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Brake-by-Wire Comes To Freight Trains

Electronically controlled pneumatic brakes could help stop accidents and speed cargo

3 min read
Brake-by-Wire Comes To Freight Trains
Photo: Steph Venter/Getty Images

Inside a large boxy ­building in Germantown, Md., a 150-car freight train is braking to a halt. At engineer Chuck Wolf's signal, air from each car's reservoir instantly begins pounding into the cylinder in a cacophony of clangs and chuffs. The brakes are fully set in just 12 seconds: unusually fast, but this is an unusual train. It's made up only of brake components: the air pipes that normally run underneath the cars instead arc overhead in a skeletal canopy. Wolf, who is principal systems engineer at Germantown's Wabtec Railway Electronics, is ­testing a revolutionary electronic system that activates all of a train's brakes simultaneously.

Developed separately by Wabtec and New York Air Brake Corp., the U.S. ­subsidiary of Munich-based Knorr-Bremse, electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP) are intended to displace the venerable air brake ­system first patented by George Westinghouse in 1869 and now used around the world. New rules by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) may finally start to make ECP mainstream in the United States, which is home to the largest rail freight network in the world.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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