TrackInspector – Using the iPhone to track railroad defects

Over a glass of wine and cigar with a friend who works in the railroad industry, we began to talk about the technology in use to monitor the health of railways and bridges. I was truly amazed at the politics on maintaining these bridges, how fragile these communication channels are and how critical they are in maintaining the energy supply to major cities within the US. (more on this in a later post)

According to a recent Reuters article here, almost half of the electricity generated in the United States is supplied by coal-fired plants. These coal fields are found in specific coal regions within the US. Once the coal is mined the facility can negotiate a transport rate if there are competing railroad they can use.

Enter the FRA (Federal Railway Administration):

The purpose of FRA is to promulgate and enforce rail safety regulations, administer railroad assistance programs, conduct research and development in support of improved railroad safety and national rail transportation policy, provide for the rehabilitation of Northeast Corridor rail passenger service, and consolidate government support of rail transportation activities.[2]

Currently railroads are in their majority inspected manually on a fixed schedule, meaning that someone actually goes out and either inspects with the assistance of equipment or visually.

Equipment assisted inspections are performed by a variety of methods:

A list of methods used to detect flaws in rails:

These techniques can be used in a variety of different ways:

The probes and transducers can be utilized on a “walking stick”, on a hand pushed trolley, or in a hand held setup. These devices are used when small sections of track are to be inspected or when a precise location is desired. Many times these detail oriented inspection devices follow up on indications made by a rail inspection cars or HiRail trucks. Handheld inspection devices are very useful for this when the track is used heavily, because they can be removed relatively easy. However, they are considered very slow and tedious, when there are thousands of miles of track that need inspection.

My interest level rose when we talked about the current handheld inspection devices being used and how the iPhone could add an enormous amount of value to this market.

Today a handheld device is used to record the fault and subsequently docked with a Windows PC, in order to sync the data recorded with a centralized system where photographic evidence can be later attached.

The Federal Railway Administration Track Safety Standards determine how and what data needs to be collected to perform inspections, which got me thinking on the iPhone hardware capabilities and getting a proof-of-concept out. Later came the design and architecture of the TrackInspector iPhone app.

The iPhone application allows the inspector to enter GPS-assisted track location being inspected, defects found during the inspection including a photograph and any remedial action taken. The inspection is immediately time-stamped and transmitted over the cellular network (GSM) or Wi-Fi, to a database server where the data can be retrieved securely and on-demand from anywhere in the world using a browser like any other website. The secure server allows centrally archiving, analyzing and reviewing all inspections as well as visualizing trends in the infrastructure.

Something I am sure Railway companies like BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) or Union Pacific would be interested in.

More Details:

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