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The Last Mile – the 80/20 productivity gain the railroads are missing

As of two years ago, the advancement in railroad operations had stalled at the end of the wire, literally. While railroads have invested heavily in the backbone communication and signaling infrastructures that define the perimeter of their IT and traffic control architectures, the primary assets that need to be managed (trains, crews, locomotives, maintenance crews) operate beyond the reach of those tentacles.

Unfortunately, railroads continue to rely on track circuits and voice radio for managing trains and thereby the locomotives, train crews, and yard utilization. Accordingly, the back-office dispatching systems are so geared to provide a level of traffic management that can no longer service the railroads’ markets during peak periods. The net effect of such inefficiency is two-fold: 1. railroads have turned away (or lost) business during peak market periods, and 2. railroads are paying a severe price to obtain and maintain excessive resources, e.g., locomotives and crews.

Suddenly and unexpectedly in 2008, the Congressional mandate for Positive Train Control (PTC) in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 delivered the requirement for the railroads to advance wireless data networks, both individually and as an industry.

Suddenly, there was some hope by the few progressives in the industry that the PTC mandate would lead to a broad understanding of what the required wireless data infrastructure could do for rail operations.

Shortly thereafter, but not surprisingly, all such hopes were dashed as the railroad technicians sunk their teeth into this new opportunity to provide a new, most advanced, extremely tailored wireless data platform that could be envied by all and do all …but without any desire, recognition, or management directive to consider other than PTC.

Shamefully, this wasn’t the first mandate from the Feds that could have led to a revitalization of a railroad’s operations via wireless. The FCC had issued a Point & Order referred to as Narrowbanding that effectively requires the railroads to replace their extensive 160-161 MHz infrastructure consisting of 250,000 analog devices with digital equivalents by January 1, 2013. However, this requirement has been viewed  by the railroad technicians as a technology investment issue and not as an opportunity to advance operations.

Amazingly, after two extraordinary opportunities to advance railroad operations with an advanced wireless platform that required no justification other than a Federal mandate, there is still no real focus on the Last Mile as to optimizing the capacity and productivity.

The phrase Last Mile is not a new one for some industries where it has been  used to describe alternatives to deliver cable services in the 1990’s as well as to providing communication infrastructures in developing countries, and most recently to define new markets for advancing mobile services.  The phrase is also used to define the delivery of goods that is beyond the railroads’ physical infrastructure and that is provided by trucking firms. In this latter case, the intermodal industry has emerged as a seemingly seamless transportation offering the combination of rail, trucking, and maritime. Taking that approach to the last mile relative to a railroad managing its own resources is directly comparable, i.e., developing and merging the necessary technologies into a seamless technology platform that I refer to as the core technology infrastructure.

Simply described, the core technology infrastructure is the integration of communication, positioning, and intelligence technologies that supports the basis of a railroad’s operations. Today, that infrastructure is a ménage of voice radio and backbone networks as to communications, track circuits for positioning, and control points enslaved by CTC systems for intelligence. This infrastructure provides a level of block positioning data, but without train speed, that constrains the effectiveness of managing traffic to that of being reactive to conflicts in the meeting and passing of trains. With improved timeliness and accuracy in both train position and speed information, the railroads can achieve an advanced operating practice of  Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) that I introduced to the industry in 2005.

PTM is the ability to see the future state of a railroad’s operations so as to provide solutions to minimize, if not avoid, foreseen traffic conflicts. It does so by projecting the current status of trains by feeding both timely and accurate train position and speed data to sophisticated meet / pass planners aligned with a railroad’s operating objectives. For traffic management, the frequency of such data is dependent upon traffic density and the type of traffic control.  To be brief here, that means the reporting frequency of position and speed data ranging from 5 to 15 minutes in addition to AEI and CTC’s on-station (OS) reports. This is what I refer to as in-time data.

To obtain in-time data requires a strategic perspective of the core technology infrastructure, a perspective that needs to be both evolutionary and revolutionary. As to the former, the railroads should be able to leverage their current, massive communications infrastructure to obtain the level of in-time data required. The most obvious opportunity here is the conversion of the  current analog, voice-based VHF infrastructure to a digital, data-based one … justified by the rational understanding that by doing so the railroads could avoid the $1 billion investment in the 220 MHz platform for PTC. As to a revolutionary perspective, obtaining PTM will mean making significant changes in the traffic control processes that stem from the 1st qtr of the last century. Such changes are supported by integrating advanced communication, positioning, and intelligence technologies that have yet to successfully storm the innovation barricades of both the railroads’ and traditional suppliers’ engineering departments. A critical design point in developing a strategic core technology infrastructure is to not fall for the fallacy of  zero tolerance – 100% efficiency,  to not drive towards unrealistic, if even achievable, goals such as moving block dependent upon real-time data.

To do the Last Mile requires a strategic technology plan in sync with a strategic operations plan. It requires Strategic Railroading.

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Strategic Railroading™
Given recent tech advances there is now an unprecedented opportunity to advance railroad operations and the integration of high speed rail with freight. Real-time traffic management and communication is possible without significant development and deployment costs, but it will take a technology strategy working hand-in-hand with an operational strategy, it will take Strategic Railroading.™
Full Spectrum - Quarterly Journal

Full Spectrum is a quarterly railroading journal authored by Mr. Ron Lindsey. The majority of executives in the US railroad industry, including top members of the FRA and the major railroads, have subscribed to Full Spectrum for the past fifteen years.

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