Every once in a while life hands you a wonderfully unexpected surprise. When Stephen Koehle of Lightner Electronics reached out to me to ask if I wanted to check out the A/V installation on the Norfolk Southern Whistle Stop Safety Train, I knew one of those surprises was at hand!
Norfolk Southern teamed up with Operation Lifesaver to spread the word about railroad safety with a special three-day, 354-mile trip across Ohio. Nationwide someone is hit by a train roughly every three hours, and Norfolk Southern is committed to raising awareness about being safe and alert around railroad tracks and trains. The train is being pulled by the First Responders commemorative locomotive, a breathtaking study in steel and color that is awe inspiring just to see, much less ride!
By now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with A/V. Well this train houses just about the most unique A/V installation I’ve ever seen, that’s what! Take a look at the picture of the engine. See that black box on the front right between the two headlights? That box houses a 4K digital video camera! It delivers a crystal clear 8 megapixel image of what the engineer sees as the train rolls down the tracks. What comes next is astonishing.
The NS 911 Locomotive pulls a restored 1926 Pullman Passenger NS 27 Exhibit Car, a veritable rolling museum of rail freight transportation with a built-in locomotive simulator where you can take the engineer’s seat! Additionally there are several 1940’s vintage restored Pullman passenger cars, including cars that feature a mobile laboratory for research, staterooms, bathrooms and a full galley! In each of the restored cars the signal from that front-facing 4K camera is fed via SDI to a series of video matrix switches, presentation computers, and distribution amplifiers, then through an MATV installation to a host of high definition flat panel displays where participants can enjoy a rare opportunity to see the tracks just as the train crew sees them from the locomotive cab while the train is in motion.
The installation was massively challenging for Koehle, who designed the system and spearheaded the A/V installation. Nothing about this project was easy. First, railroad trains operate at 480 volts. Just powering the AV installation demanded some significant engineering. Then, since television didn’t exist when these cars were designed (the NTSC television system wasn’t standardized until 1948 and color wasn’t added until 1953), pretty much everything had to be “cut to fit”. Custom racks from Middle Atlantic were combined with purpose-built power supplies and monitor mounts that would fit the asymmetrical spaces and securely attach to the quarter-inch thick steel shells of the seventy year old cars. Each car features over a dozen HD flat panel monitors, an equipment rack and switching system. If that’s not enough, each of the cars needs to connect to the other cars in the train in a flexible arrangement that allows for uninterrupted HD signal flow from car to car!
The purpose of this complicated installation is to help get the word out that trains are serious business and, in any confrontation between vehicle or person and a moving train, the train wins 100% of the time. One of the statistics that caught my attention is that a fully loaded train is to a typical passenger car what that car is to a soda pop can in terms of both mass and momentum. When people and vehicles lose respect for the lumbering steel giants of the rails, bad things happen. The Whistle Stop Safety Train is an investment in education. It is a moving school that delivers a unique and heady mix of history, technology and sheer power.
There’s no doubt that sophisticated A/V installations are embedded into virtually every facet of our society. While fitting advanced audio and video solutions into buildings of all types and ages is a given, rarely do we get to see how the very edges of our industry fit into the world at large. Thanks to Norfolk Southern, Operation Lifesaver and my friend Stephen, I got to see how A/V circled back to fit into a classic icon of America’s industrial growth. A/V in the golden age of rail travel? Well sometimes when we look back, we can see a new way forward!
By Joseph D. Cornwall, CTS-D (below right)
Technology Evangelist, Legrand North America