Monday, May 29, 2006

Model Railroading: Coming to Your Town in a Big Way

A friend of mine is an avid model railroader. He has spent countless hours assembling intricate scale-model railroad cars and locomotives, constructing miles of model track, and attending meets where dozens of his fellow enthusiasts put together entire scale-model counties of rail routes through scenic landscapes and busy towns. The remote controls for these toys have grown increasingly sophisticated with time as well, all the way down to realistic engine noises produced digitally. The only people who may resent the time and energy spent on such a harmless hobby are the wives thus deprived of their husbands' time (and husbands, if any women pursue this avocation, of which I am unaware). But a parallel development—the remote control of real railroad locomotives with no one on board—is stirring up a considerable controversy.

Since the decline of passenger rail transportation in the U. S. in the last half of the twentieth century, the U. S. rail system has faded into the background of public consciousness. But the freight operations that rail lines support have actually become more critical than ever to the country's economy. Nearly all the coal that fuels our coal-fired power plants (and that is about half of them) is carried by rail, as well as numerous other bulk materials such as gravel, cement, chemicals, and food products, not to mention imported merchandise, automobiles, and so on. Since very few additional rail lines are being built, the railroad industry is searching for ways to put more and more freight through a physically limited system. And one of these ways involves remote control of unmanned locomotives.

An article in the May 28 issue of the Austin American-Statesman describes how this works. An operator who has completed an 80-hour training course stands by a track on which a remote-control locomotive sits. Strapped to his chest is a box sprouting joysticks, crank knobs, and a stubby antenna, rather like an overgrown model-airplane radio-control unit. With this remote control system, the operator can perform most of the operations that the engineer in the cab can do, only without any engineer in the cab. If radio control is lost for any reason, the system automatically stops the train.

Most of these systems are being used in switchyards, where the relatively short range of the radio transmitter is not a problem. But recently, some lines have been experimenting with using the system to send trains to nearby industrial sites for short hauls.

Safety is an obvious concern. If there is nobody in the cab, how can the operator stop the train if an obstruction unexpectedly shows up? Unfortunately, stopping a train is not an instantaneous act. Depending on speed and size, it can take up to a mile or more to stop a train even under emergency conditions. The engineers who designed the remote-control systems have presumably taken these factors into consideration, but as with many technologies, the way it is used has a lot to do with how safe it is.

Railroads are one of the most highly unionized industries in America, and opinions among the unions about the new technology are divided. The Brotherhood of Railway Engineers' feelings about the matter are clear from their main website, which shows a tipped-over railway engine with the legend "Remote Control" plastered across it. Since a locomotive running without an engineer represents direct job loss, their concern is understandable. They are, in the colloquial phrase, "agin it," and have commissioned a report which criticizes wider adoption of the technology before better operating rules are put in place. Numerous attempts by the BLE to slow the technology through strikes or other means have been blocked by federal judges.

On the other hand, the United Transportation Union, which represents conductors and switchmen, has come out, after some waffling, in favor of limited use of the technology. The Federal Railroad Administration, for its part, has studied the issue and allowed limited experimentation as long as the operators (generally switchmen) have received an 80-hour training course. This annoys the railway engineers, who have to take a six-month-long course and pass tests to qualify for their jobs.

What about accidents? There have not been many serious accidents reported as yet, possibly because the technology is so new: a few derailing and three fatalities, but no major large-scale accidents with multiple loss of life. It is not clear how far the rail lines wish to go with remote-control locomotives. It is easy to imagine a single model-railroad-style system the size of the U. S. with thousands of trains running completely under computer control. Even now, locomotive engineers are like airline pilots in that they do what centralized traffic-control operators tell them to via microwave radio links from a few control centers that continuously monitor train positions and movements. So replacing the engineers with "robotic" control would not be as great a change as you might think. What the people on the train supply now, of course, is eyes and ears and hands to do the great variety of things that computers and robots cannot yet do. Some of these things are related to safety and some are not.

So it will be some time before the average train you see trundling across a grade crossing while you wait in your car will be nothing but a pile of steel and cargo, bereft of any human presence. If the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers has its way, it will never happen. On the other hand, remote control may spread gradually until some big disaster occurs with a remotely-controlled locomotive, which might energize legislators to prohibit the practice altogether. In the meantime, you might visit the next model-railroaders meet in your town to see what the future of real railroading may be like.

Sources: The Federal Railroad Administration has a statement "Remote Control Locomotive Operations" at The website has an article "Rail Workers Battle Unsafe Remote Control Technology" written by Ron Hume. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers website has an article "BLET releases remote control hazard study" at

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