Tracking planes but not trains

February 15, 2024  - By
Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio

Every day, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) monitors and assists more than 45,000 flights — up to 5,000 at any one time — across the more than 29 million square miles that make up the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS). It knows the position of each plane with an accuracy well within its length.

Three key NAS systems are the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), the Airport Surveillance Radar (ASR-11), and the Wide Area Augmentation System (WAAS). They are all part of the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), a large-scale FAA initiative to modernize the NAS.

ADS-B — which includes ground-based radar and navigational aids and GNSS signals — provides real-time precision, shared situational awareness, and advanced applications for both pilots and air traffic controllers. It enables pilots to see on their cockpit displays what controllers see: other aircraft in the sky.
Relying on satellites instead of ground navigational aids also enables aircraft to fly more directly between airports, reducing flight times, fuel consumption, and air pollution. Furthermore, the improved accuracy, integrity and reliability of satellite signals over radar will enable air traffic controllers to safely reduce the minimum separation distance between aircraft, thereby increasing the number of flights.

ASR-11 is an integrated primary and secondary radar system at terminal air traffic control sites. It interfaces with both legacy and digital automation systems and provides greatly improved local weather forecasts that enhance situational awareness for both air traffic controllers and pilots.

WAAS, a form of a satellite-based augmentation system (SBAS), enables the NAS to provide horizontal and vertical navigation for approach operations for all classes of aircraft in all phases of flight, including vertically-guided landing approaches in instrument meteorological conditions at all qualified locations. It may be further enhanced with ground-based augmentation systems (GBAS) in critical areas.

Through NextGen, the FAA has modernized air traffic infrastructure in communications, navigation, surveillance, automation, and information management with the aim of increasing the safety, efficiency, capacity, predictability, flexibility, and resiliency of U.S. aviation. NextGen includes airport infrastructure improvements, new air traffic technologies and procedures, and safety and security enhancements.

Now, contrast all this with the near inability of the Federal Railroad Administration — tasked with enabling the “safe, reliable, and efficient movement of people and goods” by rail across the United States — to track any of the trains that carry 28 percent of the country’s freight, including many hazardous materials, and to know what they contain. In 2023, there were more than 1,000 train derailments in the United States, most of them in railyards. The derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a year ago, caused more than $800 million in damages and 80 percent of residents experienced health consequences. Only luck has so far prevented massive loss of life due to a derailment in an urban area. True, the FRA’s operating environment, which includes tunnels and multipath, is very different from the FAA’s, as are its regulatory challenges. Still, tracking where trains are and what they carry would be a great start to addressing the threat of toxic spills.

Matteo Luccio | Editor-in-Chief

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About the Author: Matteo Luccio

Matteo Luccio, GPS World’s Editor-in-Chief, possesses more than 20 years of experience as a writer and editor for GNSS and geospatial technology magazines. He began his career in the industry in 2000, serving as managing editor of GPS World and Galileo’s World, then as editor of Earth Observation Magazine and GIS Monitor. His technical articles have been published in more than 20 professional magazines, including Professional Surveyor Magazine, Apogeo Spatial and xyHt. Luccio holds a master’s degree in political science from MIT. He can be reached at or 541-543-0525.