Real-time monitoring of various components of a railcar such as wheel bearing temperature, brake line status, integrity of transported goods and many more has become a key focus area of research for the North American freight railroad industry. The ability for timely detection of abnormalities and impending failures prevents costly accidents, the potential loss of life and damage to the environment. Monitoring also increases overall operational efficiency, reliability and safety of freight railroads.

Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN) are an obvious choice for implementing such a monitoring scheme. The accumulated data from various sensors distributed throughout each railcar along the length of the train is transmitted wirelessly using multi-hop transmissions to the locomotive for alerting and monitoring. From there, this information is also transmitted to dispatch centers for further analysis and recording. ZigBee technology based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard is a popular choice among WSN communication protocols, owing to its low cost and low power requirements. ZigBee performance degrades severely in the long chain-like topology characteristic of the railroad application environment. This effectively disqualifies ZigBee as a candidate technology for such railcar monitoring deployments.

To overcome these issues with ZigBee deployments for freight train monitoring we developed our Hybrid Technology Networking (HTN) approach [5–7]. HTN leverages both ZigBee and Wi-Fi communication to achieve reliable communication along an entire freight train. Railcar monitoring nodes are grouped into smaller clusters, within which we utilize ZigBee for its low-power operation and report to each cluster’s gateway node. The gateway nodes of all the clusters on a train communicate using Wi-Fi, to benefit from the high throughput and long communication range. This tiered architecture also results in a drastic reduction in overall hop count for end-to-end communication.

In this paper we present HTNMote, a hardware platform that we are developing and employing for real-world evaluation of the HTN protocol. We also present results from our field tests of the HTNMotes at the Transportation Technology Center (TTCI) facility in Pueblo, Colorado, operated by the US Association of American Railroads (AAR). The results show that the use of HTN improves performance of the network by at least an order of magnitude compared to a ZigBee-only network. This paper details the design of our HTNMote platform, present the test setup and results, as well as conduct an in-depth analysis of the obtained results as they relate to railroad operations.

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