Just for fun – sort of – Big Boy flexes its muscles with positive train control

Written by David C. Lester, Managing Editor
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UP employee Tim Wilcox, locomotive engineer, Great Plains Service Unit, captured this shot of Big Boy No. 4014 in North Platte, Nebraska.
Union Pacific

The current tour of Union Pacific's "Big Boy" locomotive is exciting rail enthusiasts and rail professionals across the country.

RT&S first shared this story earlier this month as a “just for fun” feature. The story below is also “just for fun” but there is a significant technology story associated with it. Big Boy 4014 has the been equipped with PTC, bringing the latest rail technology to an 80 year-old steam locomotive. This is definitely a “worlds collide” phenomenon.

The story below is reproduced with the permission of Union Pacific. Check the links in the story that will take you to additional information about the Big Boy and PTC, along with videos for more learning. At the end of the story, you’ll find a YouTube video that explains more about the operation. We hope you enjoy the story!

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It’s true: You can teach an old dog new tricks.

Even the Big Boy No. 4014, Union Pacific’s 80-year-old legendary locomotive, is now equipped with one of the rail industry’s newest technologies – Positive Train Control (PTC), an advanced system designed to automatically stop a train before certain incidents occur.

As you can imagine though, there wasn’t a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to Big Boy’s 1.2 million pounds of steel.

“Back when it was first discussed in 2016, there wasn’t a clear, feasible technical path to accomplish this,” said Greg Richardson, general director-Operating Technologies, Engineering. “The steam locomotive was simply not able to provide the electronic inputs needed by PTC.”

PTC screen in the cab of 4014 (Union Pacific)

Fast-forward to January 2021 – a new design approach emerged, based on utilizing the PTC onboard computer of a trailing diesel locomotive. Solutions were engineered to address placement and powering of the PTC display unit in Big Boy’s cab; communications between the PTC display unit and PTC computer in the trailing locomotive; and interconnection of the brake systems on the 4014 and the trailing locomotive. This solution is also planned for steam locomotive No. 844.

Not everything was a perfect fit out of the box – refinements, some PTC software modifications, and close coordination among UP employees and the railroad’s PTC software supplier were needed.

William Boyd, associate systems consultant; Jason Baumeister, associate systems engineer; and DJ Morais, director-Operating Technologies, are key employees from the Operating Technologies’ PTC team who worked with the Steam Team to install the equipment and test its operation.

“I worked on and around steam locomotives for 15 years early in my railroad career,” Richardson said. “I always admired the UP Steam program, its scale and what it represents. It’s a personal honor to contribute to the program’s safety and viability.”

And as for the Big Boy’s commander himself?

“It provides a lot of good information for train crews and is a real improvement for safety,” said Ed Dickens, manager-Heritage Operations, and head of UP’s Steam Team. “We have a PTC monitor, so the system is fully compliant and works very well. We have a map that is constantly upgrading, shows us any speed restrictions, signal indications, any type of work zones and other impacts.”

The team is not done yet – the next step is to place all the PTC technology directly onto the Big Boy itself.

“We now have a path to do that, based on what we’ve learned and accomplished so far,” Richardson said.

The Steam Team just hit more than 1,500 miles of flawless execution with PTC. Don’t miss your chance to see Big Boy on the ongoing 2021 Steam Tour.

Big Boy No. 4014 Flexes Its Muscles with PTC

Ed Dickens, manager-Heritage Operations, and head of UP’s Steam Team, shows off Positive Train Control in the Big Boy.

Categories: News, Passenger, Rail News, Safety/Training, Technology
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