Asking the Experts: BNSF on the right track
Asking the Experts: BNSF on the right track
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. (BNSF) is the largest freight railroad network in North America with a rail network of 32,500 miles across 28 states, including a large presence in Fargo Moorhead West Fargo. We connected with Lydia Bjorge to talk about current and future projects in Moorhead and BNSF’s regional economic impact.
Director of Public Affairs and Government Affairs
In 2018, the 21st Street underpass project in Moorhead began. What impact will it have on our community and on BNSF?
The 21st Street project is a great example of a private-public partnership that benefits both the city and BNSF. The construction of new track, called a wye, will allow direct northbound to eastbound and westbound to southbound train movements. This is a great improvement from existing conditions where trains must travel into downtown, stop, and reverse directions, occupying downtown crossings during these moves. For BNSF, this also expedites the movement of train traffic in and out of Moorhead, which increases the efficiency of our network through the region. The tracks have been shifted over to a temporary alignment and the contractor is now building the permanent structures.
In the recent Minnesota bonding bill, $64 million was included for the 11th Street underpass. What impact will this project have on both the community and on BNSF?
Crossing safety is an integral part of BNSF’s operation and culture and involves the daily cooperative efforts of the public and many employees. Because oncoming trains cannot stop for vehicles whose drivers violate motor vehicle laws when approaching railroad tracks, each grade crossing presents potential danger to motorists and train crews. BNSF has one of the lowest highway-railroad grade crossing collision rates in the industry, and as an industry leader, will continue to work with states and communities we serve to further improve grade crossing safety.
One of the best ways to address grade crossing safety is to reduce the number of at-grade crossings, like Moorhead is doing here. This underpass will do a great deal for safety in Moorhead. It will eliminate the potential risk for a car versus train collision at the crossing and will give emergency responders a route across town regardless of train operations. BNSF supports the elimination of at-grade crossings throughout our network as it improves safety.
What is the railroad’s economic impact on the states of North Dakota and Minnesota?
BNSF has a long history in North Dakota and Minnesota and plays an important role in both economies. We are one of both state’s primary freight rail transporters.
In North Dakota, we link the state’s $5 billion agricultural industry to markets across the world by moving more than 1.8 million carloads of freight annually. Supporting BNSF’s rail network in North Dakota are more than 1,400 dedicated men and women who earn a combined payroll of more than $118 million. The BNSF Foundation plays an active role in supporting community programs and non-profits in the Fargo-Moorhead area, including the Fargo Marathon, the YMCA, the Moorhead fireworks, the Clay County Sheriff’s department and many more.
In Minnesota, BNSF moves more than 2.2 million carloads of freight annually. A 2016 study found freight rail plays a significant role in Minnesota’s economic success. It is responsible for $40 billion of the state’s Gross Domestic Product, as well as for adding more than $5,000 in annual income to the average Minnesota household, and for at least 7% of Minnesota employment—a quarter of a million jobs.
With such a vast number of train cars a day transporting different materials, what safety measures are in place to keep our community safe in the event of a spill or accident?
No matter what we are moving, nothing is more important than safety at BNSF. We believe all accidents and injuries can be prevented, and every day we work to make that vision a reality through safety programs, training and technology.
We’re applying predictive technologies, using artificial intelligence (AI), to find defective track and freight car components, both of which could potentially contribute to train incidents.
While predictive models aren’t new for our 170-year-old railroad, they are now much more accurate, thanks to the speed of today’s computers and Big Data – the massive amounts of information that are now being collected. As a result, AI is transforming many industries, and at BNSF it is one of the top technologies that we are pursuing to not only improve safety, but also asset utilization, service and operational efficiency. AI is helping to better predict issues with equipment components and track so corrective actions can be taken before the failure.
BNSF has long used sensors – thermal, acoustic, visual and force – positioned along the track to detect freight car wheel defects. Thermal/infrared scanners, for example, can detect the smallest temperature changes of various components. A hot temperature can indicate the brakes are sticking and the components are overheating, potentially leading to a broken wheel.
If the part is already hot and failing, an alarm is sent so the train can be stopped and the car in question inspected, and either monitored until it can be repaired or removed from the train. Today, BNSF is leading the industry for using AI for detecting wheel defects as algorithms sort through more than 35 million readings every day taken from our 4,000 wayside sensors to identify potential issues. We use this data to determine the urgency of equipment repairs and to spot trends that indicate when maintenance should happen.
A newer technology that BNSF is using to identify cracks and breaks in wheels is a machine vision system. We are teaching AI models to detect broken/cracked wheels by analyzing more than 500,000 images of wheels per day, captured by machine vision systems deployed across BNSF’s network. Working with Microsoft, BNSF plans to continue to expand the machine vision program.
When it comes to our track integrity, we rely on technologies like ultrasound, radar and machine vision systems that look deep inside rail and supporting crossties to find tiny flaws imperceptible to the human eye. These technologies are on manned and unmanned track geometry rail cars that travel across our system to register track wear and tear. Like the freight car with issues, when a track has a defect, it means taking that stretch of the railroad out of service or slowing trains down until the track can be repaired, again impacting operations.
These test cars send track data back to our technology team, who then leverage AI to effectively analyze the hundreds of millions of bytes of information that help drive our track maintenance.
Overall, these advanced predictive technologies provide our engineering teams with a comprehensive maintenance plan. Previously, we were more reactive to maintenance, but with AI modeling technology we can more precisely know in advance where our efforts are needed most and plan proactively. It’s making BNSF a safer and smarter railroad for our employees and the communities where we operate.
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