North by northwest: Maintaining connectivity along the Alaska RR
LMR radio systems are still used in a variety of ways to improve efficiency, safety and profitability of modern railroads. The self-contained Alaska Railroad provies a model of radio systems applications.
Railroads are more than long-haul transportation systems. They are rolling, heavy-industrial operations that require robust voice-and-data communication systems to provide safety, control of movement and, in some cases, tracking of assets. The Alaska Railroad (ARR), which has a unique history of hauling essential commodities, uses a variety of communications equipment resources-and brands-to accomplish its mission.
From its beginning, the Alaska Railroad was literally created from leftovers. In 1917, remnants of the rail equipment used in the construction of the Panama Canal were shipped to Alaska, and the railroad was established in what is now present-day Anchorage, AK. You can find parts of the older sidings where the “1914” stamp on the rails is still visible. The railroad was expanded, operated and maintained by the federal government until May 1984, when the state of Alaska purchased the road for $22.3 million. Since then, the railroad has been operated as a quasi-public corporation.
The history and the location of this railroad have contributed to a Darwinian situation in Alaska: a species evolving in isolation. Of the major U.S. railroads, the ARR is the only one with complete ownership and control over its road, rolling stock and motive equipment. By contrast, railroads in the contiguous United States (“CONUS”) share almost everything: track, equipment and rolling stock. This complicates their operations immensely.Understanding the basics of railroad communications require s a broader overview of the industry’s complex daily operations. The ARR’s operations provide an ideal example because they encompass all of the elements of a larger road system-just not as large. (Wayside communications, track control and track signaling will not be covered. Anyone needing this obviously sensitive information should contact the railroad directly.)
The ARR, like most of the major roads, makes its money hauling freight. In Alaska, bulk commodities include gravel and refined petroleum products (gasoline and jet fuel). Containerized freight and tourism are also significant contributors to the bottom line. An inter-tie, via a marine link with the Canadian rail system, provides bulk rail access to the CONUS. With a relatively short (slightly less than 500 miles) main line, the ARR system has a total track length of 661 miles. Having just one main line means that sidings are spaced at about five-mile intervals. Movement control is a vital part of the total communications system.
As trains of mixed freight, or those full of tourists, travel the main line, they are shunted off onto sidings on a regular basis. Coordinating this movement requires a solid communications system between the dispatch center and the train crew. This chore is handled by an all-VHF system, using a mix of repeaters and fixed base stations.
Full maintenance for rolling stock is provided in Anchorage with a yard, a roundhouse and a complete heavy-machine shop. Everything necessary to keep rolling stock and motive equipment operating on schedule, including refueling, is provided for this “closed” system. Limited maintenance is also available in Fairbanks, AK, the northern terminus of the road. Corporate offices for the system are in Anchorage, as is the dispatch center. Depots and smaller crew offices are located along the road; wire and radio communications are sourced internally.
All communications for the road system are provided by the ARR itself, a common practice of all railroads. The telephone and radio equipment is maintained by the radio shop, a small department of six employees headed by Supervisor Bart Browning. The ARR has a slightly different labor pool to draw from than CONUS railroads: The ARR hired Browning after his retirement from the U.S. Air Force. (Anchorage is the home of Elmendorf AFB, a large military installation.) The total ARR system employs about 550 Alaskans, with the number varying with the time of the year-more in the summer tourist season, fewer in the winter. The current radio equipment is a mixed bag: portables, mobiles, base stations and repeaters. The entire radio system is operated on VHF frequencies, with different services on different channels. The equipment comprises a variety of makes, including Motorola, Bendix-King and EFJohnson. This strange mix reflects the legacy of operations under the federal procurement system, where the low bidder got the sale.
Currently, the railroad is standardizing on Motorola equipment for several reasons. With fewer models from a single vendor, spare-part purchases and bench-stock selection are greatly simplified. Maintenance manuals and part numbers use a common format, and specialized test equipment needs are reduced. The ARR shop is responsible for more than 375 portables, 165 mobiles, 75 base stations, and 21 repeater and dispatch points, so standard systems save time and money. Operations safety is also improved by standardized communications because employees only require training on one type of radio set, portable or mobile. For example, some time ago, ARR experienced an accident resulting in equipment loss partly because an employee was unable to operate the available mobile radio and could not contact the train crew. This operations issue is no longer a problem. The ARR has adapted a standard set of operating rules (www.akrr.com/gencode/radio.html#2.0) to further ensure that all communications are understood. (See sidebar on page 24.)
Safety communications have a separate channel with instant connection to the dispatch center. Any employee with a radio can contact the dispatcher for help at any point on the rail system. Equipment shelters along the road are also equipped with a telephone that connects directly to the dispatch center. Because of the multiple jurisdictions along the system, all 9-1-1 calls are routed directly to the Anchorage E9-1-1 operator. The PSAP can then determine the most appropriate responding agency and alert it to the problem. The Municipality of Anchorage and the railroad have worked together to ensure that maps, shelter locations and types of potential emergencies are well-understood by the E9-1-1 dispatchers.
Because of Alaska’s climate, tracks take a beating; minor derailments are not uncommon. The response crews have their own channel to ensure clear communications and to allow other system work to go on without interference. A system of base stations and repeaters covering the length of the system provides movement control. The track signaling system is just a part of the total control on the movement of trains within the system. ARR will soon be testing a GPS and data system. The goal for the test system is to allow tighter management of train locations, thus allowing more trains to be active at one time while maintaining the necessary safe-distance separation.
The biggest problems faced by the radio shop are those common to many LMR dealers and service shops. Extreme cold is no joke in Alaska. In -240 degree weather, portable radio batteries last less than half the time normally experienced in the summer. Although equipment shelters are equipped with gang chargers, the batteries may circulate among users without being reconditioned for some time before showing up in Anchorage. Although ARR trialed one battery management system, the value vs. the cost showed the current procedure is the best tradeoff. Batteries are also being changed out for nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) types to obtain better cold-weather performance.
Signal fade is another problem crews face as they navigate the road. The dispatcher can account for well-known “soft spots” in the system coverage as trains move along the system. The track system parallels the highway system in some spots, but it is isolated for the bulk of the route.
Although crossing-guard barriers and signage are not maintained by the radio shop, these systems do use alternate power sources similar to those used by remote radio sites. Solar panels sit atop many of the equipment shelters and road crossing equipment cabinets. Wind generators power some of these systems near Windy Pass, famous as a checkpoint in the 1,049-mile-long Iditarod Trail dog race.
Rough service and interference is another set of problems solved by the radio shop. The ARR locomotives create the harshest radio environment that I have observed. Train engines are technically called “diesel-electric traction locomotives” because they are moved by powerful electric motors. There are huge motor-generators under the sheet-metal cowlings of these giant machines. The polyphase, ac generator output is run through massive control circuits and then fed into large ac motors attached to the road trucks. Imagine installing a radio within a couple of feet of a multi-hundred-kilowatt generator set! If that is not bad enough, the radio sets take a beating from the vibrations produced by the diesel motors and travel over the rail joints. The ARR uses Motorola Spectra radios designed for this destructive environment. Browning said excellent results have been achieved with these sets. Minimal maintenance is required, and the sets are easy for the crews to operate, he said.
An internal system of repeaters and base stations allows open telephone interconnection. These radio sites are also connected by land lines that follow the railbed. In one section, a fiber-optic cable is used for linking. The ARR, as well as many railroads in the CONUS, have discovered hidden value in their system railbeds. In many places, access to the right of way is sold as a pathway for modern fiber systems. As this practice continues, the old, open-wire telephone lines, where they still exist, may soon be replaced by fiber-optic links. Radio systems for communications links-even microwave-cannot compete with fixed communication lines placed next to the roadbed. Radio will probably retain its traditional role for crew communications, as well as becoming a “gap filler” where access to fixed lines is impractical.
There are several other uses for radio links in modern rail systems. Asset tracking within the ARR system is still done manually because there are only a handful of cargo types and few depots. By contrast, in the CONUS, railroads have made extensive use of automated tracking of rolling stock for both security and customer service reasons. Additionally, you may have noticed the absence of the traditional red caboose on some of today’s longer trains. Instead, an end-of-train (EOT) device, radio-linked to the locomotive, provides the crew with systems status. These devices operate at 475MHz, and most of them are configured for transmission only. It’s too bad they can’t wave as the train disappears down the track.
2.6 Communication not understood or incomplete An employee who does not understand a radio communication or who receives a communication that is incomplete must not act upon the communication and must treat it as if it was not sent. EXCEPTION: An employee who receives information that may affect the safety of employees or the public or cause damage to property must take the safe course. When necessary, stop movement until the communication is understood.
2.10 Emergency calls Emergency calls will begin with the words “Emergency-Emergency-Emergency.” These calls will only be used to cover initial reports of derailments, collisions, storms, washouts, fires, track obstructions, property damage or injury to employees or the public. Emergency calls must contain as much complete information on the incident as possible. All employees must give absolute priority to an emergency communication. Unless they are answering or aiding the emergency call, employees must not send any communication until they are certain no interference will result.
2.17 Radio testing Radios used in train operation, outside of a yard, must be tested at the point where the train is originally made up. Engineers and conductors must test the radios at least once during each tour of duty to verify the radios are working. The radio test must include an exchange of voice transmissions with another radio. The test must confirm the quality of the radio’s transmission.
2.18 Malfunctioning radio Malfunctioning radios must not be used. As soon as possible, notify each crew member and the train dispatcher or other affected employees that the radio is not working.
2.19 Blasting operations Employees must not operate radio transmitters located less than 250 feet from blasting operations.
2.20 Internal adjustments Employees are prohibited from making internal adjustments to a railroad radio unless they are specifically authorized by the FCC or hold a current Certified Technician’s Certificate. Employees authorized to make adjustments must carry their FCC operator license, Certified Technician’s Certificate, or verification card while on duty.
Contributing Editor Koehler has more than 30 years of experience in radio, telephony and computer electronics. He has been teaching part time at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, for the past four years. His email address is [email protected] Special thanks for the cooperation of the Alaska Railroad, particularly Scott Banks from public affairs and Bart Browning, radio shop supervisor. You can learn more about the ARR, including a complete history, at www.akrr.com. Use the key search words “railroad safety” and “railroad communication.” For fun, check out the Iditarod Trail dog race at www.iditarod.com.