Late last week, the planned introduction of the new Kawasaki M8 commuter railcars on the Metro-North Railroad New Haven Line was pushed back once more because trials in November showed "a problem in which the electromagnetic field on the M8 cars interferes with signaling equipment," the New Haven Registerreported.
The State of Connecticut contracted for the new state-of-the-art M8's - which can run on both overhead lines and third-rail power - in 2006 with an expected operational service date of 2009; this date has now slipped into 2011 instead. Contributing to previous delays to the introduction of the M8's have production problems relating to the type of steel to be used in their construction and delays in installing diagnostic software aboard the first M8's delivered, this article in the CTPost reports.
The New Haven Register article quotes Connecticut Transportation Commissioner Jeffrey A. Parker as saying that:
"The electromagnetics are affecting signal equipment either aboard the train or signal equipment on the way-side of the train."
The article at the CTPost further reports that Commission Parker said that the train propulsion system was the cause of the interference. This article also says that a different problem that was software-related was also discovered during the trials which involved "the cab signaling system which informs engineers when to safely depart and maximum speeds allowable." The issue, which caused some trains to come to a stop, has reportedly been fixed.
The hope now is that the electromagnetic interference issue will be corrected in the next week or so, and that trials will resume shortly thereafter. Rollout of the initial M8 railcars into full service is hoped for by early Spring - assuming no further problems are discovered. It will take until at least 2013 to roll out all 300 plus M8 railcars planned to be operated by Metro-North.
There were two other stories related to electrical/software problems affecting trains, this time coming out of the UK, over the past couple of weeks as well.
The first story was published in last Friday's London Telegraph which quoted Lord Berkeley, chairman of the Rail Freight Group, as warning that the introduction of new 4G cell phones could pose a safety risk to railroads in the UK. Lord Berkeley made his remarks during a debate on the UK government's plan - which was preliminarily approved - to allow the auctioning off of higher-megahertz areas of radio spectrum to cell phone operators, the Telegraph stated.
Lord Berkeley said that the spectrum being contemplated for auction was "quite close" to the one used by the digital radio systems that UK railroads recently introduced.
It would cost the railroads up to £100 million to contain and eliminate potential cell phone interference with train and signaling systems, Lord Berkeley said. Without such containment, there was a distinct possibility of "serious problems of (railroad) safety and operations."
Finally, about two weeks ago, the London Sunday Telegraph reported that "a safety feature found in some modern computerised trains causes them to shut down in freezing conditions."
Rail service throughout the UK has been a bit dodgy since the beginning of December when snow, ice and bitter cold first settled across the country. Another storm today has made travel by any means even more fraught with difficulties.
The Telegraph article says that a train's safety system may shut it down "when there is ice on the third rail to protect the train against surges." In addition, once a train is shut down because of the ice, the train's driver may be unable to successfully reboot the train's systems. Apparently hundreds of commuters had to sleep on their trains overnight a few weeks ago because of such a problem.
The Telegraph quotes a Network Rail spokesperson as saying that while their trains' computer systems "certainly contributed" to the problem, they were not the "sole cause" of the problem.
Network Rail did admit, however, that its aging rail stock had few problems dealing with the snow and ice on its rails.
Well, I suppose that Network Rail will now add "the wrong kind of software" to its long list of train delays, which have been (with appropriate British press hyperbole stirred in) the "wrong kind of snow" "wrong kind of leaves", "wrong kind of soil", "wrong kind of sun", and more recently, "wrong type of thief."
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.