WASHINGTON — In 1981, while traveling on a corporate jet, Richard M. Bressler, the chairman of the Burlington Northern Railroad, hit on an idea: What if the technology used by airlines to track the location of planes and help prevent accidents was applied to the rail industry?

Mr. Bressler, an engineer by training and a former airline executive, directed a small group of his employees to come up with a similar system for the railroads.

The result was a safety system called the Advanced Railroad Electronics System, or ARES, which was soon placed on several trains on a section of track in Minnesota. The system, among other safety features, allowed dispatchers to stop trains automatically if the engineer exceeded speed limits.

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