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GUEST COLUMN: Colorado pushing rails into the 21st Century

By: Lisa Stabler
May 15, 2018 Updated: May 15, 2018 at 4:05 am
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The nation's freight railroads are converging in Washington, D.C., for Infrastructure Week to demonstrate the innovations that will enable rail to continue to provide the foundation for a thriving American economy. And while some on Capitol Hill who will be experiencing this innovation firsthand may not know it, many of the technologies that are powering freight rail's future have been developed here in Colorado.

Just outside Pueblo sits the world's foremost rail research facility - the Transportation Technology Center. Here scores of researchers, engineers and other rail experts are designing, developing and testing technology that will allow a 200-year-old industry to deliver for the U.S. economy in the 21st century.

The work being done at the center is representative of freight rails' commitment to investing in the infrastructure and technologies that have made the U.S. the global leader in freight rail safety. This includes a host of innovations that are being used to modernize the nation's rail network to keep pace with the demands of today and the future. While many other infrastructure systems, including roads and highway bridges, are well past their prime, railroads are ready to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Most Americans may not associate technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles, lasers and ultrasound with the railroad industry, but these types of modern innovations - many of which were developed and tested at the center - are at the heart of what has made freight rail safer and more efficient than ever before.

At the Transportation Technology Center, our goal is to identify ways to monitor the health of the 140,000-mile rail network and identify problems before they create problems. Emerging technologies allow us to have ears and eyes on the health of rail equipment and infrastructure in ways once only imaginable.

Our research has led to the development of wayside detectors that use a host of technologies, such as vision systems, acoustic, infrared and X-ray, to assess bearings, axles, wheels and other rolling stock components as trains pass by at 70 mph. We also are testing ways to use drones to inspect difficult-to-reach locations and bridges, keeping rail employees safe in the process.

The research conducted at the center is only possible through a unique public-private partnership between the Association of American Railroads - the trade organization for America's freight railroads - and the Federal Railroad Administration.

It is this type of partnership that underscores the need for federal policies that allow the freight industry to continue privately investing their profits in innovation that strengthens rail infrastructure, enhances safety and improves efficiency.

What's clear is that these investments made by railroads - $100 billion over the last four years - are paying off dramatically. Railroads continue a streak of the safest years ever, with derailment and track-caused accident rates at record lows in 2017. Overall, the accident rate is down 28 percent in the last decade. Rail workers and the communities served by railroads have never been safer.

Colorado should be proud to be the incubator for the innovation and technology that is keeping people safe and driving freight rail into the 21st century and beyond.

Because of these advancements, freight rail will continue to serve as an economic engine for the country for generations to come.

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Lisa Stabler is president of the Transportation Technology Center, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads in Pueblo.

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