EARLY NEXT year senior North American railroad officials will gather at the Transportation Test Center in Pueblo, Colorado, for high-level discussions on the future of the industry.

The occasion is intended to mark two anniversaries – 10 years since TTC Inc was set up as a subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads on January 1 1998, and 25 years since the AAR took over operation of the test centre from the Federal Railroad Administration on October 1 1982 after the FRA had threatened to close it down because of government-imposed budget cuts.

Looking back over the last quarter-century, TTCI President Roy Allen is 'proud of the role technology has played' in the renaissance of the business with 'an incredible improvement in performance'. Although he readily admits this is a sweeping generalisation, Allen believes that – together with deregulation – technical and engineering expertise played a key role in lifting the industry away from 'the dog days' of the 1980s.

To support this contention Allen highlights the 'commonplace' use of analytical models and vehicle dynamic models such as Nucars and 'the successful introduction of 36 tonne axleloads' which came out of heavy axleload research at Pueblo and other places, and especially from the FAST (Facility for Accelerated Service Testing) programme; careful implementation was in marked contrast to the attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to raise axleloads without planning. Allen cites vehicle performance monitoring from the trackside as a third technology that has changed North American railroading. Starting with wheel impact load detectors, more than 100 of which are now in service, this began the move from 'fixing it when it breaks to a planned maintenance regime'.

The ability to handle heavier axleloads has been critical in coping with the huge demand for moving freight inland from the west coast of the USA. Asked if axleloads would go higher still, Allen says 'it's up for debate. That's one of the big questions we have to get [AAR] member railroads to answer.'

Exporting expertise

Recognition of TTCI's expertise has generated business from outside North America, but Allen says that exporting the fruits of North American railroad research had begun 'before TTCI was formed or even dreamt of'. For the AAR, and later TTCI, 'it was a simple matter of economics – the main goal is to keep this centre operational'. The push to export know-how was stepped up in the 1990s, but Allen stresses that this is only 10% to 15% of business, with the main effort concentrated on the domestic industry. Half the work is institutional, such as helping the AAR set appropriate technical standards, and half is commercial, including work for suppliers and passenger transport operators.

TTCI has won business in Europe and China, and India looks a promising bet for specialist knowledge of heavy axleload operations. Allen confirms that TTCI and Indian Railways 'have done a lot of preparatory work' and that 'there are very good signs', although nothing has been signed yet.

Allen emphasises that 'while economics is the main driver, we've found a lot of cross-benefits from doing international work. We learn quite a lot working with different organisations which we bring back to our own research for North America'. One example of 'cross-pollination' is 'greater understanding of rolling contact fatigue, its root causes and proper remediation work' as a result of a contract won by TTCI after the Hatfield accident in the UK in October 2000.

There is plenty to occupy the research team at Pueblo as North American railroad managers contemplate the prospect of an 80% increase in traffic. At the end of last month the AAR's chief operating officers and chief marketing officers were due 'to go through in some detail and put their footprint on' the technology roadmap covering the next 20 to 25 years (RG 7.07 p401). Allen draws attention to the fact that the American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials 'is championing the use of freight rail', its recent report on 'America's Freight Challenge' noting that it is 'imperative' to develop a national rail transportation policy as 'inter-city passenger and freight rail are critical components of the nation's surface transportation system'.

Apart from 'working in the growth area of train control and operations reliability', TTCI expects to 'play a much larger role in security technology' following signature by President Bush of a bill that designates TTCI as a member of the National Domestic Preparedness Consortium. In practical terms, this means that students attending courses at Pueblo's Emergency Response Training Center will qualify for 'a certain amount of federal backing', and Allen believes that 'a lot of potential students will benefit'.

Next-generation tank car

TTCI already has much expertise in dealing with hazardous materials, and more work in this field will follow as new regulations are developed – the FRA will be looking at new regulations early in 2008 and the AAR already has draft regulations on the table. The railroads 'transport a lot of pretty nasty stuff, and there is a major, major drive in this country to make this safer', notes Allen.

The ultimate goal, he says, would be to develop a tank car which would release none of its content in the event of an accident. Meanwhile, TTCI is working with a consortium of companies to develop 'the next-generation tank car', and while this is limited at the moment to 'baseline testing and research', Allen asserts that 'you'll definitely be seeing advanced designs'.