BY CYNTHIA BECKER
Pronghorns, foxes and coyotes are common sights on Colorado’s Eastern prairie. But a subway train running in circles?
At the Transportation Technology Center, Inc., or TTCI northeast of Pueblo, you might see a subway train, a locomotive pulling freight cars or a sleek high-speed prototype vehicle traveling a circular track. It is business as usual for the world’s leading railroad research and test site.
TTCI boasts 48 miles of specialized railroad tracks that loop across 52 square miles of open prairie. It is a place where locomotives and other vehicles, track components and signaling devices are evaluated. TTCI is equipped to shake, rattle and roll railroad equipment and measure the effects. Railroad companies and suppliers fund research to improve railroad safety and extend the life of rail, bridges, special track and track components.
The facility is a unique public/private partnership. The state of Colorado owns the land. The buildings, track and equipment belong to the Federal Railroad Administration. The Association of American Railroads contracts to operate the facility. TTCI is a wholly owned for-profit subsidiary of AAR that manages the programs and business operations.
“The backbone of the organization is a program called FAST (Facility for Accelerated Service Testing),” says TTCI President Roy A. Allen.
When it opened in 1976, FAST was the first of its kind in North America — a 4.8- mile circular railroad track loaded with special instrumentation. A train mounted with additional test equipment ran 16 hours a day, five days a week. In one year this simulation of high-density freight train traffic measured the equivalent of five years’ wear on both the train and the track.
In 1985 the FAST track was divided into two loops which remain in use today. The 2.7-mile High Tonnage Loop measures the effects of heavy loads on track structure, engines and freight cars. This data gathering allows railroad companies to project the economic impact of using various types of track and equipment.
The second loop, a 3.5-mile wheel and rails mechanism track, evaluates new rail car designs on a variety of track conditions.
While Europe’s high population density demands passenger rail service, freight hauling has been the predominant use of North American railroads. The endless coal trains that snake along Colorado’s Front Range daily offer an example. These trains deliver coal to power stations providing rural electric service and to major power stations in Colorado and surrounding states. “Rail is the most cost-effective means of hauling freight over long distances,” Allen says.
The TTCI facility was originally built to support development of innovative ground transportation, such as a vehicle that rode on a cushion of air. Most of those prototypes became museum pieces and the organization turned its focus to freight train efficiency and safety.
By the late 1990s, Americans renewed their interest in high-speed passenger rail service. Amtrak’s Acela train was one of the new customers using the railroad test track. Built in the late 1970s, the 13.5-mile loop with five curves was designed to test electric-powered cars and locomotives at speeds up to 165 miles per hour.
The Acela train was a novel design that had not operated anywhere in the world. The vehicle could tilt to allow the train to navigate curves at higher speeds. Acela’s intended route between Washington, D.C., and Boston was notorious for curves. TTCI tested Acela’s performance for tens of thousands of miles and recommended adjustments. Staff members participated in qualifying tests on the Amtrak route before Acela went into service in December 2000.
Japan’s gauge change train was another railroad test track veteran. This prototype was designed to transfer between older narrow-gauge rail and new standard-gauge lines without stopping. Japan’s Railway Technical Research Institute concluded that TTCI was the only facility capable of properly evaluating this train. The Japanese train arrived about the same time as Acela and a prototype railcar. TTCI became a “24/7” operation running trains around the clock. Over 18 months the facility collected five years worth of performance data on these unique new trains.
Today FAST operates at night, running a freight train for 10 hours. During the day the staff collects measurements and performs maintenance on the train and rail.
Other tracks include the 9.1-mile oval transit test track. It is used to evaluate commuter vehicles on different types of track construction, such as welded rail and jointed rail, wooden ties and concrete ties.
The 6.2-mile precision test track is used for safety compliance and vehicle certification to standards set by AAR. The tight turn loop tests the interaction of the vehicle and track in a 38-degree short radius turn. Also known as the “screech loop,” it helps engineers investigate wheel noise and suspension system stability.
TTCI has one straight track. On the three-quarter mile impact wall access track, locomotives push cars into a specially designed wall. The cars are then evaluated to determine whether new crashworthy designs really protect passengers and crew.
Allen sees a positive future for passenger rail service in the United States. Evidence of TTCI’s stake in this development is the 2009 creation of the Passenger Rail Business Unit. Dr. John Tunna, assistant vice president for this new unit, reports that recent government stimulus funding targets $8 billion for passenger rail service. The focus is high-speed rail. Two types of passenger rail service are expanding: “light” or “transit” rail which serves commuters within a city, and high- speed services between multiple cities.
Tunna notes Denver’s planned extension of light rail to Denver International Airport and to suburban areas of the city. TTCI will test new trains being considered for use and make recommendations. Some manufacturers may have new models evaluated at the center before proposing them for use in Denver and other locations.
Improving railroad safety is a foundation of the research conducted at TTCI. The rail is as important as the vehicles that ride upon it. “Nearly every modern improvement in the design and manufacture of rail came from work at TTCI,” Allen says. “The life of rail has increased 10 times in the last 20 years.” Research and improvements to the track bed minimize the number of derailments caused by broken rail or other rail problems. (Allen notes that Oregon Steel, conveniently located in Pueblo, is one of only two remaining U.S. rail manufacturers.)
New locomotives have more power and better efficiency as a result of TTCI analysis. Increased power has greatly reduced the cost of hauling material. New aluminum freight cars are lighter in weight and designed to hold larger loads. In the 1980s, a freight car held 70 tons of coal. A modern car holds 110 tons.
TTCI led research to develop, test and implement a variety of new railroad technologies. Wayside detector systems are one example. These small sensors placed along the tracks monitor the “health” of each railcar as it passes by. The sensors detect problems, such as a worn or damaged wheel, and relay that information via the Internet. Early detection allows the railroad company to repair or replace that damaged wheel before it causes serious problems.
Other sensors monitor track condition. In some locations, track is susceptible to buckling due to extreme temperature variations. Sensors report movement of the rail. Canadian railroads use sensor technology in areas where heavy snow can block the tracks.
Global positioning systems have become popular automobile accessories to guide travelers to their destinations. Railroads use the same technology to track the exact location of every train in operation at any time. A wayside detector transmits an identifying signal as each train passes its location.
“Positive train control is currently the largest single railroad industry project,” says Allen. “This system will prevent two trains from meeting on the same piece of track. It is capable of stopping a train if the driver does not take appropriate action in response to a sensor alert.” A derailment in California prompted Congress to mandate preventive action. By 2015, all trains carrying passengers or hazardous materials must be equipped with positive train control. TTCI is working with railroad companies to test and perfect the technology.
Not every train needs to be tested on site. The data gathered at TTCI is used to build and validate computer simulation models. This technology can accurately predict the behavior of new vehicle designs. A computer model, for example, can determine what forces a particular train would put on the track and the ties, fasteners and ballast that support it. This allows designers to project maintenance requirements and costs if the train was put into operation. Simulation models can also predict energy consumption or exhaust emissions for a specific train running at various speeds to meet the schedule on a particular route. TTCI engineering teams have traveled all over the world to solve railroad problems with their expertise and computer modeling.
TTCI is also a leader in emergency response training. Employees in the rail and chemical industries and public emergency responders come to the facility’s Security and Emergency Response Training Center for realistic hazardous materials training. Students may confront burning railcars in realistic exercises that test their knowledge and skills. TTCI received $4.8 million in the fiscal year 2010 federal budget to provide hazardous materials training for qualified fire departments and local authorities from all states. The facility also works on methods of protecting railroad infrastructure from terrorism.
New rail designs for use in the United States must meet North American standards, which are more strict that those in the rest of the world. Crashworthiness is critical in design of new passenger cars. TTCI is ready with cost-effective simulation models that can be validated by a few crash tests.
Many rail corridors of the future will be shared by freight and passenger trains. “Our testing and expertise will help to optimize the use of the same track for both types of traffic,” says Tunna.
Now, more than 30 years after the test facility was built, attention has returned to high-speed trains. “TTCI is about to do what the facility was originally designed for,” Allen says. “We hope it proves more sustainable this time.”
This is Cynthia Becker’s fourth feature for Colorado Country Life. She is a freelance writer from Pueblo, and her newest book, is a middle grade biography, Chipeta: Ute Peacemaker.