Transportation

  • Washington State requires railroads to plan for the “largest foreseeable spill”

    Washington State governor Jay Inslee (D) has signed a new state law last month which requires railroad companies to plan with the state for the worst possible conditions when shipping crude oil. The law will require companies to plan for the “largest foreseeable spill in adverse weather conditions.” Much of the impetus for the new bill came after BNSF told Washington emergency responders in April that the company considers the worst-case spill scenario to involve 150,000 gallons of crude oil from the Bakken region, which includes parts of North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan, Canada. That amount of crude is carried by five tanker cars — but BNSF crude-oil trains often consist of 100 or more rail tank cars.

  • Airport screeners missed 95% of mock explosives, weapons in tests; TSA acting director removed

    Following reports that screenings failed to detect mock explosives and weapons, carried out by undercover agents in tests, in 95 percent of cases, DHS secretary Jeh Johnson has ordered improved security at airports and reassigned Melvin Carraway, acting administrator of the TSA, to another role. DHS IG, in a forthcoming report, says that airport screeners, employed by TSA, did not detect banned weapons in 67 out of 70 tests at dozens of U.S. airports.

  • Could better tests have predicted the rare circumstances of the Germanwings crash? Probably not

    By Norman A. Paradis

    When people do terrible things, it seems reasonable to believe we should have taken steps to identify them beforehand. If we can do that, then surely we can prevent them from doing harm. The crash of Germanwings Flight 9525 in March, which appears to have been an intentional act, is an example. It shocks us (and understandably so) when a trusted professional harms those who have entrusted their lives to him or her. So why not identify pilots at risk and take steps to prevent similar events from ever occurring again? Because it is likely impossible, and maybe even counterproductive. The limits of what can be achieved in predicting an event represent a dilemma we face all the time in biomedical testing. It may be possible to prevent rare events such as the Germanwings tragedy — “smart” cockpit doors or some such technological solution. But predicting their occurrence by looking more closely at the individuals involved is doomed to fail.

  • Better detection of diseases, fraudulent art, chemical weapons, and more

    From airport security detecting explosives to art historians authenticating paintings, society’s thirst for powerful sensors is growing. Given that, few sensing techniques can match the buzz created by surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (SERS). Discovered in the 1970s, SERS is a sensing technique prized for its ability to identify chemical and biological molecules in a wide range of fields. It has been commercialized, but not widely, because the materials required to perform the sensing are consumed upon use, relatively expensive and complicated to fabricate. That may soon change.

  • A growing threat: Car hacking

    A string of high-profile hacks — the most recent on President Obama’s personal email account — have made cybercrime an ever-growing concern in the United States. Despite the publicity, most people still think of hacking as something which is done only to information systems like computers and mobile devices. In reality, hacking is no longer confined to the information world. The level of automation in modern physical systems means that even everyday automobiles are now vulnerable to hacking. Researchers are now looking into the growing threat of automotive hacking. “More and more in your everyday life you see that we’re automating physical systems,” one researcher says. “And unlike an information system, a physical system could kill you by accident.”

  • Updated crude oil regulation worries environmental groups, increases shipments

    Following several deadly explosions of oil-tanker railroad cars in towns across the United States and Canada in the past several years, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued an emergency order that required railroads publicly to inform states of movements of 100 crude oil tanker cars or more as part of any single shipment. However, on 1 May the agency revised the order with a long-awaited rule which would require carriers to upgrade tanker cars instead of having to report the information, leading some to question the safety of the new ruling.

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  • How a hacker could hijack a plane from their seat

    By Yijun Yu and Andrew Smith

    Reports that a cybersecurity expert successfully hacked into an airplane’s control system from a passenger seat raises many worrying questions for the airline industry. It was once believed that the cockpit network that allows the pilot to control the plane was fully insulated and separate from the passenger network running the in-flight entertainment system. This should make it impossible for a hacker in a passenger seat to interfere with the course of the flight. But the unfolding story of this hacker’s achievement, which has prompted further investigation by authorities and rebuttals from plane manufacturers, means that this assumption needs to be revisited.

  • New state-of-the-art inspection facility for Port of Boston

    Passport Systems has started construction on a non-intrusive cargo inspection facility at the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), Port of Boston, Conley Container Terminal in South Boston. The facility aims to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of cargo screening at the Port. The facility will use a 3D automated cargo inspection system hat can detect, locate, and identify contraband at ports and border crossings as well as automatically clear or confirm alarms. 

  • Airlines ban shipments of lithium-ion batteries following cargo fires

    Rechargeable lithium-ion batteries may soon have to be imported by other means than air shipments after at least eighteen airlines have banned shipments of the product this year following devastating cargo fires such as the one that caused a United Parcel Service (UPS) freighter to crash near Dubai in 2010. Roughly 30 percent of the 5.5 billion cell batteries produced each year are shipped by plane.

  • Positive train control could have prevented Amtrak derailment, but it’s not quite on track

    By Jeffrey C. Peters

    Positive train control (PTC), a safety technology for rail transportation, may have been able to prevent the 12 May 2015 accident in which a northbound Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 188 carrying 238 passengers to New York from Washington, D.C. derailed near Philadelphia. PTC is a system designed to prevent train-to-train collisions, over-speed derailments, incursions into established work zone limits, and the movement of a train through a switch left in the wrong position. The Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA08) mandated that PTC must be implemented on about 60,000 miles of U.S. track by the end of 2015. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimates that the total capital cost for full PTC deployment according to law would be about $10 billion (about one year’s worth of capital investments for the major U.S. railroads) and annual maintenance costs of $850 million. The costs of implementing PTC remain a significant barrier – but not the only barrier. In addition to costs, PTC has faced barriers in technical implementation, namely system interoperability and allocation of communication spectrum.

  • Designing the future of rail travel

    Increased traffic, congestion, security of energy supply, and climate change are just some of the many pressing issues that the EU currently faces. In order fully to tackle these challenges, the railway sector must modernize and take on a larger share of transport demand over the next few decades. EU-funded researchers have just begun work on three exciting projects that could very well determine the shape of rail travel in the coming years.

  • Strengthening increasingly unstable rail tracks

    The big chunks of rock — crushed limestone or dolomite that engineers call ballast — which keep railroad tracks in place look like a solid footing even as freight cars rumble overhead. Temperature and vibration, however, can destabilize ballast over time, keeping it from safely transferring the weight of a loaded train to the soil below, draining water, and preventing vegetation from crowding the tracks. In some states, a booming industry of mining sand for use by oil and gas drillers in hydraulic fracturing has presented a new challenge: fine grains of sand can leak from rail cars, accumulate in rail bed ballast and, during a rainstorm, turn into mushy, track-loosening mud.

  • New oil trains safety rules short on preparedness, training regs: Critics

    New federal safety measures for oil trains announced earlier this month are being criticized by emergency responders who say the measures fail to address the issue of preparedness.The new rules, which go into effect next year, do not require railroads to notify state officials of Bakken crude oil shipments, and fire departments seeking that information will have to contact the railroads directly. Firefighter groups say 65 percent of fire departments involved in responding to hazardous materials incidents still have no formal training in that area.

  • Crumbling infrastructure to blame for growing number of derailments: Experts

    Transportation industry analysts say the increase in the number of derailments is due to a crumbling transportation infrastructure and a lack of interest in funding rail transportation. Amtrak, a federally subsidized for-profit corporation, has been the target of conservative legislators who want to cut government spending. “The problem that you have — and you’ve had it since 1976 and even before — is that there’s never been an investment program that would bring the infrastructure up where it belongs on existing capacity,” says Amtrak CEO. While derailments are usually due to equipment failures, human and environmental factors can contribute to train accidents.

  • New airport security technologies raise privacy concerns

    Researchers are developing surveillance technologies better to help airport security officials scan passengers and luggage for contraband and suspicious behavior. Privacy advocates say these expensive and ambitious projects, meant to increase public safety and ease air travel delays, risk intruding on passengers’ privacy.“What starts in the airport doesn’t stay there,” says a technology expert at the ACLU.