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WheeVRail Profile Studies

Dale J. Brekke

Marketing Department
Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc.
Hame1,MN 55340

The subject of determining the proper profile to use with either the wheel or
rail has long been a discussion of controversy. Practices have evolved and become
common in monitoring the rail profile and keeping in conformance with researched
profiles that offer maximum rail life. However, with the wheel, preventative measures
to maintain the accepted profile have not been widely adopted. Railroad companies
and Loram Maintenance of Way have joined forces to develop an "Automatic Wheel
Inspection System'' (AWIS). This paper will demonstrate the benefits of monitoring
as well as profiling wheels in order to extend their usefbl life.


In the past twenty years, trends of the railroad industry indicate an increased
workload and decreased fleet, with more railroad and private car owners automating
their operations to reduce costs.

In 1975 the railroad fleet consisted of 1.72 million. rail cars, moving 754 billion
ton miles. The 1994 fleet consisted of 1.19 million rail cars, moving 1.201 trillion
ton miles. This represents a 59% increased workload and 3 1% decrease in size of the
fleet. The length of haul increased from an average of 725.7 miles to an average of
817.0 miles. The average age of private fleet cars is 15.3 years, compared to 19.2
years for railroad-owned cars. During 1992 an all time high was achieved when the
average car carrying capacity topped 90 tons.

As railroad productivity increases at a faster rate than that of almost any other
industry, there is a greater emphasis on automating several operations of quality and

Wheel maintenance is one of the most crucial elements in the rail industry
today, and wheel inspection is a standard measure of maintenance used to identify and
assess wheel damage and wear. Railroads are actively trying to increase throughput
with a "new era of faster, heavier, and longer trains". There is a need to displace the
manual methods of inspecting rail wheels by developing a quicker, more consistent
and cost effective means of inspection.
With safety as a dominant factor, railroad owners and managers employ
various techniques to ensure optimum wheel conditions at all times. Current wheel
inspection techniques include visual inspection aided by finger gauges and other
portable measuring devices. Time, accuracy, and personnel constraints are factors
that accompany these techmques and, until now, could be accepted as part of the
process. The AWIS system offers more efficiency than ever before along with
accuracy and convenience in a non-contact in-track installation. The AWIS system
uses optical imaging to collect wheel parameters in real-time.


The basis for all the measurements

taken by AWIS is triangulation. AWIS uses a
laser with line generating optics to produce a
stripe of light when the laser plane contacts
the wheel. A CCD camera is used to capture
the stripe of light on the wheel. The image to
the left is an example of an image captured by
the CCD camera.

2.1 Measurement Resolution

Measurement resolution is determined by the number of pixels in the camera,

the subpixel resolution, and the size of the camera's field of view. CCD cameras are
available with many different sizes of imaging arrays. Standard size imaging arrays
range from 512 by 5 12 pixels to 1024 by 1024 pixels, and sizes of 2048 by 2048
pixels are commercially available.

2.2 Subpixel Resolution

The columns and rows on the following figure are a subset of the image in
section 2.0. The subset of the image is the part of the image in section 2.0 where the
laser line has come in contact with the wheel. In this example, three columns are used
to determine the row average pixel intensity. The row average pixel intensity is
plotted in the graph titled “Gaussian Distribution of Pixel Intensity”.



The subpixel calculation is used to find the peak o f the distribution between
the two pixels with the highest intensity. From the graph, it becomes obvious that the
actual peak of the distribution is found between row five atnd row six. The shape of
the curve determines the subpixel resolution. A very flat curve or a very steep curve
will not produce the resolution of a normal distribution.

The two factors which most affect the subpixel resolution in this application
are: the ability to fieeze the motion of the wheel, and the signal to noise ratio of the
laser line in the field of view. To freeze the motion, the camera and laser must
operate at very fast exposure times. To enhance the signal to noise ratio of the laser
line in the field of view, the entire area where the image collection takes place must be
shrouded from ambient light or the power of the laser must be increased to overcome
the energy in the ambient light.

Given that multiple factors affect subpixel resolution, subpixel calculations can
increase measurement resolution by a factor of two to a factor of ten in these types of

2.3 Determining System Resolution

The following examples w

l be used to demonstrate system resolution.

Subpixel Factor of 10 = .002 inchedpixel

By increasing the number of pixels in the imaging array or decreasing the size of the
field of view, a linear increase in measurement resolution can be obtained. For
example, if the imaging size is increased to a 1000 by 1000 pixel imaging array, the
measurement resolution is increased by fifty percent.

Example number two:

Assumptions: Field of View Size - 10 inches by 10 inches

Imaging Array Size - 1000 by 1000 pixels

Resolution: 10 inches / 1000 pixels = ,010 inchedpixel

Subpixel Factor of 2 = ,005 inches/pixel
Subpixel Factor of 10 = ,001 inches/pixel


The purpose of an AWIS is to provide an optical imaging system that

measures the profile of a freight car wheel while in motion. The developmental
objectives for testing were to:

o Provide flange height, flange thickness, rim thickness, angle-of-attack,

wheel diameter, axle number, and train speed measurements.

o Determine the cross sectional wheel profile.

o Detect the wheel angle-of-attack and use it to correct profile

o Provide a maximum deviation from the tnue measurement of flange

height, flange thickness, and rim thickness of +/- 0.05 inches.

0 Collect data in real-time.

o Accommodate train speeds of 0 to 5 MPH for low speed systems, and

0 to 45 MPH for high speed systems.

0 Accommodate wheel diameters of 28 inches to 38 inches.

o Design processing speed required to measure all wheels on every train

that passes the AWIS inspection station.

o Display the wheel profile and its measurements on a CRT screen.


The development process for the Automatic Wheel Inspection System

(AWIS) actually started with the Loram Vista system. A laser-based, non-contact rail
profile measuring system, Vista increased the technical learning curve for the
development of AWIS.

AWIS developed quickly from a laboratory design to a prototype. Loram's

laboratory designed and fabricated a rail "system" in order to "shoot" a freight car
wheelset at 6-8 MPH across the AWIS equipment. The results of the laboratory test
showed AWIS technology could be applied to obtain wheel measurements.

4.1 Initial Field Tests

After it was shown that AWIS was in fact feasible, as demonstrated during
rigorous laboratory testing, the system was deployed for field testing. The site chosen
for this activity was near Wayzata, Minnesota on a Burlington Northern Railroad
track, close to Loram's engineering and manufacturing facilities. The system was
installed during the first quarter of 1994, and the first dynamic tests began in the
second quarter of 1994. The purpose of the initial AWIS field tests was to:
o Evaluate the system performance for train speeds up to 45 MPH.

o Verify the system performance for functions - such as speed

measurement, continuous image acquisition, continuous data
processing, and wheel counting - that could not be tested in the lab.

0 Investigate the effects of environmental conditions.

o Collect information to support the next phase of development

o Increase the confidence level for product introduction.

The preliminary field test was done in five steps:

1. Installation of the mounting plate and enclosures.

2. Installation of vision system, sensor components, and cables.

3. Field calibration and adjustment of the system.

4. Evaluation of environmental operating requirements.

5. Debugging, testing, and functional verification.

All computer hardware was housed in an environmentally controlled wayside
housing approximately 15 feet from the center of the track. All other sensing devices
were mounted on the track (taking into account all clearance requirements). A plate
was inserted between the rails and ties in order to maintain the relative positions of all
the components. Metal enclosures were installed on the plate to protect the sensing
devices from the harsh environment. The mounting plate and enclosures were
designed to minimize alteration of the track.

The field installation revealed several operating environmental issues which

were not evident in the initial laboratory test setting. These items included
temperature extremes, vandalism, insulating existing track signal circuits, and
producing a support structure compatible with current track standards.

4.2 Testing at The American Association of Railroads

The success of the Wayzata, MN, installation prompted the installation of a

similar system on the RTT track first and then later on the FAST track at the AAR
Center in Pueblo, Colorado. The purpose of these installations were to determine the
ability of the system to produce accurate measurements of the wheels on a test
consist. The test consists included a locomotive and an assortment of loaded and
unloaded cars. The test consists were run through the AWIS inspection station at
speeds of from 5 to 45 MPH. The collected data was analyzed for accuracy (using
the manual measurements as a guide) and repeatability.

4.3 RTT Testing Results

A degree of accuracy and repeatability was deternnined from the collected

data, although some improvements needed to be incorporated into the system
software and hardware. Vibration and speed differences were found to be remaining
4.4 FAST Testing Results
A completely redesigned site was installed on the FAST track. The
instrument plates were mounted on columns that were not connected to the tracuties.
New instrument enclosures with thermostatically controlled heaters were installed on
the plates. Enhancements to the computer system were made to dynamically
compensate for train speed and to incorporate the speed compensation in bi-
directional data collection. All computer equipment was housed in a buingalow which
was 100 feet from the track. Equipment to read the electronic "AEItags" on each of
the cars in the consist was installed adjacent to the AWIS instruments. The
information from AEI was integrated into the AWIS system.

Accuracy within +/- ,050" and bi-directional repeatability was obtained at
speeds from 5 to 45 MPH. The dormation from the electronic "AEI tags" was
incorporated into the report produced by the AWIS system software.


The AWIS can operate in a dynamic environment for monitoring freight car
wheels flange height, flange thickness, rim thickness, diameter, and angle-of-attack.

AWIS maintains information from its wheel inspections and this information is
always available and easily accessible. Having the most precise, consistent, and
reliable wheel dimension data assessment available on individual cars and
incorporating the information from an Automatic Equipment Identification ( M I )
system translates into better car maintenance decisions, a potential increase in car
utilization, and ultimately per diem savings.

The comprehensive wheel inspection system does more than increase

efficiency. It contributes to improved wheel maintenance through increased accuracy
and enhanced data assessment. Extended wheel life and reduced track maintenance
will be the results. In addition, resources can be re-deployed to other areas as needed
by the individual rail system.


The author wishes to thank Mr. Robert Leedham, Radio Engineer, Burlington
Northern Railroad, Ft. Worth, Texas and Mr. Scott Nelson for their assistance with
this paper.