New, Safer Brake Technology for Freight Trains Gains Traction as Second Railroad Launches ECP Train

WASHINGTON — Utilizing advanced brake technology advocated by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the BNSF Railway has launched its first revenue service train fully equipped with state-of-the-art electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes.

“We expect that these brakes can make rail operations safer and provide business benefits as well,” FRA Administrator Joseph H. Boardman said, noting that BNSF, along with the Norfolk Southern Railway, received FRA waiver approval last year to install and begin demonstrating ECP brake technology.

In contrast to conventional air brake systems, which operate sequentially from one rail car to the next, ECP technology applies the brakes uniformly and instantaneously on every rail car in a train, Boardman explained.

ECP brakes lead to better train control, shorter stopping distances, fuel savings, and a lower risk of derailments.  And, since ECP technology provides continual electronic self-diagnostic tests that inform train crews when brake maintenance is required, stopping for routine brake tests becomes unnecessary, he added.

In September 2007, FRA issued a proposed rule designed to encourage the deployment of ECP brakes that would allow trains equipped with the technology to safely travel up to 3,500 miles—more than double the current maximum distance—with fewer stops for routine brake inspections.

To ensure the safety of ECP-equipped trains, the proposed rule includes several conditions such as requirements that the railroad clearly define a process for rectifying brake problems discovered en route; ensuring that ECP brake inspections are only performed by qualified mechanical inspectors; and providing appropriate training to crew members.

The BNSF ECP-equipped train will operate over the 1,500 mile run between Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal fields and a power plant near Birmingham, Ala.

The railroad installed the technology on its locomotives while the Southern Company outfitted its own coal cars with ECP brakes.  NS began operating its first ECP-equipped train on a coal run in Pennsylvania in October 2007.