AI and Automation in Rail: Working Smarter, Not Harder

27 February 24

Digital transformation is rapidly changing the way North American railroads operate, enhancing efficiency and safety in areas such as dispatch, signaling, routing, and yard fluidity. 
Operational benefits include reduced delays and downtime, more efficient use of resources, and being able to reliably predict maintenance issues so that assets can be fixed or replaced before they cause problems – all of which drives down costs and enables railroad operators to remain competitive in a challenging economic environment. 
However, the capabilities of new rail technology raise difficult questions. As is the case with many sectors undergoing digital transformation, there is widespread uncertainty about which jobs will be made obsolete.  

Will AI and automation replace railroad workers?

The short answer: yes and no. Computer software driven by AI algorithms is already taking over many routine, time-consuming tasks, but it’s a big leap forward for a machine to be capable of the critical thinking and on-the-job problem-solving required of a skilled rail engineer or maintenance worker.  
Advancements in AI and automation are enabling railroad workers to focus on higher level tasks. It’s about reducing the amount of time they spend filling out forms and travelling to remote sites, while optimizing the hours devoted to more strategic work – working smarter rather than harder.  This logic also supports hiring and retaining talent in a competitive environment. 

Here are some of the ways railroad operators are facilitating this. 

Predictive Maintenance.

By processing and analyzing large volumes of data from sensors attached to rail assets, AI or machine learning drive algorithms can identify patterns to predict failures before they occur.  

This empowers rail companies to be more pro-active about maintenance schedules, reducing costs and downtime as well as optimizing asset performance.  

In addition, predictive maintenance solutions such as Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM) make it possible for non-critical work to be carried out by railroad workers off-site. 

Yard Automation.

Automation is driving operational efficiency by reducing the amount of time trains spend idling during switching operations in yards and terminals.  

A yard automation system can be controlled from tablets or kiosks equipped with large touch screens.  

As well as remote control switches and routing – so rail workers no longer need to take the risk of entering track space to manually throw each device – remote control systems can be set up for blue flag automation, ensuring protection for rail workers carrying out inspections, repairs, or refueling (without someone having to drive to both ends of a protected zone), and for centralized operation and monitoring of multiple switch heaters, snow melters, and third-rail heaters.  

Switch List Integration and Optimization is an emerging topic in the yard, utilizing AI and machine learning to optimize the number of switches, thus creating paths of least resistance by making the least number of switches utilizing minimal amount of track space in the yard. 

Watch a short video about how yard automation works. 

Computer Aided Dispatching (CAD). 

Advances in dispatch, such as the leveraging of third-party data (AI capabilities, Geo-spatial tools, and GPS), are delivering real-time operational benefits.  

Railroad operators are utilizing centralized computer-aided dispatch systems which integrate different train types, territories, and rulesets to help dispatchers increase safe train movements and boost productivity. Other advancements include the integration of mobile apps and the digitalization of routine processes.  

Read our blog on the future of Computer Aided Dispatching. 

As software developers continue to refine applications and test new innovations, the potential use cases for automation and AI in rail are almost boundless.  

At a time when railroad operators are under intense pressure to meet expectations of enhanced safety, and sustainability, the latest rail technology has the data-driven power to deliver effective solutions. 
Tracsis is the leading provider of software-based rail solutions, trusted by railroads in North America including Class I, passenger and short line operators. Contact us to find out more about market-leading rail technology.