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Railroad Industry Slowly Climbing Aboard the ‘LED Train’

LED tube lights installed inside enclosed fixtures illuminate an Amtrak passenger car. (Photo courtesy LEDtronics)
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At tunnels near New York’s Penn Station, it’s out with old, orange, energy-inefficient HPS lights and in with LED wall packs from LEDtronics. (Photo courtesy LEDtronics)
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“Embarrassing” is how Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, describes the lack of modernization on America’s rails.“

It is embarrassing, particularly given the country’s railroad history and leadership in computing and aerospace technologies,” he said. “U.S. trains once led the world in technology and innovation, but badly fell behind over the last 40 or so years. Now, much of the innovation comes from places like Japan, Germany and especially China.”

Enderle pointed to LED (light-emitting diode) lighting as one of the easier upgrades that U.S. railroads can undertake to modernize the domestic system.

“Just changing fluorescent lights to the right kind of LEDs, those that are warm white, not only saves energy, but also creates an environment that is far more comfortable for passengers,” the analyst said. “We desperately need to update our trains while containing costs, and LEDs would be a relatively inexpensive place to start.”

Echoing Enderle’s take is one of the largest U.S.-based producers of LED products. Having partnered with Amtrak and regional rail transit authorities to light up trains, tunnels and stations from coast to coast, that company is on a quest to replace antiquated lighting that exists on the nation’s passenger and freight trains.

“The majority of our country’s trains have old-technology lighting,” said Pervaiz Lodhie, founder and CEO of Torrance, Calif.-based LEDtronics. “For safety and money-saving reasons alone, it’s paramount that the railroad industry be educated on the clear advantages of switching to LEDs.”

Lodhie’s hope is that one day soon, going with LED technology will be automatic for the American railroad industry. Once the giant freight-hauling railroad networks see the myriad benefits of LED technology, he contends, incandescent lighting will rightfully go the way of the steam locomotive. From merely a bean-counting perspective, Lodhie, holder of numerous LED-related patents, pointed to cost savings resulting from reduced energy use and maintenance.

“LED lighting has huge advantages over incandescent lights that makes it a natural for the rail industry,” he said. “For one thing, incandescents typically last a few months, whereas LED lighting, even if operated 24/7, is expected to last up to 10 years under normal conditions. Also, because solid-state LED lighting withstands vibrations, this newer technology is virtually maintenance-free.”

Amtrak is already riding the “LED train,” so to speak. LEDtronics has supplied products at several points along the national passenger rail network. At eight stations, Amtrak uses the company’s LED indicators for controls, tube lights inside trains and wall packs to light up tunnels, among other applications. These stations are located in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, along with New Haven, Conn.; Wilmington, Del.; Perryville, Md.; Beech Grove, Ind.; and Oakland, Calif.

LED technology is riding the rails at lower speeds than mainline railways, too, thanks to several early-adopter regional transit authorities across the nation. From Oregon to Massachusetts, light rail agencies are replacing incandescent bulbs with LED solutions that include miniature-based indicator bulbs, tube lights, intermediate-based bulbs and PAR (parabolic aluminized reflector) spot and flood bulbs at the control panels and passenger cars of its light rail operation.

One of LEDtronics’ newest customers is also one of the nation’s oldest. Riding the rails since 1873, the beloved cable cars of San Francisco were upgraded with LED light bulbs earlier this year. Replacing dim incandescent headlights with PAR46 LED bulbs from LEDtronics, in addition to installing A19-style LED light bulbs inside the passenger cabins, has improved safety and has saved the city money on energy and maintenance, according to Arne Hansen, maintenance supervisor at the San Francisco Municipal Cable Car Barn.

“What a neat idea,” was the first piece of feedback Hansen said he received from a cable car operator after the LED headlights were installed. He also said visibility has gone up tremendously since the upgrade.

“The San Francisco cable cars are a prime example of today’s technologies bringing new life, and in this instance, new light, to one the country’s oldest and operational treasures,” Lodhie said. “Upgrading modes of transportation of yesteryear should bode well for upgrading the modes that move Americans today and will tomorrow.”

The future of LED technology on U.S. railroads does look bright both inside and out, according to Shrikant Mahankar, senior research analyst at MarketsandMarkets.

“With the interiors of trains, we’re seeing an increasing demand for comfort and luxury, and that is propelling the U.S. market and others internationally for advanced lighting applications such as reading lights, vestibule lights, emergency lights, toilet lights and cabin lights,” said the India-based researcher. “LEDs also allow designers to develop imaginative train interior light designs.”

As for exterior train lighting, Mahankar said such applications as headlights, tail lights, marker lights and indicator lights open up huge opportunities for LED lighting in coming years owing to their advanced benefits.

“The main benefits for using LEDs in train exterior lights are long warranty periods, due to the long lifetime of the LEDs and low maintenance costs,” the analyst said. “Low power consumption is an added advantage as LEDs are energy efficient.”

By David Dickstein

Originally posted in Railway Age, March 2019 issue