Saturday, May 2, 2009

What is ATCS?

What if I told you that as I sit here typing out this meager offering I was also monitoring the train traffic on almost the entire Staples Sub at the same time, watching a display that is very similar to what the dispatcher in Texas is seeing and having it updated in real time? That I can see the passage of the train I just heard blow for the crossings in Wadena? (According to the radio, it's BNSF 5254 east, clearing up a warrant just now.) And, it's all free?

Click to open in a new window

I first learned about something called ATCS Monitor about a year ago. When Mike and Craig came down from Canada last May, they were set up to monitor signal indications remotely (using a radio and laptop) and I remember being fascinated by the possibilities this offered.

A little research put me in touch with a group in the Twin Cities that was very involved with this technology. They were looking for someone in this area to host a radio and server for capturing the signal information from the Dower Lake and Wadena control points, and thought I might be able to do that. One thing led to another, and I was soon sent a radio and got the instructions and help for how to get my install up and running. I was seeing signal indications from Dower Lake and Wadena on my server. These guys are good!

Life, as it often does, occupied my time and put installing and getting ATCS running on my main computer on the back burner. Finally, a week or so ago I decided to get with the program, and with some help from Don Schoenberger in the Twin Cities, got my display operating. The results are shown in the picture above. I have to say, it is impressive. The work that has gone into this is very extensive.

So, what are some of the highlights and shortcomings of ATCS? First, it only works where CTC signalling is in place. That covers a majority of the Staples Sub, but if you look closely at the screenshot, you can see that the two sections of TWC territory are greyed out. Richards Spur to Wadena and Gregory to St. Cloud are not covered by CTC, thus ATCS Monitor can't capture any information on these segments. As you can see, the rest of the Sub is CTC and thus the radios and servers in various locations capture the signal indications that are communicated by radio between the various control points.

Not every trackside signal is shown. I don't know the proper technical term, but I think of the sections as being between crossover switches or sidings, and approaches for them. I'm still trying to figure out how to interpret the information I see. Basically, the red sections are occupied by a train, and the green sections have a signal lit up allowing a train to enter them. The small diamonds along the side of the track represent the signals. Sometimes you will see a train stopped at a red signal. Other times they will have green signals stretching out a long way in front of them. The route through turnouts and crossovers will be shown. Trains will sometimes (logically) occupy multiple sections at one time.

Given that we are blessed with a couple of sections of TWC, radio traffic is required as well as signal indications, with trains being issued and clearing track warrants. In my opinion, this makes for an almost perfect railfanning environment, with ATCS allowing you to see trains well in advance of their arrival, and track warrants being cleared and issued giving you some idea of what train you are seeing on the display. Defect detectors also help to ID trains, given that intermodal trains are usually in the 200-300 axle range, coal around 480-500 axles, with manifests being the wild card.

Last night Mrs. L4T hinted that ride would be nice, and the sun was peeking out from time to time. I took a look at the ATCS display, and sure enough, there was a westbound looked to be stopped at Wadena on Main 2, and another leaving Staples on Main 1. By the time we made it uptown and crossed the tracks, I could see two headlights to the east, and set up for a shot.


I knew there were a few more westbounds out there, and we managed to get some more chances that I will share later.

I think ATCS is a great railfanning tool, and it's one more "piece of the puzzle" when you are trying to figure out what is happening on a certain stretch of railroad. I'm a fan, and want to encourage others who might be interested to try it too. There are a lot of helpful users, and it's not as hard as you would think at first glance.

One drawback: as far as I know, this is Windows-only software. I know there are some faithful Mac users out there, sorry.

A last thought as well. There is at least one webmaster that is hosting the dispatcher image, and has it set up so it refreshes every minute or so. I have emailed him asking how he does it. If it is not too difficult or costly, that is something I would like to try and do in the future.

Jim, out

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