The Future of Track Inspection Technology: New Autonomous Railway Inspection System

April 15, 2020 by Alessandro Mascellino

Transportation company, Norfolk Southern, announced a new autonomous track geometry measurement system aimed at enhancing railroad safety and operating efficiencies.

The North American freight railroad company would be the first in the U.S. to build such a system for deployment on a locomotive as opposed to installing it on converted freight or passenger rail cars.

Norfolk Southern said it is currently testing the autonomous system on a mainline between Norfolk, Virginia, and Portsmouth, Ohio.


Norfolk Southern and Track Inspection Technology

The Norfolk Southern company is a subsidiary of Norfolk Southern Corporation, one of the largest transportation companies in the US.



A Norfolk Southern train equipped with the new autonomous system. Screenshot used courtesy of Norfolk Southern.


The company operates about 19,500 route miles in 22 states and the District of Columbia, thus serving every major container port in the eastern United States, while also providing efficient connections to other rail carriers.

Norfolk Southern offers transportation options for various industrial products, including chemicals, agriculture, construction materials, and metals. After operating for almost 40 years on the American soil, the company is now at the forefront of rail industry developments with its new autonomous system.


Advancing the Rail Industry

Traditional autonomous track-inspection systems are heavy and bulky devices installed on converted freight or passenger rail cars. Because of this, they typically require an external power source to operate. They consequently occupy space on a train that could be used to move additional freight.

The new autonomous system developed by Norfolk Southern is light enough to be installed in a box under a six-axle road locomotive, that sits between the snowplow and the first set of wheels.


railway diagram

Norfolk Southern’s new autonomous system. Screenshot used courtesy of Norfolk Southern.


The system is powered by a computer inside the electrical locker in the locomotive cab.

“With our locomotive-based system, we use an existing asset to increase the frequency of our track inspections, without adding another piece of equipment that has to be run across the railroad,” said Ed Boyle, vice president engineering at Norfolk Southern.

Boyle added that, through this innovative approach, also the safety of the system can be enhanced as quality track inspections are done under load at the track speed.


The Future of Railways

Norfolk Southern’s new autonomous system was developed by the company’s track inspection group, which is part of the Engineering Department.

In order to find commercially available products to build its system, Norfolk Southern partnered with companies in the defense industry.

Down below are some of the key features of the new autonomous system:

  • Hardware components include lasers, gyros, accelerometers, and global positioning system sensors
  • Can detect defects or anomalies in track geometry such as track gauge, the distance between rails, and the elevation and curvature of the track
  • Can transmit inspection data wirelessly to office locations to maintenance personnel and track geometry engineers

Norfolk Southern said the new system will complement data gathered from testing involving manned track geometry cars and hi-rail trucks.

Following this initial testing phase, the company said it plans to increase the number of locomotives featuring the system as well as expanding its capabilities to include an optical system to detect track components such as fasteners, rail welds, and switch points.

You can watch this video for more information about Norfolk Southern’s new track-inspection system.


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