Remote-control toys have gotten a whole lot bigger on the rails in Ennis since December.

Fluorescent green signs at crossings near Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. and Northeast and Northwest Main tell drivers “remote control locomotives operate in this area. Locomotive cabs may be unoccupied.”

Just in case you were thinking of lingering on the tracks.

“Basically, we put the signs up to make sure people are aware those locomotives do not have humans inside the cabs like some of the more traditional operations,” said James Barnes, director of media information for the Union Pacific Railroad.

Remote control locomotive — RCL — refers to a locomotive operated through the use of a radio transmitter and receiver system that can be operated by a person who is not physically in the locomotive cab. It is could be compared to a very big push-and-pull robot. Its sole use is in yard switching, where railroad staff reconfigure trains for delivery to local customers or forwarding on to other destinations.

“It is not used in over-the-road operations,” Barnes said.

Like many remote control toys, the RCL operators are typically standing within a few yards of the train.

“They move a few cars at speeds not to exceed 15 mph,” Barnes said.

Trains 101: the short course.

A manifest train comes in from America’s breadbasket — the Midwest. It may be carrying auto parts, pipes, grain, an assortment of commoditie. In the Ennis yard, the loaded and empty cars may be reconfigured into different trains to be sent on to other destinations.

Some of those materials may be bound for Ennis companies — plastic pellets to be melted down to make products at Sterelite, for example. Ennis industries like Lowe’s Distribution Center, Ennis Extruded, Elk Corp. and Hexion Corp. send product back out via rail from a town whose future has been inextricably interwoven with railroads since its founding in 1872 as the northern terminus of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad and namesake of rail exec Cornelius Ennis.  

The most common use for RCL in all of that is for unhooking a few cars, although technically the remote-controlled locomotive workhorses can pull dozens of cars at a time.

Move forward! Back up! Commands between conductor and train that were once carried out with a live engineer aboard are now done with a pack that's worn around the middle as the conductor watches from a few yards distance.

The rules and regulations governing remote-control locomotives come from the Federal Railroad Administration, which issued guidelines for the design, operation, training and inspection of remote control technology.

Implementation of RCL in all class 1 railroads began in early 2002. RCL had been in use in some North American railroads for up to a decade before that, Barnes said.

The unmanned locomotives have been making remote-controlled excursions in the Ennis railyard since December, 2007. Their work is primarily done in the railyard area north of MLK, where there are six tracks, a main line and a couple stubs, or little driveways where trains can be parked.

“For safety reasons, we do post the signs where we are operating the technology because we want people to be aware of how locomotives are being operated remotely,” Barnes said.  

“It’s pretty much business as usual for the railroad. For the most part, people are cognizant enough to know the railyard is where railroad operations take place. We always encourage safety among our own employees. From a public safety standpoint, this helps us to improve safety,” Barnes said.

Ennis-based conductor Danny Neil makes runs from Ennis to Corsicana and back.

So far, he said, RCL doesn't always equal efficiency. “We’d rather have an engineer up there — it would get done quicker. Sometimes we have trouble getting them to work,” he said.

One local trainwatcher who had driven by the signs found himself wondering about the effects RCL might have on safety — if a bus stalled on the tracks, for example.

“I wonder what precautions or safety devices they may have that would keep that train from hitting that bus without an engineer in it — I think they probably have a safety feature that’s somehow able to compensate,” he said. “I wasn’t concerned, I was just wondering.”

Not to worry, according to CN, the Canadian National Railway. The development of RCL was a very good thing for safety, according to a 2001 press release on the company Website, www.cn.ca.

“CN’s data shows that the use of the locomotive remote control system has resulted in a major reduction in the number of yard incidents,” the statement said.

UP’s James Barnes concurs. Previously, conductors and engineers communicated through radio or a series of hand signals; RCL reduces miscommunication because operators on the ground direct the locomotive’s speed and operation by sending digital signals directly to an onboard computer, he said.

Failsafes for the RCL system include cameras at the crossing for security purposes, as well as a series of “pucks” embedded in the track area, designed to aid in slowing the RCL to a halt before it reaches the mainline in the event of a failure of the computer system.

“The system brings the locomotive to a stop if communication is interrupted,” James Barnes said.

Okaying RCL is done by the FRA, said city manager Steve Howerton.

“I’m sure the Federal Railroad Commission has reviewed this thoroughly and has great confidence in the process, so we will do so as well,” he said.

The RCL switching locomotives have a very small yard to play in. While they’re used around the continent for moving cars around switcher yards, they are meant only for the very short haul.

They are lighter weight than the OTR locomotive. They have a third of the horsepower — just 1,200-2,100hp, compared to 4,000-6,000hp for the OTR models.

“It’s a different type of locomotive — its job is to disassemble trains or just take them that last mile to industry,” Barnes said.

One advantage to using the lighter-weight switching locomotive for the macro-trips  is its emission footprint. Some even use a truck battery. “The emission footprint is very small,” Barnes said.

While no one enjoys waiting at a crossing for a train to go through, it’s a safe way to transport America's goods, he said.

According to American Society of Mechanical Engineers numbers cited on UPRR.com,  one double-stacked train can carry the equivalent of 280 trucks' worth of goods. From 1980 to the present, fuel efficiency has increased by 72 percents; now, a gallon of diesel fuel can take a ton of goods 406 miles, compared to the earlier rate of 285.

“One intermodal train takes 280 trucks off the road. We’re basically three times more efficient than over the road trucks. On a ton-per-mile basis, we’re three times cleaner than trucks,” Barnes said.

“We coordinate with trucks as another modality for the last mile, but for longer distances, trains are much more efficient to move freight.”

Cost-cutting efficiency measures are nothing new on the rails. A long-running campaign to save the caboose, for safety’s sake and for the jobs of the brakemen and conductors who rode at the end of the train, aboard American rail systems has been unsuccessful.

E-mail J. Louise Larson at jlouise.larson@wninews.com