By Alex Binkley

While most people wouldn’t pay attention to a railway boxcar, if you spot a white one with the CN logo on it, take a second look because you’re seeing advanced technology at work in making railway operations safer. These boxcars have orange safety stripes on their sides and solar panels on their roofs. They are part of CN’s Autonomous Track Inspection Program (ATIP) and highlighted by President and CEO JJ Ruest during a Canadian railway webinar organized by Railway Age magazine.

Ruest said CN is moving ahead with automated track and train inspection systems to improve the safety of its network and ensure more reliable service for shippers. “Now is the time to digitize our railway,” he said. The move will mean a move away from visual inspections of trains by employees, which are hindered by weather and light conditions. “Our goal is to automate every process. The public is concerned about the safety of our operations. Now we have to get the public to recognize what we’re doing differently.”

CP Rail President and CEO Keith Creel told the webinar that his railway is also investing in technology to improve its safety and efficiency. “We have put years of hard work into improving our operations and we want to receive good data on our locomotives and cars. Better data will help keep our operations efficient and help us operate in a safe manner.”

CP has built an inspection portal in Moose Jaw that trains pass through at track speed while the locomotives and cars are closely inspected by testing equipment. The portal captures much of the rail traffic headed to the West Coast and also to the United States.

Creel said the system “catches 87 per cent more defects than manual inspection. It will give us a safer more in compliance rolling fleet.” It’s just part of CP using additional automated wayside equipment to monitor the condition of rolling stock more effectively. “We are targeting braking systems for further inspection and repairs.” CP will work through its potash, coal, grain and intermodal fleets to bring all the cars up to proper standards. “It will be a big safety step for the railway,” he said. “What we need is a way to find broken rails before a train does. We’re looking at new technologies for that. We hope to rollout a system for that by the end of 2021.”

Ruest said safety improvements are moving out of the lab into the field through developments made in harnessing the potential of Platform Technologies. They bring together Intelligent Engineering Business Systems and Information and Operational Technology to create “new real-time technology platforms that increase the safety, execution and efficiency of our operations.” CN has a video about the equipment on its website,

There are eight of the white ATIP boxcars used on CN’s core routes from Chicago to Prince Rupert, New Orleans and Halifax, which Ruest said covers about 85 per cent of the railway’s traffic. “They become part of our regular operation.”

The boxcars employ wireless communications gear to test and monitor real-time track parameters without interrupting normal railroad operations. They are coupled into regular freight trains and travel at regular track speed, drawing power for the equipment from the solar panels and a generator. Equipped with the latest sensor and AI technology, they enable fully automated track inspections 24/7/365.

Ruest said the technology creates a profile of the track being inspected and provides a real-time picture of track geometry to track maintenance employees, enabling them to protect and repair track conditions, as required. The data collected also supports predictive maintenance capabilities, and reduces the time required for manual inspections, which increases network capacity and fluidity.

ATIP enables earlier detection of track defects and improved data capture for improved predictive maintenance, moving from reactive to preventative maintenance and ultimately building a safer rail network. “With our strong guiding principle to be the safest and most respected railroad in North America, CN is evolving from a traditional railway to the digital, connected railway of the future,” he said. “Next generation technology and Intelligent Engineering Business Systems are designed to provide real-time information to our crews and customers, and are laying the digital foundation that will safely usher us into our next century of operations.”

ATIP allows for pinpoint equipment location, wireless real-time data communications and alerts, autonomous onboard data processing systems, laser measurement of track geometry, continuous measurement of rail shape for optimum profile, rail distance and cross level deviation alignment, 3-D assessment and component analysis of the track ballast, ties, spikes and plates and delivers a 3D view of railway corridors. “Human eyes can see only so much during a train inspection,” he said. “ATIP can look at the train from all sides. It will allow us to make better use of our skilled labour.”

New technology could also assist engineers to drive the trains, much like autopilot equipment helps aircraft pilots, he said. “Time will tell.” Digitizing the railway will also help the railway interact with its customers, he said. “It will be a lot more like e-commerce and bring more business to the railways.”