As Metro pushes to end late-night service to make more time for after-hours track work, there’s one long-term solution that is being considered to improve the process: virtual inspections.
“What I’m asking is that we look at high-definition video as a way of enhancing our track inspection program,” Chief Safety Officer Patrick Lavin said at a meeting this summer.
Known as “track component imaging systems,” the technology is becoming increasingly popular on freight and long-distance passenger rail systems around the United States and the world. Here’s how it works: Cameras mounted onto a vehicle take continuous snapshots while traveling along the tracks, capturing detailed images of each tie, fastener, bolt and rail joint on the system, all tagged with exact GPS coordinates.
The high-definition pictures the technology provides could help Metro perform more thorough inspections and catch problems that might be difficult for the human eye to see, such as hairline cracks. In theory, inspectors could sit in front of a computer screen and scroll though miles of tracks, zooming in on a potential trouble spot without having to set foot on the tracks.
But the technology is fledgling and costly, especially for a cash-strapped system that’s already seeking additional funding to balance next year’s budget. Metro board Chairman Jack Evans estimates that the shortfall for fiscal 2018 could be as much as $300 million — which doesn’t leave room for add-ons.
Metro declined to say how much such a system might cost. But in 2012, New York’s subway system received a grant from the Federal Transit Administration to install similar technology and study its performance — a project that cost nearly $500,000. According to federal officials, that was a “significantly reduced cost” for the cutting-edge technology.
And it remains unclear whether Metro’s board of directors would go for it.
Board member Robert Lauby, who is chief safety officer at the Federal Railroad Administration, said he thinks track inspection technology could help tackle many of Metro’s problems.
“The technology is moving so fast that now is the time to take advantage of it,” Lauby said, “especially if you’re having issues with track time, and have issues with track inspectors not having access to certain portions of the system.”
The system could also help Metro solve its problem of finding enough dedicated time to perform inspections, which are usually performed between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when trains are running through the system. Inspectors jump off the tracks each time a train goes by.
General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld wants to shift inspections to the middle of the night, when inspectors won’t be interrupted by trains — but they’d have a shorter block of time to work with, unless Metro cuts late-night service hours.
Lavin first publicly proposed the idea after a July incident in which a Silver Line train derailed near East Falls Church because the crossover between the two sides of the tracks had deteriorated ties that failed to prevent two pieces of rail from shifting apart.
Inspectors missed the defect while walking the tracks in the weeks before the incident. Metro is overhauling the training process for track inspectors and paying for a complete rewrite of the inspection manual used by employees, but Lavin said the video technology could help augment human inspections and catch defects missed during track walks.
“It’s a lot of money to do this, but it does provide you with some alternatives and allows you to collect enough data that you can actually do trending and predict where failures are going to happen before they happen,” Lauby said.
Still, some Metro board members say the transit agency needs to focus on improving the quality of human inspections rather than spending a lot of money to automate the process.
When Lavin raised the idea of automated inspections as a potential tool to catch the kinds of defects that caused the July derailment, board member Christian Dorsey was skeptical.
“It just kind of feels like we get real excited about the toys we can deploy, but at the core . . . there was a human being that should’ve been able to see [deteriorated track conditions] if they were walking the tracks,” Dorsey said.
It shouldn’t take fancy cameras to identify Metro’s most significant track problems, he added.
Metro already has some high-tech gadgets. In 2010, the transit agency paid $8 million for a track geometry vehicle — a train car outfitted with lasers and sensors that can measure the height of the rails and the distance between them, and automatically alert the operator when the space between the rails is too wide or narrow.
The vehicle — dubbed the “Mad Max machine” by a frustrated Metro board member — has become standard for many transit systems. But a report released in August by the FTA criticized Metro for not using its track geometry vehicle more frequently, and suggested that there are few Metro employees who understand how to use it properly.
Metro’s track geometry vehicle was manufactured by Ensco, a Northern Virginia-based technology company that specializes in automated inspection equipment for rail, as well as for airplanes and for national security.
Boris Nejikovsky, president of Ensco Rail, declined to comment on Metro’s inspection challenges, or whether his company had been approached by the agency about purchasing a track imaging system. But he said that the high-definition cameras could be mounted on a transit agency’s track geometry vehicle. Such an imaging system, he said, increases the quality of inspections and also makes them more convenient.
“Eventually, these kinds of inspections will happen more and more from the office,” Nejikovsky said. “People will be able to walk the track [virtually], sitting in an office, looking at images on a computer.”
His company also is developing algorithms that will be able to identify defects on tracks — a missing bolt, for example, or a tiny crack — without needing human eyes.
Nejikovsky says the imaging technology eventually will help railroads better predict where, when and what maintenance work will be needed, allowing them to address small problems before they become larger, more costly ones.
“It’s predictive maintenance,” said Jeffrey M. Stevens, vice president for Ensco Rail . “They want to get ahead of it before it becomes a safety problem.”
Of course, there are still benefits to having humans do the work. Stevens recalled an imaging test in which a computer had flagged a defect on the rails — a potential crack. It turned out to be the leg of a spider that had been squashed by a train.
In addition, even with imaging technology, Metro would not be allowed to eliminate walking track inspections, which are federally mandated. Those regulations could change, however, as the technology becomes more widely accepted.
And although the technology is expensive, Lou Sanders, senior director of engineering services at the American Public Transportation Association, argued that there are significant long-term savings.
“Having properly maintained tracks will save you money in the long run,” Sanders said. “Derailments are horrendously expensive and disruptive.”