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Remote control taking charge at Linwood Yard; railway officials say technology should make operation safer

By Shavonne Potts

Salisbury Post

LINWOOD — Norfolk Southern Railway is implementing what officials call a safer way to operate locomotives in the rail yard — using remote control.

The change has taken place in other areas throughout the years but will be effective in the Linwood Yard on Monday, according to Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman.

Linwood is a classification yard, where cars with various cargoes are brought and rearranged into different trains based on their final destination.

As employees at the Linwood Yard “build each group of train cars, typically, an operator is on the ground and in contact via radio with an engineer inside the cab of the locomotive moving the cars,” Chapman said.

The operator signals to the engineer to stop or start the locomotive.

“The engineer inside the cab can’t see what’s going at the other end of the train. He relies on the signals from the person on the ground,” Chapman said.

With the new technology, the engineer will walk beside the train and use a small control device in a belt pack that relays signals to a microprocessor aboard the locomotive.

“It takes a human link out of the chain,” he said. “The guy on the ground is directly controlling it.”

The change will not displace any employees, Chapman said.

“While implementation of the system eliminates some of the yard functions of locomotive engineers, it does not eliminate any employees because the engineers are reassigned to other jobs. In fact, Norfolk Southern is continuing to hire train crews,” Chapman said.

He acknowledged, however, that switching to remote control in rail yards like Linwood does allow Norfolk Southern to hire fewer engineers than it might otherwise.

The new technology does not pose any greater hazards by moving materials in the yard from one area to another. The biggest advantage of the new technology is safety, Chapman said.

He said the new technology has built-in fail-safe designs. For instance, if communication is interrupted between the engineer and the mobile unit inside the locomotive, the train automatically stops.

Also, if the belt is tilted at more than a 45 degree angle from the vertical position for more than a second, indicating the possibility that the engineer has fallen, the unit sends a signal to the microprocessor to automatically stop the train.

The remote control unit also monitors important parameters such as the air pressure in the brake system.

Chapman said the remote control unit also requires an operator to give a command at least every 60 seconds or, again, the train will stop.

“Our primary focus is safety. We believe this allows for safer operations,” he said.

The Linwood Yard staff also will have the option of sharing operations between two engineers.

Chapman explained that operators can “pitch” control to another person.

The engineer who operates on an open road gets more extensive training than a person operating a locomotive in a rail yard.

“It’s because they (on the open tracks) are traveling at higher speeds, they have to know how to handle steep grades and what to do if meeting a passing train,” Chapman said.

Still, engineers who use the new remote control devices must take at least 80 hours of a two-week training course.

In addition, most remote control engineers are experienced operators.

Norfolk Southern is implementing this new initiative on a case-by-case basis, Chapman said.

According to the Association of American Railroads Web site, the introduction of the remote control device is under way in all U.S. Class I railroads.

Norfolk Southern began using the new technology early in 2002, after other North American railroads used the technology successfully for more than 10 years to improve safety and productivity.

“They’ve been phased in throughout our system,” Chapman said.

Contact Shavonne Potts at 704-797-4253 or spotts@salisburypost.com.

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