Rail industry demands are increasing around the world. As modern train systems increase passenger comforts, supply chain visibility, and smart infrastructure connectivity, quality components become more critical.
If the US House of Representatives’ economic infrastructure plan (now in draft) ever comes to fruition, it will create substantial demand for electronic systems used in rail design. This demand would extend from new trains and signaling systems to updates for existing equipment, including modern connected technologies that provide high-speed connectivity for rail passengers, real-time tracking and visibility for cargo, and integration with intelligent transportation systems (ITS).
The $2 trillion proposed spending plan includes $329 billion for transportation systems. That total includes improvements to electrical, broadband, water, highway infrastructure, transit agencies, and maintenance, with $55 billion earmarked for investments in the US passenger rail network and Amtrak stations and services. Even if the plan does not advance, demand for rail services is increasing; growth is predicted at a rate of 1.7% per year and is expected to reach $4.4 billion by 2024. It is inevitable that electronics that serve the rail industry will grow in tandem to meet this demand and further bring modern connectivity to every aspect of rail service.
Connector Quality Comes in Focus
John Moore, senior business development manager for rail transportation infrastructure at Phoenix Contact, says that the rail industry is set to benefit from shifts toward environmentally sustainable transport, which include using rail transportation as opposed to other less sustainable modes of transportation. He predicts growth in transportation infrastructure investment from both government and private sources. He also sees a greater understanding across the industry that rail applications require high-quality components that can withstand the unique rigors of this mode.
“The rail industry knows that just the name ‘connector’ puts them on the high-priority, high-quality, best-in-class list when it comes to budgeting and sourcing,” explains Moore. “Think about it — a connector connects two or more components. This is a very important role for small items that sometimes appear inconsequential or unimportant. Think now of the word ‘disconnect,’ which has the opposite meaning. Disconnecting a connector is a good thing at the right time and for the right reasons, but at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons — as in a failure of the connector itself — this presents a serious problem. We don’t like disconnects in many aspects of our lives, for example, in our communication with family or working colleagues or in our home electrical systems. So why would we consider anything less than the best to ensure robust connections in all areas of the rail industry? Onboard, at the wayside, in the back office, are all locations that need the assurance of excellent connections that excellent connectors provide.”
Tight budgets are one factor that can interfere with the proper selection of connectors. Connectors are often viewed as a low-priced commodity, so some operators may not have a heightened concern for their quality. But connector quality matters a great deal, especially in critical transportation systems. Without the reliability high-quality components deliver, a connector could become a single point of failure.
“Small items that don’t appear to have much importance are usually the ones that can cause us the most trouble,” says Moore. “There is a saying, ‘The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.’ Tight budgets are many times the driver of purchasing decisions, and these decisions are not always aligned with business goals. For a freight railroad, these goals can mean maximizing revenue time. For transit, these goals can mean shortened headways and on-time arrivals and departures. And for intercity passenger rail, the goals are similar: keep revenue-generating trains moving, on time and without incident. The need to meet business requirements and goals sometimes conflicts with meeting business budgets, because budgets sometimes get set before the true cost is known. But I think we all can agree that buying cheaper may mean higher costs, such as lost revenue, lost reputation, and lost good will, with the result an overall poorer view of the industry.”
This is precisely what happened when New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority recently halted the acquisition of 298 subway cars from Canadian manufacturer Bombardier after discovering deficiencies in the railcar doors that could prevent them from opening properly. A faulty subassembly provided by a China-based door manufacturer brought the whole project to a halt.
Ruggedized for the Rail Industry
In railroad applications, connectors must meet a gauntlet of international standards, beginning with EN 50155, which covers electronic equipment used on rolling stock (rail cars) for railway applications. This standard defines performance parameters for components that are exposed to the rugged environmental conditions that are common to rail applications, including temperature, humidity, shock, vibration, and other parameters. Designers must confirm that components that deliver the desired performance can also endure these conditions and meet all additional country-specific standards.
“Connector manufacturers can usually provide that information, as product development is usually application driven,” says Moore. Rail applications have always emphasized ruggedization, but as rail networks increasingly merge with smart city infrastructure and multimodal connected technologies, communications solutions must also deliver the high level of signal integrity and performance expected of stationary systems.
“The connectivity supply in train coach is growing exponentially. Wi-Fi connections, information systems, and security cameras are the main important application in the new evolution of rolling stock. As more and more passengers access Wi-Fi on trains, operators require connectors that offer services that are up to the task,” said Paolo Colombo, VanSystem marketing manager, Radiall.
Radiall also provides high-reliability communication solutions for railway applications, including RF, fiber optic, electric, power, and high-speed data connectivity products. These products are designed to serve in railway station and signal communication systems, onboard communication systems, and trackside telecommunication equipment.
Radiall’s GM Modular Connectors, for instance, can support Ethernet and data transmission, coaxial connections, fiber optics, power cables, and up to 14 signal wires, offering extreme versatility for rail applications. In addition, each module is independent, which eliminates interference and allows users to create many combinations of connections while still optimizing space.
The company’s VanSystem line also offers circular, power, and modular connectors for rolling stock, like the GVJ Oversize Connectors, which are ideal for use in harsh-environment undercar applications including brake control systems, battery chargers, auxiliary converters, and inverters. These threaded and bayonet-style connectors were originally designed for military and aerospace applications. As such, they meet the MIL-DTL-5015 standard and feature bigger shell thicknesses and protected coupling points to guarantee resistance to environmental conditions. The qualities that make them well-suited for military and aerospace equipment also make them attractive options for the increasingly demanding rail industry, as the electronics in rolling applications stock face a constant barrage of hazards including shock, debris, and vibration and must also endure frequent mating and unmating.
“Connectors are some of the most critical pieces of equipment in railway installations. They are installed in track, brake, controls, signaling, and power transmission systems, all of which must be carefully engineered to guarantee the safety of passengers,” said Colombo.
As increasing demand for rail transport spurs updates to both existing stock and the design of new equipment, communications systems that can facilitate ITS — and the connectors that play a key role in every aspect of rail function and connectivity — will need to endure these rigors as well. Connector quality is essential to ensuring the dependability and comfort of modern rail systems and will only become more so as the rail industry, like so many other aspects of modern life, becomes increasingly connected.
Like this article? Check out our other Connector Basics, ruggedized connector, and rail articles, our Transportation Market Page, and our 2020 and 2019 Article Archives.
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