Ensuring rail safety is a priority for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the railroad industry in North America. One such endeavor is to leverage Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN) to monitor and report in real-time the status of mechanical and electrical components for each railcar, and in conjunction with other railroad subsystems, ensure the safety, security and integrity of transported goods.

The envisioned solution utilizes sensors installed on each railcar to form a train-based wireless network and collect real-time (or near real-time) information on different elements of a train and transmit aggregated information to the locomotive, dispatch centers or regional offices for early fault detection and accident prevention. The railroads have been interested in using a standards-based low-cost communication protocol for this purpose, such as IEEE 802.15.4, often referred to as ZigBee.

Our results show, however, that ZigBee was designed for smaller wireless networks, such as a single railcar. It exhibits several critical problems associated with the unique network topology found on a freight train and the size of such a network. In essence, the network would take the shape of a very long chain of nodes. Some of the problems stemming from this topology are excessively long synchronization delays for establishing the network along the entire train, severe problems with route discovery and maintenance necessary for selecting the next relay node along the chain, aggregation of data errors and a resulting unacceptable packet loss rate, the lack of a traffic prioritization mechanism to protect important packets such as those containing critical alarms of equipment failure, and many more.

In this paper, we describe our findings and experiences in our evaluation of ZigBee for railcar monitoring onboard freight trains, a detailed analysis of the identified problems and their impact on the envisioned railcar monitoring as well as discuss potential solutions to these problems.

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