April 1, 2024 - TRA Newswire -

Tucked in the hills and plains of Central Texas, short-line Austin Western Railroad is nearing completion of a project that you'd normally only find on a class 1 railroad like Union Pacific or BNSF Railway.

The WATCO Companies-owned 205-mile long railroad is equipping 10 of their locomotives with a distributive power system that will allow remote control of the engine at different points on a train.

Distributive power (DP) allows all the engines in a consist to "talk" with each other and be operated by a single train crew. The system is rare among short-lines and is a significant investment in the time it takes to convert a locomotive with the hardware and software required for a safe operation.

'Distributive power gives our crews better control of their trains," according to Ben Tarran, Director of locomotive support and lead on the project. "The Austin Western is a great place to implement this system due to the area's geography and the commodities that the railroad hauls." 

The AWRR regularly hauls heavy rock trains in the Texas Hill Country and the lines steep grades and curves present a challenge when all the locomotives are located on one end of the train. With DP, the engines can be placed at each end so that a second full crew is not required. 

"Typically we might use five locomotives at the front of the train," Tarran said. "That can make the locomotives bog down on the hills and curves. Now if we put DP locomotives at the front and the back, one engineer can control all the locomotive throttles and brakes as they negotiate the track conditions."

By simultaneously pushing and pulling the train, it lessens the forces on knuckles that couple the cars together as they navigate the slopes and curves of the AWRR. This reduces wear and tear on the railcars and means better control which also increases safety.

With DP, fewer locomotives are required and that results in fuel savings because they don't have to rev up the engines as high. "In the past, they might be running five engines at notch 8 (wide-open) to get up some of the hills," according to Tarran. "Now we might have four locomotives at notch 6. There's definite fuel savings there."

Installation was a multi-step process.  Wiring harnesses and circuit boards had to be built from scratch before the control units could be integrated. Precision Train Control Systems, the equipment vendor, worked with AWRR to take out the old braking system and install a new Fast Brake electronic package. AWRR crews had to be specially trained with a mobile simulator to mimic track conditions so that engineers could gain experience before physically handling the new system. 

The public will soon be able to see the AWRR trains operating between Llano and Giddings in Central Texas with engines on the front and back of trains. The railroad operates between Llano and Giddings in Central Texas and interchanges with Union Pacific Railroad and BNSF Railway in McNeil, just north of Austin. 

AWRR is the contracted operator on trackage owned by Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority CapMetro runs their Red Line regional passenger service between Leander and Downtown Austin during daytime hours. 

Photo credit: Watco