Chapter 10: Scientific and Technological Innovation

Science and technology have been used extensively throughout the railway industry to improve operating conditions and advance the safety of Canadian railways. Innovations have permitted longer trains and led to improved rail cars that are not only easier to load and unload, but also more crashworthy. Innovations have also led to improved freight car truck assemblies, which have permitted increased train speeds, and to the development of a new dangerous goods tank car design that improves derailment survivability. On the track side, innovations have significantly improved wayside scanning and track inspection and rail flaw detection. The easy transfer of containers from one transportation mode to another has been facilitated by the use of new rail car technology, container cranes and modern container terminals.

Rail Flaw Detection Vehicle (CN Symington Yard), Winnipeg, Manitoba, June 2007
Rail Flaw Detection Vehicle (CN Symington Yard), Winnipeg, Manitoba, June 2007

10.1 New Technologies - Research and Development

Main track derailments are generally associated with track and equipment failures. Between 1999 and 2006, over 60 per cent of main track derailments reported to the TSB were attributed to either track or equipment failures. Further, if consideration is given only to those derailments where a contributing factor is cited (excluding the 29 per cent where a cause was not assigned), equipment and track deficiencies account for 89 per cent of all main track derailments.1

As a result of these statistics, there have been significant technological advancements related to track and equipment safety issues, many of which are newly emerging. The Canadian railway industry has been adopting various types of technologies that have been developed to specifically target equipment and track-related derailment causes.

In its presentation to the Panel, CN noted that "...virtually every aspect of railway industry operations has experienced significant technological improvement in the 13 years since the last Railway Safety Act Review."2 CN has invested significant effort in developing and implementing new technologies with a view to improving safety and is committed to continuing these efforts. Examples of new technologies being used by CN include ultrasonic rail flaw detectors, track geometry cars, slide detection/ roadbed stability detection, hot bearing detectors, wheel impact load detectors, and locomotive control systems - to name only a few.

To illustrate the technological change that has taken place, in 1994, CN had about 250 hot bearing detectors spaced approximately every 25 miles along its track. The information from detectors was sent to a dispatching centre where an analyst would check it and call for the train to be stopped if necessary. That network has expanded to 683 hot bearing detectors with spacing of 12-15 miles over the core network. These devices have been augmented with strategically placed derailment detectors. Detectors are linked to a central computer to allow for pre-emptive maintenance. Immediate information can also be provided to train crews for their action.

CP also recognizes the importance of research and development and the role that new technologies play in advancing safety. In its submission to the Panel, CP stated that "technology initiatives also form an important component of CP's drive for increased safety in its operations."3 CP has been using technologies such as rail grinding and testing, wheel impact load detectors and technology-driven maintenance inspections - to name just a few. Along with others in the railway industry, CP is testing other technologies, such as electronically controlled pneumatic brakes.



  • Wheel profile monitoring, using digital imaging;
  • On-board sensors (Smart Car concept) linked electronically to satellites and web-based databases;
  • Track side acoustic bearing failure detectors;
  • Track and truck mounted performance detectors;
  • Wheel tread conditioning brake shoe, which removes a small portion of the wheel tread with each brake application;
  • New generation tank car, which incorporates new tank and car crashworthiness construction.


  • Real-time track performance evaluation;
  • Clean steel initiative;
  • Rail grinding for track re-profiling;
  • Rail lubrication in curves;
  • More focussed and targeted rail replacement programs;
  • Wheel impact load detectors;
  • Elastic track fasteners.


  • Positive train control, which electronically ensures correct spacing between trains travelling in the same direction on the same track;
  • Switch position indicators that can alert an oncoming train to a misaligned switch.

As mentioned in Chapter 9, CP mitigates the negative effects that train marshalling can have on in-train forces. CP developed TrAM software to easily permit data on the train consist4 to be entered into the program. This allows for potential trouble areas to be highlighted so that corrective action can be taken. With this up-to-date information, the locomotive engineer can either adjust the train make-up or adjust handling techniques to compensate for potential trouble spots. It is clear that CP is supportive of enabling the use of technologies to improve railway safety.

The Panel learned, however, that short line railways may have difficulty implementing technological innovations due to a lack of financial capital. Nonetheless, innovations developed and implemented on a system-wide basis are available for all railways to use. For example, short line railways receive benefits from freight car innovations because they are often the end users of Class 1 railway equipment and operate over Class 1 territory.

The Panel is confident that the railways are investing responsibly to develop new technologies for track and equipment and that these have, and will continue to have, a positive impact on safety.

10.2 The Role of Government

In considering the impacts of technological advancements on railway safety, the Panel recognized that the government has an important role to play, primarily in creating an environment that is conducive to developing and implementing new technologies. It is crucial to support the ongoing efforts by railway companies in many different areas because they will lead to significant safety improvements.

With respect to railway crossings, for example, Transportation Safety Board (TSB) data shows that railway-crossing accidents have been exhibiting a downward trend since 1989. In 1989, there were 469 crossing and trespasser accidents reported to the TSB, which dropped to 248 reported accidents in 2006.

Separating the grade of these crossings would undeniably be the best way to reduce this accident rate further; however, given the vast number of crossings and the sparseness of the population surrounding the majority of them, building a grade separation is not, generally, economically feasible. Nonetheless, a number of crossing innovations and new technologies have contributed to reducing the accident rate and some of these are less expensive solutions.

In 2002, a human factors analysis of highway-railway grade crossing accidents in Canada carried out by Cognitive Ergonomics Research Laboratory5 (Caird Report) found that a number of accidents had more than one action or factor associated with them (i.e., multiple contributors). This provided the opportunity for more detailed consideration of how driver behaviour interacts with various conditions to cause an accident.

Transportation Safety Board information pertaining to railway crossing accidents suggests that "driver unsafe" acts (which have the potential to be reduced through technology) may have been directly responsible for some of the reported accidents.

Median barriers and four quadrant gates are two examples that restrict "driver unsafe" acts. The TSB data for January 1999 to July 2007 revealed that many of the same actions and issues predominate. The most common unsafe acts were:

  • Intentionally driving around the gate;
  • Driving through the gate;
  • Skidding onto the track;
  • Stopping, then proceeding.

Summaries of 86 accidents were reviewed in the Caird Report. This review revealed that an intentional action by the vehicle operator was a contributing factor in each of the accidents. Some of these intentional actions included driving around the gates, attempting to beat the train, slowing then proceeding, alcohol impairment and fatigue. Other factors included driver distraction, failing to see the train or signals, cellphone use and other distractions, such as adjusting a radio or tape player.

It has been brought to our attention that crossing safety can be significantly advanced with the use of moderately priced scientific innovation or technology to mitigate accidents where intentional action is a contributing factor. For example, centre line concrete medians, in conjunction with crossing gates or four-quadrant gates, can provide significant barriers to prohibit vehicles from driving around gates, or stopping and then proceeding.

Given that drivers frequently disregard stop signs in open areas with clear sightlines, the Caird Report also revealed that the effectiveness of stop signs in reducing railway crossing accidents had not been established.6 Depending on circumstances, other technologies could be implemented at some locations and crossing safety improvements would be immediate. Examples of these technologies include:

  • converting passive crossings to active crossings by using flashing lights, bells and gates;
  • upgrading flashing lights and gates with other countermeasures, such as photo-enforcement, median barriers, and four quadrant gates; and
  • installing supplementary advance warning signs that indicate what drivers should do (e.g., "look for trains" and "do not stop on tracks") as they approach a crossing.

Technology alone rarely accounts for an improvement in safety performance. To ensure that quality assurance is in place and that we are realizing the full benefits, every new technological advance at CN is linked with the necessary training, procedures, supervision, monitoring and analysis. In other words, we ensure that the other two elements of the CN Integrated Safety Plan - people and process - support technology.

CN Submission, Integrated Safety Plan - Technology, pages 2-3.

As mentioned, the railway companies appear to be investing significantly in new technologies aimed at improving the safety of their operations. The Panel feels that there is also a need to increase focus on scientific and technological advancements that would improve crossing safety. Transport Canada has the opportunity to be a leader in this area. While scientific research in human factors and technology is important, efforts to improve crossing safety must be undertaken in conjunction with effective public outreach programs, such as Operation Lifesaver.

Recommendation 48

Transport Canada should take a leadership role in any and all technological and scientific advances that would improve public safety.

Even though the railway industry has a significant impact on the Canadian economy, there are limited public resources available to initiate research and development (R&D) that could improve railway safety.

Technology designed to affect safety issues in the U.S. can lead to improving the overall rail safety picture in both Canada and the U.S. The Panel learned that technological advancements are widely shared because of the inter-relatedness of rail networks across North America.

It is of interest that the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has an annual R&D budget of US$35 million and provides funding to the Association of American Railroads (whose annual R&D budget is US$13.5 million). In Canada, Transport Canada's Transportation Development Centre is responsible for developing R&D projects aimed at improving Canada's evolving transportation system through enhancing knowledge in railway safety and researching technological innovation. In 2006-2007, the Transportation Development Centre's R&D funding for the rail mode was $460,000, which represents 10 per cent of the overall $4.6 million R&D budget for modal and program areas within Transport Canada. This is considerably lower than the funding provided in the U.S.7

The Panel was also made aware of the Transportation Technology Center (TTC)8 in Pueblo, Colorado, and at least one Canadian railway company mentioned that it was "...doing a good job looking at new technologies."9 The Center is a 52-square-mile facility and includes laboratories and 48 miles of test tracks. This facility allows for testing of locomotives, cars, track structures and various components for freight, passenger, transit and high-speed rail operations. Apart from the FRA, other government agencies, the railroad industry, individual railroads, transit operators and suppliers have all utilized these testing facilities. The TTC's aim is to focus on technologies that will enhance railroad safety, reliability and productivity. The Center also has facilities for training emergency personnel in response procedures for accidents involving hazardous materials.

The ability to influence the direction of the U.S. Transportation Technology Center's R&D program, however, is proportional to the amount of money expended by contributors. As a result of minimal federal funding in this area, it is difficult for Canada to influence the development of new technologies to enhance safety issues specific to the Canadian operating environment.

Recommendation 49

In view of the importance of railways to the Canadian economy, the Government should strengthen its contribution to innovation and technological advancements in railway safety.

Once new technologies have been developed and tested, commercially viable options may require regulatory change. In its submission to the Panel, CN notes that "a significant number of old regulations and orders that pre-date the RSA have led to delays and frustration in implementing improved safety technology."10 Further, attempts by railway companies to implement new technologies can be delayed or result in additional costs because of the need to obtain regulatory exemptions to outdated provisions. We recognized this concern and have made a recommendation in Chapter 4 to address the issue of obsolete regulations or rules.

The Transportation Development Centre noted the following:

Detailed engineering/operational specifications imbedded in regulations are generally viewed as tending to stifle innovation. This is based mainly on past worldwide experience that shows regulatory change to be usually a slow process.... The preference for ...performance approaches appear[s] to be based on the perception that [this] will facilitate technological and operational changes desired by the railways while at the same time ensuring that government safety objectives will be met in a timely manner.

TDC, Use of Performance Standards In Railway Safety Regulation, page 3.

The Panel has concluded that the Railway Safety Act (RSA) is not an impediment to the adoption of new technologies to improve safety as the Act allows safety regulations and rules to be updated to reflect new technology. Section 22 of the Act also provides for an exemption to rules and regulations developed under its authority, so that the implementation of new technology can be facilitated.

Even though the RSA is not seen as a direct impediment to the adoption of new technologies, the shift to performance-based regulations and standards has not advanced quickly enough. Performance-based regulations and rules (as opposed to prescriptive ones) are conducive to the implementation of technological advances.

To be fully effective, performance-based rules and regulations must clearly define the nature of required performance. They leave room, however, for many different options to attain the specified performance. Performance-based rules and regulations should facilitate the implementation of new technologies.

To illustrate why this is so important, we cite the example of the Canadian Railway Track Safety Rules, first issued in 1992 when both CN and CP had very different operating environments. At that time, each company was utilizing track maintenance standards that suited its specific needs. Developing an agreed upon "safety minimum" standard to be incorporated into a Canadian industry-wide set of rules became very difficult to achieve. CN and CP were compelled to keep their own standards and best practices. Without agreement by the railway companies, Transport Canada, Rail Safety Directorate developed a rule that was based on a U.S. equivalent, which resulted in prescriptive rules and criteria.

Through their use, the industry has found that the majority of the criteria pertaining to defects defined under the Track Safety Rules are not considered to represent a hazardous condition.11 Since they are listed in the rules, however, Transport Canada requires railway companies to maintain the track to this specified level and enforces compliance. If the Canadian Track Safety Rules were based on minimum performance standards, they would encourage the development of new technologies to meet or exceed these standards, rather than the current requirement to comply with criteria pertaining to specific defects.

CP views the current regulatory framework as limiting and certainly not encouraging Transport Canada's ability to work cooperatively with railways on newer, better, and creative approaches to railway safety. Coupled with this limitation is the current lack of resources devoted to safety-oriented research and development by Transport Canada. An expansion or amendment of Transport Canada's mandate would be required to allow effective participation by the federal government in safety research and development.

CP Submission, Safety Demands Continuous Improvement, page 15.

In the U.S., the Panel heard that the FRA and the Association of American Railroads (AAR) are both proactive in pursuing technological innovations. The Panel also heard from Canadian railway companies that the attitude in the U.S. towards innovation and technology is one that encourages their use. The U.S. considers this to be critical for safety. The Panel heard that this attitude is not always evident in Canada.

Industry expressed the view that the regulator's current attitude towards research and development, its lagging recognition of the advantages of new technologies, and a lack of meaningful funding are barriers to making progress with respect to safety. We heard that the industry is more than willing to dedicate additional funds to research and development but that such additional funding must be accompanied by a shift in the regulator's stance, both with respect to regulatory incentives and the capacity to assess and facilitate the implementation of new technologies.

The newly developed electronic braking system is one example of technology that would provide a significant benefit to Canadian railways and the industry as a whole. This system can result in brakes being simultaneously applied on all train cars, and reduces the build-up of negative train forces that can lead to equipment damage and, in extreme cases, to derailments. It can also improve train handling and result in less equipment and product damage, improved cold weather braking, and a safer operating environment. It is faster and more reliable than the current pneumatic system, which can be negatively affected by the cold temperatures experienced in Canadian winters. Given that all freight cars operating in North America must be standardized to facilitate the simple interchange from one country or railway to another, such a redesign would require that every car be similarly equipped. This comes at a significant cost.

Not only does the U.S. devote considerable funding to research, it has also implemented regulatory incentives on the issue of electronic braking. The FRA has developed a separate set of brake-testing rules that apply specifically to the use of electronic braking systems and work in conjunction with the rules in place for pneumatic braking systems. These rules provide relief from en route brake tests that are currently required for pneumatic brake systems. Eliminating this en route test can directly lower train inspection costs and reduce train delays. Given their stance on funding and regulatory incentives, U.S. railways are in a better position to adopt this advanced technology.

The electronic braking system is only one example that could provide benefits to the Canadian operating environment. There are many other technologies and innovations that provide widespread improvements to railway safety and some of these innovations are discussed later in this chapter. Given the significant impact that the railway industry has on the Canadian economy and the importance of safety, current funding and regulatory incentive programs for research and development of new technologies appear to us to be disproportionately low.

The facilitation of technology development involves human and financial resources that the Panel feels are lacking in the Transport Canada, Rail Safety Directorate. If Transport Canada wishes to have an influence on technology related to safety issues, especially those pertinent to the Canadian operating environment, it must invest in both people and research.

Recommendation 50

Transport Canada should increase its capacity to assess new technologies, and facilitate their implementation.

Generally, the private sector initiates research independently. Given that the potential market is much larger in the U.S., however, suppliers undertaking research and development do so with that market in mind. A product designed to work well in warmer weather will have a larger market in the U.S. and Mexico. It may be difficult for the same product to operate safely throughout its service life in the Canadian climate.

As an example, the steel used in the manufacture of freight car wheels and the rail used in the track are more prone to brittle failures in Canada's colder temperatures. Even though there are areas where weather may be a factor in the U.S., winters are generally milder and there are fewer track failures because of cold temperatures. Given that it is not as pressing a safety issue in the U.S., it is difficult to garner support for it to be a high priority in terms of overall safety priorities.

Both CN and CP invest in research and development. However, given the specifics of their operations, they tend to focus on those research and development projects that target their own urgent safety issues, rather than those that may benefit the entire railway industry in Canada. We see this as a role for the regulator and believe that efforts should be aimed at meeting the unique needs of the Canadian operating environment.

Recommendation 51

Transport Canada and industry should jointly fund scientific and technological innovation to address rail safety issues that are specific to the Canadian operating environment.

10.3 Human-Technology Interface

With respect to the design of locomotive control stands and panels, our research indicated that design standards of these components have not kept pace with conventional standards of human factors engineering. Such standards explicitly recognize that human error does occur and require that systems be designed with such a possibility in mind. Design principles should be based on an understanding of causes of errors, and solutions should be developed to minimize the likelihood of their recurring.

There are many examples of occurrences where equipment design has contributed to an accident. Some of the issues identified have included the placement and layout of communications equipment in the locomotive cab. One example was outlined in the TSB report on the investigation into a freight train derailment at Carlstadt, Ontario in October 2003. The report stated that the locomotive engineer inadvertently tuned the locomotive radio to the incorrect channel. The location of the radio in the locomotive likely contributed to the selection of the incorrect channel. The TSB recognized that locating controls where they are difficult to operate can increase the probability of error.

It should be noted that, in the U.S., the FRA has developed human factors guidelines specifically for application in locomotives.12 The FRA recognizes that locomotive controls can be manufactured to reduce errors. This includes placing controls within the engineer's reach and designing alarms to provide immediate operator feedback. The Panel encourages consideration of these guidelines as they have the potential to improve operating conditions in locomotives.

The Panel concludes that future locomotive equipment must consider the operator from the earliest design stages. The operator must be the focus and design specifications must take account of human capabilities and limitations in locomotive design. Good technological design must allow people to concentrate on performance. By incorporating human performance and behaviour principles into the locomotive design, it will be possible to improve safety while enhancing performance.

Recommendation 52

New locomotives should be designed to conform with acceptable standards of human factors engineering. Corrective strategies should also be developed to minimize any negative impact on safety resulting from poor design of existing locomotives.


1 G.W. English and T.W. Moynihan, TranSys Research Ltd., Causes of Accidents and Mitigation Strategies (July 2007), section 2.2.1.

2 CN, "Integrated Safety Plan - Technology, "Submission to the Railway Safety Act Review Panel (May 2007), page 1.

3 Canadian Pacific Railway Company, "Safety Demands Continuous Improvement, "Opening Submission (April 2007), page 12.

4 In this context, "train consist" refers to the list of locomotive units or cars in the train. It can also refer to the make-up of the train, with respect to car types.

5 Jeff Caird, Cognitive Ergonomics Research Laboratory, A human factors analysis of highway-railway grade crossing accidents in Canada (2002).

6 See also Neil D. Lerner, Robert E. Llaneras, Hugh W. McGee and Donald E. Stephens, Traffic-Control Devices for Passive Railroad-Highway Grade Crossings, NCHRP Report 470, Transportation Research Board-U.S. National Research Council (2002), a study of the use and effectiveness of traffic control signs at passive crossings in the U.S.

7 Transport Canada, Transportation Development Centre Annual Review 2006-07.

8 The TTC is operated by the Transportation Technology Centre Inc. (TTCI) through a contractual arrangement with the FRA. TTCI is a wholly owned subsidiary of the AAR.

9 Information provided by CP during a meeting with the Railway Safety Act Review Panel (August 9, 2007).

10 CN, "Integrated Safety Plan - Technology," op. cit., page 10

11 See T.W. Moynihan and G.W. English, Research and Traffic Group, Railway Safety Technologies (July 2007), section 2.2.3: "Railways need minimum safety standards, to safeguard interchanged equipment and to preserve the public image/ confidence in the industry. However, only an estimated 20% of existing defined defects under the Track Safety Rules are considered to represent a hazardous condition."

12 U.S. Federal Railroad Administration, Human Factors Guidelines for Locomotive Cabs DOT/FRA/ORD-98/03 (November 1998).

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