any fraud.

    To give you an example of the human factor you might want to review the Transrapid accident in Germany. Nobody understands how this obvious failure leading to the accident could ever happen and a simple keylock for a few thousand dollars (deluxe version) would have avoided this tragic accident to happen …. and there were several people in a row failing to make that happen. Worked fine some 20 years or more until such an accident …

    I am really interested to receive your comment.

    kb Claim

  • I will attempt to address the points of your feedback as I understand them. There seems to be a lack of proper understanding, or sufficient information, relative to what I read as to your concerns.

    First of all, there is a passive, underlying concept of vitality called the “Book of Rules” , which is literally that. In the simplest of explanations, the Book of Rules states that when everything else fails bring the train to a stop and don’t proceed until the dispatcher calls you. This applies to both dark and signaled operations.

    Now, as to the value of CAPEX being readily justified by preventing accidents that occur in dark territory otherwise ( I think that is your point), then you apparently think that dark territory is inherently more risky (unsafe) than signaled territory. To the extent that that is true is not due to the generation of authorities (the vitality), it is due to the crew’s ability to not violate the authority. That is what PTC is for. Soooooooo! Dark Territory is arguably as safe as Signaled Territory without PTC, but there is no doubt that it is as safe as Signaled Territory with PTC. Therefore, the CAPEX for signaled operations is not justified if the additional capacity is not required.

    As to your questioning of my credentials regarding major projects, educated associates, and working with banks, I really don’t understand your point. What do those things have to do with the price of eggs? Your point regarding fraud etc, apparently is related to some specific situation of which you have knowledge, but I don’t understand the connection to the topic of Dark Territory. Signal systems do fail also. We have too many deaths in this country that demonstrate that. All the more reason for dark territory in those countries where trained maintenance and procedures are not truly available. There is one Mid East country with which I am familiar that not only is the maintenance insufficient, but there is a lot of theft of critical equipment, as well a substantial lack of discipline in using the systems properly, thereby comprising their safety. Dark Territory with PTC is not subject to such pathetic, shameful, and malicious activity.

    I look forward to your response and further comments and questions.

  • Surprised:

    As stated in my previous comment, the “rule book” approach (as are timetables) are ages old, proven – but their safety depends on the acting controller. If they depend on human action they are inherently unsafe. Humans tend to fail in every 1000 actions. Such failure rates are not acceptable in many applications/lines, since such failures could have severe consequences – human fatalities, accidents which damage equipment, block the line, create (severe) image or acceptance problems or could be reason for even revenge by victims.

    The low human failure rate can be improved by rewriting the rule book and doubling staff for example (4 eye principle). Most likely the costs for such ‘improvements’ will be significantly and as can be easily demonstrate not efficient in the cost/benefit ratio. Benefit would be safety for a given performance scenario.

    It can be easily shown that 2 major accidents could cost more than the CAPEX for a vital signaling system. A signalling system thus is like an issurance – if nothing bad happens the insurance premium is a waste of money …. but as given in the example of the fatal transrapid accident which was considered as impossible due to clear rule books, 4-eye principles, trained staff, etc (which worked flawless for more than 20 years) the value of a vital system becomes obvious.

    To increase the failure rates in magnitudes signalling systems have been introduced – and failure rates of properly developed signalling components are higher than 1/10pow9. A hughe factor, or?

    I am not referring to ‘one train a day’ or ‘one train on the line’ applications, since such dark territories are trivial areas.

    The example of banks, consultants, due-dilligence procedures, tendering was given to comment on your statement that vendors try to sell unnecessary expensive systems (sell a ferrari where a toyota would do). Might happen, but the stated procedures are intended to avoid such inappropriate and unnecessary systems.

    A major ‘flaw’ in your argumentation can be found in the proof of safety. For signalling systems, methods exist which allow for methodical and reconstructable proof of safety. Your statement of safety in dark territory by rule books is also proofable, since these rules are (almost) the same for signalled and unsignalled systems. However, the big risk is in the failure rate – and again – this is the reasons to protect the vital system-boundaries by systems and NOT by humans.

    To be honest – and I dont want to offence here – but my opinion on your statements is that either you are not familiar with the most basic fundamentals of signalling, or your posts are subjective statements of “what customers would want to hear to hire you”.

    I can recommend to get some books on evolvement of signalling systems which will clearly outline the dangers introduced by humans and why signalling systems have been invented. Another good read though abstract lecture are the CENELEC standards EN50126, 128 and 129.

    br, kb

  • Ron Lindsey:

    sorry for delayed response. I just picked up your message.
    You either misunderstood the purpose of the posting, or are unaware of dark territory operations – as you suggest I may be of signal operations. The proof of the pudding, if you will, as to dark territory being safe ( which means that signals are not required to run a safe railroad) is that 50% of US trackage is dark, albeit 1/3 of that is ABS (signals within in dark territory operation). If those operations are not safe, then the FRA would have mandated signals across the entire network. Hence, signals are not required for safety. They are there for traffic density. You clearly misunderstood my comment on the book of rules, apparently. Lastly, add PTC to dark territory and the safety of dark territory is greater than that of signaling without PTC.

    And, yes, I do take offense at your point that I am giving customers what they want so as to hire me. That’s really a pathetic and unjustified accusation if you really understand the posting. One reason is that so few outside of North America are even aware of dark territory. Hence, small railroads are being hammered by the traditional suppliers to install signaling system to run a relatively low number of trains. To me that is where your insulting comments should be applied. One example I have is of a railroad in Africa for which I was able to configure a dark territory operation, including wireless and PTC for 1/10 the cost of a traditional signaling system.

    I look forward to more comments from you as you deem necessary … but without the insults.

  • Not Surprised:

    Surprised sounds like a supplier. Is someone worried about their market?

  • Surprised:

    Ron, I did not intend to insult.

    I think I understand DT enough to discuss here.

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