Amtrak: Keeping Us Safe at Super High Speeds!


In late September of 2010, Amtrak announced plans to have a high speed rail line in the Northeast U.S. that will connect Boston, New York, Philadelphia and DC, and move at up to speeds of 220 mph. A train that fast would cut a 426 mile, 8 hour trip for most East Coast travelers, down to 2-3 hours. That’s fast! Even on Amtrak’s fastest rail car to date, the Acela train (150 mph), that trip still takes 6.5 hours. Since Amtrak passenger trains are a part of life for most people on the U.S. East Coast, cutting the hours of travel for their customers is one of Amtrak’s top priorities.

However, it’s some years before the 220mph rail line becomes a reality, and there’s still one thing that Amtrak cares more about than transporting their passengers quickly: keeping all rail cars and passengers safe at all speeds today, and in the future. The safety inspection process that Amtrak has developed over the years has made it so that it is easier to check a large distance of track quickly so that both high-speed and conventional rail-cars can benefit.

So how exactly do they determine what’s safe?

imageOne of our customers, Tom Flavin, who works at the Amtrak 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, was generous enough to show us how he uses the Datavideo HDR-50 HD recorder to help with the Amtrak inspection process.

Because Amtrak rail cars travel at up to speeds of 150mph, their safety inspections are stringent and frequent. In addition to the high speed laser scanning and data processing systems installed on the cars used for inspections, a GPS system and Google Maps are used to identify suspect locations for the repair crews. These systems quickly help identify the area in question and inform the repair crew of the location of the problem before the train ride is over.

How do they inspect the tracks so closely?

imageAmtrak has a fleet of three Track Geometry Inspection Cars. Two of these cars are conventional railroad passenger cars equipped with computerized track geometry measuring systems. The other car is a self-propelled inspection car called the TSAVE (Track Structure Assessment Vehicle) that has the same computerized measuring system as the other two, but has an additional system called GRMS (Gage Restraint Measuring System) that is used to measure the ability of the tracks to hold gage to the required standards.

An HD camera is mounted onto one of these inspection cars with a custom-designed bracket. The HD video signal from the camera is then sent to the Datavideo HDR-50 which is located in another railcar.
This signal is overlaid with right-of-way location information as well the speed of the rail car and the distance from the last (some point measured by wheel revolutions).


Simultaneously, this information is stored on a database. Amtrak used the HDR-50 to help gather their essential data for three main reasons: It could be rack-mounted into their existing system, it had a removable hard drive (which was essential) and it had a SMPTE 259/292 interface controllable via RS-232 protocol. These features made it a perfect fit for the type of data collection that happens in the Amtrak inspection process.

So where does all the safety data that gets collected go?

At the conclusion of each safety test, summary reports of exceptions are sent out to various personnel responsible for the track maintenance in a given area. This includes a link to a Google Maps/Google Earth application that shows exactly where the potential problem is located and where the maintenance crew is to go. In conjunction with the information gathered from GPS, this data helps identify a unique location on the face of the Earth that belongs to a point on the railroad, and it is never discarded. The footage recorded on the HDR-50 also remains in Amtrak’s large database, available to any authorized personnel who may need to review it for their various job duties.

Who knew that the HDR-50 could play such an important role in helping to keep you safe at 150 mph?

For more information about Amtrak and their high-speed train project, please visit:

For more information about Datavideo’s HDR-50 HD Hard Disk Recorder, please visit:

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