Rail professionals, whether from the railroads or the suppliers, associated with North American freight rail or European/Asian high speed passenger live and breathe some form of fixed block, signaled operation, either wayside or in-cab, as the means to provide crews with reliable movement authorities to advance trains. However, of that group only a relatively small percentage is operationally-familiar with the well-established, non-signaled operation (a.k.a. Dark Territory [DT]) that is used across 50% of U.S. rail trackage (albeit handling only 20% of the traffic).
What causes this lack of awareness? Essentially, traditional traffic control suppliers have nothing to sell in DT – there is no infrastructure required other than wireless – hence no business interest. Additionally, the heretofore, manual-only processes of DT have made it incapable of handling the requirements of high speed and/or high density operations, whether freight or passenger. I say heretofore in that the digital age has now come to DT.
The availability of a wireless data network (with or without PTC) permits the time consuming, and possibly compromised, voice transmissions of the movement authorities between the crews and the dispatcher in DT operations to be handled as data presented via an on-board display. Additionally, that same wireless data path can be used to release authorities in the back office DT platform logic, a.k.a., conflict checker. This double time-reduction whammy provides for a quantum increase in the capacity that a dispatcher can handle in DT operations.
But, outside of the Americas, the capability of DT, with or without the quantum improvement, is one of best kept secrets that, if known, could have a phenomenal effect on small and emerging railroads; railroads that are critical to the business and social welfare of their respective countries. Again, I am not talking about the sophisticated railways of Europe, but the railways that are being considered across Africa, the Middle East, India, Indonesia, and elsewhere. These railroads could see a massive increase in capacity for minimal investment in a green-field operation to a net-savings for a railroad operating on an older signaling system (removing the older system would save future operating and maintenance costs, often resulting in a net savings). In addition, a traffic control system without wayside infrastructure results in less expensive equipment to be stolen or damaged by harsh environs reducing operating costs and increasing safety.
The railroads across the globe that could benefit from DT come in two types. First, there are railroads that are emerging either as green-field developments or as rebuilds of railways that have been reduced to rumble or abandoned for civil and/or economic reasons. Second, there are those railroads that are fully functional but are dependent upon the most antiquated traffic control system generically known as Token Block (TB). With its development stemming from the middle of the 19th century in Britain, TB can be found in patches across the globe. TB is safe in concept. That is, to operate within a particular segment of track , a crew must possess a token, physical /electronic that is uniquely assigned to that segment. However, as I witnessed in my assignment in Egypt regarding the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) to evaluate safe railroading, including both traffic control and enforcement, the manual processes involved in TB ( 85% of ENR’s trackage) permit the vitality of operation to be greatly compromised. When those processes are violated; major accidents have occurred.
So! Here’s the problem. While DT is an excellent traffic control approach for small and emerging railroads, these operators are not being informed of its availability. Instead, major suppliers are selling (and traditional consultants are promoting) the major systems that have been deployed across major rail operations as the only solutions. Such solutions put these railroads at considerable financial risk , not only due to the initial investment required, but also as to the on-going profitability due to a combination of extensive maintenance and training costs, a likely lack of disciplined and educated maintenance personnel, and the susceptibility to theft of wayside infrastructure.
Hopefully, the safety project I mentioned in Egypt, as well as the marketing efforts of myself and my colleagues (we don’t represent suppliers nor accept commissions) will help spread the knowledge of Dark Territory and bring it into the light of those nationalized and private railroads that can truly benefit from its deployment.