Author: Daniel Moore, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Wabtec Corp. executives were in the midst of poring over data on financial records, customer base and research efforts — weighing whether an $11 billion mega-deal with General Electric’s locomotive business made sense — when they had an eye-widening moment.  

Placing GE Transportation’s research goals on top of theirs, the Wabtec executives noticed that both companies had been pursuing technology to drive self-driving trains — and each company had hit roadblocks in different ways.

Put the two operations together and “those gaps, to a large extent, are filled,” said Raymond T. Betler, chief executive officer of Wabtec, the Wilmerding-based supplier of rail products and services that announced the deal with GE Transportation in May. 

“It’s probably the most exciting part of our combination,” Mr. Betler said in an interview last week, a bold statement for a deal that brings together two legacy railroad businesses with ties to George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison and has operations in 50 countries. 

Mr. Betler believes the deal has the potential to scale up operating systems that can drive locomotives, without the need for the two operating engineers now seen on most freight trains. Autonomous technology — which helps fly planes in the airline industry and is garnering billions in research from companies in the automobile and long-haul trucking industry — has largely passed by railroads. 

Trains may seem like a simple market for autonomous technology. The path of a train is guided by rail, and the operating systems oversee just two components of movement — the throttle, which pushes the train forward, and the brake systems that stop it.

Companies like Google, Uber and Ford are using advanced artificial intelligence systems to help self-driving cars to monitor other cars on the roadway and swerve away from unpredictable obstacles, like jaywalking pedestrians.

The problem with trains is not detecting objects in the line of sight, said David Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Tennessee. It is that trains need to detect disruptions on the track from miles away and apply the brakes far in advance. In fact, if a train operator can see an obstacle, it’s almost certainly too late. 

What is needed is more sources of information from the network as a whole, Mr. Clarke said. An example would be “smart” grade crossings to detect, say, a car stuck on the tracks and to send that information to a locomotive a few miles away.

Enter Wabtec and GE Transportation — both of which have manufactured software systems that can record and, with increasing levels of autonomy, take control of a moving train. 

Many of the building blocks are found in positive train control — a communications system that can take control of locomotives and prevent deadly collisions and derailments. Following several high -profile accidents, Congress has mandated the installation of positive train control on the entire U.S. passenger rail network and on freight railroads that carry hazardous substances.

It would be logical for Wabtec, which manufactures positive train control systems as well as signaling technology that monitors rail networks, to view greater autonomy for trains as a next step, Mr. Clarke said. It would mean transforming the systems from purely collision avoidance to actually moving the train. 

“It would have to operate the throttle as well as the brake, which I don’t think is technologically any big feat,” Mr. Clarke said.

Meanwhile, GE Transportation has built computer systems that use automated cruise control to operate trains at speeds that burn fuel the most efficiently. The cruise control system, called Trip Optimizer, is used by all the biggest freight rail carriers in North America, as well as rail carriers in South America, Africa, Asia and Australia, according to a GE Transportation spokesman.

Overall, those carriers have enabled cruise control for 256 million miles and saved 900,000 gallons of fuel, the spokesman said.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to autonomous trains has been work-related. Resistance to taking any operating engineers out of a locomotive has been strong, especially from the labor unions. 

But as long-haul trucking companies take up autonomous systems, shipping costs will drop dramatically with the human driver taken out of the cab, Mr. Clarke said. That would pressure the trucking industry’s main competitor.

In March, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a request for public comment on “how FRA could best support the railroad industry in developing and implementing new and emerging technologies in automation that could lead to safety improvements or increased efficiencies in railroad operations.”

“Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao is placing considerable emphasis on autonomous vehicle development, and the prospective use of automation technologies across all modes of transportation,” said Desiree French, a public affairs specialist for the agency.

The agency is now reviewing about 3,300 responses filed before the May 7 deadline, Ms. French said. 

Wabtec will be ready, Mr. Betler said, and the combination with GE Transportation’s business, pending regualtory reviews, puts the company on the fast track.

“We’ll be able to develop our automated technology with less risk because we’re using [GE’s] proven technology,” Mr. Betler said. “We’ll be faster to market, so we’ll be able to reduce our overall development time-frame and, obviously, our overall development cost.”

The future is clear, he added.

“We want to develop driverless trains across the entire network of 22,000 miles of track,” he added. “So we will continue to invest R&D money to get to the point where, in a phased approach, implement semi-automated driving. Maybe we’ll take one operator out of the cab, then totally automated.”