Railroad locomotive cabs may soon look like airline cockpits.
Consolidated Rail Corp., Union Pacific Railroad, Norfolk Southern Corp. and Amtrak are all experimenting with systems that replace the traditional tangle of dials, levers and valves with computer screens.The new screens closely resemble the video display terminals that have become virtually standard in today's sophisticated aircraft. These screens vastly simplify the maze of gauges and controls that once greeted pilots. The new railroad displays are supposed to do the same for locomotive engineers.
The nation's leading locomotive builders, General Electric Transportation Systems and General Motors Corp.'s Electro Motive Division are both testing high-tech locomotives.
The new systems won't fundamentally alter the way locomotives work, said Tom Leary, manager, locomotive planning, standards and procedures, Union Pacific.
"It doesn't change the way they (engineers) operate the train. It gives them better and more clearly understandable information for operation," Mr. Leary said. "It gives us self diagnostics, self-testing and trouble shooting."
Frank L. Baumgardner, manager, marketing analysis for locomotive section, GE Transportation Systems, said: "We have a display that shows up on a TV- like screen the air brake pressures and speed and motor amps, and all the various things on a locomotive."
Prices on the new systems aren't set yet. But Union Pacific is looking to pay around $15,000, Mr. Leary said. UP has been testing a screen-equipped General Motors SD60-M locomotive for the last year. It has also tested a General Electric Dash 8-40C.
UP has more than 3,000 locomotives. It has not yet scheduled purchases of screen-based units. The displays in UP's GM cabs were created by Rockwell International Corp., Mr. Leary said.
Amtrak is slated to be the first volume user of the screen display units. Norfolk Southern also is testing screen-equipped locomotives.
Electronic control systems will help engineers handle coal unit trains moving at slow speeds more effectively, executives said. The electronic systems also can include automatic safety control alerts.
Other features range from automating blowing of horns at crossings to computerizing the cab control signals that tell engineers when and how fast to move.
Conrail's tests of the new systems have gone so well that the railroad is planning to make screens part of the specifications for the next batch of locomotives it buys, a spokesman said.
Conrail has a fleet of about 2,100 locomotives. It buys anywhere from zero to more than 100 locomotives a year, he said.