To answer this question, I reached out to Keith Sheardown, the general manager of technology solutions at Bombardier Transportation, one of the world’s largest train manufacturers. Keith also launched a Web site called Smart Railroad, which features the latest transit innovations. Here is Keith’s response:
“The short answer is that RFID is being used to prevent train collisions today. The technology is called Positive Train Control (PTC), and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), in the United States, had the implementation of PTC on its ‘Most Wanted List’ for many years. The barrier was cost, and the fact that it would have prevented only a fraction of incidents.
“You may recall a train accident in Los Angeles in September 2008, when a Metrolink passenger train struck a Union Pacific freight train. The NTSB concluded that the locomotive engineer who was operating the Metrolink passenger train was texting on his mobile phone while operating the train. There were 25 fatalities as a result of this accident.
“President Bush signed the Rail Safety Act of 2008 less than 30 days after the crash, mandating the use of PTC for the entire rail network in the United States. The cost is estimated at more than $10 billion, and all railroads must fully implement PTC by Dec. 31, 2015.
“While we have used track-circuit technology for almost two centuries to know where a train is located at all times, this simply engages signals and does not actually control the train. Here is a Wikipedia article on track circuits and ‘blocks’: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Railway_signalling.
“Here is a good Wiki page on PTC: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_train_control. You will find that there are various forms of PTC—some using GPS, some with GSM. The one used on the busiest corridor in the United States, the Northeast Corridor (NEC), employs RFID.
“And here is the Wiki page for the Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System (ACSES), the type of PTC technology used on the NEC, which utilizes passive RFID tags between the rails, and readers onboard trains: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ACSES.
“We also use RFID at Bombardier on many of our automated (driverless) Airport People Mover installations, such as systems in Madrid, JFK, etc. Here, we use passive RFID tags between the rails and vehicle-mounted RFID readers for vehicle location, and to ensure that the train makes precise stops at station platforms.”
—Mark Roberti, Editor, RFID Journal
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