Advanced Technology Improves Safety, the Environment and Operations

Omaha, Neb., July 25, 2006 – Ever since its first rail was laid in 1865, Union Pacific Railroad has been a leader in developing and applying new technology to enhance safety, protect the environment and improve operations.

Technological advances in freight cars, locomotives, track and communications have enabled Union Pacific to improve safety, while handling increasing freight volumes that support the nation’s economy.

Freight Cars

For decades, train crews rode in cabooses to watch for problems that rail cars might develop during their trip. Crews kept an eye out for sticking brakes, dragging items or fires resulting from wheel-bearing failures.

Advancements in electronic and communication technologies ended use of the "little red caboose" in the 1980s, replaced by an End-Of-Train (EOT) device positioned on the last rail car of each train. The device’s radio transmitter sends information on train movement and status to the engineer via a display panel in the locomotive’s cab. The EOT also illuminates the back of the train, providing a visible light to train crews aboard following trains.

Union Pacific has more than 2,600 other electronic monitoring devices along its track to check rail cars for:

  • hot wheel bearings,
  • dragging items,
  • shifted goods,
  • flat spots on wheels that can damage the rail,
  • proper wheel profiles,
  • audio indications of wheel bearing failures prior to heat build up, and
  • loads that are too wide or high to "fit" through tunnels, bridges or overpasses.

Union Pacific continues testing and developing new technology, including a monitoring device to detect cracked wheel axles and wheel temperature "trending" by having several detectors "share" their information.

Technological advances have also found their way into rail car designs. Fruits and vegetables move across the country in new refrigerated boxcars with energy efficient cooling units, new types of insulation to ensure a constant temperature. Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) technology monitor and track shipments alerting the railroad – and the customer – to changes in the car’s temperature.


Locomotive technology has changed dramatically over the years and more rapidly during the mid-1990s. On-board computers constantly monitor locomotives’ vital functions and can be synchronized with GPS so that real-time system diagnostics can be performed. The ability to monitor the various systems helps ensure locomotives are available to pull trains efficiently.

One example of a computerized monitoring system is engine stop/start technology. It automatically reduces locomotive idling, which saves fuel and improves the environment by lowering diesel emissions.

New engine designs, coupled with on-board computer enhancements, also have reduced diesel exhaust. The use of alternating current (AC) motors has improved engine efficiency, enabling more rail cars to be pulled with fewer locomotives. Nearly 2,500 of Union Pacific’s fleet of more than 8,000 locomotives have AC motors.

Additionally, Union Pacific Railroad was the first railroad to test a prototype locomotive used in rail yard service that generates lower emissions compared to traditional locomotives. The new locomotive uses two or three small diesel engines that produce fewer emissions, while providing the same amount of pulling power as a standard yard locomotive. The railroad has ordered or will acquire a total of 159 of these locomotives and 13 of another model of low-emission yard locomotive. Union Pacific also has tested and is acquiring 21 battery-powered hybrid locomotives.

The introduction of remote control technology to operate locomotives in and around rail yards has had a direct effect on safety improvements. Since 2002, operators on the ground use a handheld device to send digital signals directly to a computer onboard a locomotive.  These signals select the locomotive’s speed and direction. With conventional technology, train service employees direct locomotive operations either through hand signals or radio communications with the locomotive engineer.  The remote control technology has improved safety by reducing the possibility of miscommunication.


With more than 32,400 miles of track making up the Union Pacific network, track maintenance and inspections are vital to ensure safe operations. The railroad has invested more than $1 billion each of the last six years in new rail, ties and ballast.

To make sure the track remains in safe condition after it has been built or renewed, track inspectors frequently inspect the main lines using many technological tools to assist them with their craft:

  • inspection devices much like an ultrasound machine that look "inside" rail to determine if there are hidden flaws in the steel;
  • track geometry cars that use lasers, optics and powerful computer systems to ensure the track is in the proper alignment and position;
  • portable "ultrasound" devices to look inside rail joints and other track parts; and
  • devices that measure the stability of the ground under the tracks.

Track design and the parts that make up the track – rail, ties and fasteners that hold the rail to the ties, to name a few – also continue to be tested, many of which are being studied at the railroad industry’s testing facility near Pueblo, Colo.

To detect rock slides, Union Pacific has monitors or "slide fences" that are strategically placed along the track in mountainous areas systemwide to warn the railroad’s dispatching centers when rocks or boulders roll down the hillside and fall onto the track.

Train Operations

Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the railroads that make up today’s Union Pacific, was the first to begin using computers in the mid-60s to assist with day-to-day operations. Train schedules and assigning rail cars to customers were two of the first computer applications designed to streamline train operations.

Today, Union Pacific and several other railroads have been testing GPS technology to determine its various uses in a technology-rich train-control system that would reduce the number of human-caused accidents.

Train-control systems being tested combine the use of satellite and ground-positioning systems with computer hardware on the locomotive and in train dispatching centers, using extremely complex software programs.

In theory, the train-control system monitors a train’s movement, compares that movement to what the dispatcher has approved and sets parameters for a particular rail line, such as maximum speed. If there is any deviation to these parameters, then the locomotive and train can be stopped remotely.

Union Pacific is enhancing public safety beyond traditional devices through new technology – installing Track Image Recorders (TIRs) aboard locomotive cabs to digitally record an engineer’s view of the track, crossings and signals directly in front of a train as it travels over the rails. The TIR is a valuable tool in assisting with the investigations of pedestrian or grade-crossing incidents. TIR video images and locomotive event recorder data can be synchronized to provide detailed information about what occurred prior to an incident.

Technological advances in the rail industry have and will continue to enhance safety, protect the environment and improve operations. And Union Pacific Railroad strives to be a rail-industry leader, testing those technological advances to improve safety while improving operations to better move the nation’s growing freight shipping demands.

Jobs at Union Pacific

Currently, Union Pacific has job openings at many locations throughout its 23-state operating system. Opportunities are available in train service, skilled disciplines (e.g., diesel mechanics and electricians) and management. Interested applicants are encouraged to visit and click on "Jobs at UP."

About Union Pacific

Union Pacific Corporation owns one of America’s leading transportation companies. Its principal operating company, Union Pacific Railroad, links 23 states in the western two-thirds of the country and serves the fastest-growing U.S. population centers. Union Pacific’s diversified business mix includes Agricultural Products, Automotive, Chemicals, Energy, Industrial Products and Intermodal. The railroad offers competitive long-haul routes from all major West Coast and Gulf Coast ports to eastern gateways. Union Pacific connects with Canada’s rail systems and is the only railroad serving all six major gateways to Mexico, making it North America’s premier rail franchise.

For more information, contact Mark Davis (402) 544-5459.

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