New brake system means safer trains
Source: Grand Island Independent
Published: February 1st 2008

A historic coal train passed through Grand Island early Saturday on the BNSF line, but no one noticed.

No one noticed because it had a revolutionary braking system, not something obvious such as a new kind of locomotive.

"This is the first train to operate in revenue service with the new ECP (electronically controlled pneumatic) brakes on BNSF," said Pat Hiatte, the railroad's general director of corporate communications in Fort Worth, Texas.

A major advance in both safety and economy, ECP brakes are applied by electronic signal to brakes in all cars on a train simultaneously, not one car at a time as in the conventional air brake system used for decades. Because all brakes are applied at once, the result is a major decrease in the time it takes a train to stop.

The new braking system has been in use for several months on an Eastern railroad, Norfork Southern, but it is a first for railroads west of the Mississippi, Hiatte said.

"We expect that these brakes can make rail operations safer and provide business benefits as well," said Joseph H. Boardman, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration in Washington, D.C.

ECP brakes lead to better train control, shorter stopping distances, fuel savings and a lower risk of derailments, Boardman said.

Burlington Northern railroad, a predecessor of BNSF, began experimenting with ECP brakes in the early 1990s, Hiatte said. It took until about 9 a.m. Friday, Jan. 25, however, for a Western railroad to send out a regular train equipped with the new brakes.

That was when the coal train left the northeast Wyoming coal fields bound for a power plant near Birmingham, Ala. The cars themselves belong to Southern Co., owner of the power plant.

ECP-equipped locomotives and cars will make up two complete 135-car coal trains to be used on BNSF lines.

"We are pleased to participate in advancing this important technology," said Carl Ice, BNSF's executive vice president and chief operations officer.