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A Safer Way to Access Freight Locomotives

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s (U.S. DOT) highly competitive Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program awards contracts to American small businesses to develop and deploy innovative solutions to our nation’s transportation challenges. Small businesses that participate in the U.S. DOT SBIR program have developed numerous technologies that benefit the Department and the public.

With support from the U.S. DOT SBIR program and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), GS Engineering, Inc. developed and tested a system that makes accessing freight locomotives easier and safer for railroad engineers and workers.

The Challenge

Railroad engineers and workers access freight locomotives every day. This can be difficult and dangerous because of tall steps, slippery conditions, and uneven or debris-covered ground. Considering those challenges, and that the rail workforce is aging, there are many chances for injury.

The GS Engineering, Inc. team reached out to railroad workers and found that nearly all of those interviewed had slipped, tripped, or fallen getting on or off of a locomotive.

The GS Engineering, Inc. Locomotive Access System
The GS Engineering, Inc. Locomotive Access System raises a user from ballast level to deck height. Here, an operator uses the system to safely access an AC4400 locomotive without climbing steps. (GS Engineering, Inc. photo)

The Technology

GS Engineering, Inc. developed the Locomotive Access System to eliminate the large first step and reduce additional steps needed to board a train. This innovative access system first lowers a platform closer to the ballast level. The operator then boards the platform and raises themselves up to the full deck height of the locomotive.

The system also works as a conventional staircase that meets FRA standards and American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association guidelines for steps. The technology ensures safe access to a locomotive if there is a power or other system failure, and no special training is needed to use it. 

Rail worker using the GS Engineering, Inc. Locomotive Access System
An operator demonstrates the difference between a typical first step height and the reduced step height with GS Engineering, Inc.’s Locomotive Access System. (GS Engineering, Inc. photo)

The Future

The Locomotive Access System is available as a retrofit kit for AC4400 locomotives. GS Engineering, Inc. is developing compatibility with other locomotive models. The company has established quality controls and a supply chain that can produce the Locomotive Access System at commercial scale. GS Engineering, Inc. will market the systems as retrofit kits, with an emphasis on Class II and III railroads.

The company’s long-term goal is to offer the system for purchase directly from locomotive manufacturers. The system may also be adapted beyond rail to mining, construction, or any industry that relies on people accessing large, mobile equipment.

“The technology represents a huge potential for reducing injuries, as well as making rail workers' jobs easier,” said Glen Simula, President of GS Engineering, Inc. “The drastic and positive impact that the technology has on one of the most basic tasks in a railroad worker's day is the most exciting aspect of the technology.”

The GS Engineering, Inc. Locomotive Access System on a train
GS Engineering, Inc. Locomotive Access System works as a standard stairway when not in use. As a direct, bolt-in replacement for standard steps, no permanent modifications to the locomotive are necessary. (GS Engineering, Inc. photo)

How SBIR Helps

The SBIR program gave GS Engineering, Inc. the financial flexibility to hire talented engineers to help develop the Locomotive Access System. The award also presented an opportunity to leverage existing skills and expertise to expand in the rail industry.

“It’s been a pleasure to work with local Class III railroads during the development and testing of the locomotive access system,” said Simula. “SBIR programs are ideal for establishing and growing relationships between a company like ours, the DOT, and the broader rail industry.”

Updated: Thursday, August 2, 2018