The Strategic Technologist

Why are you reading this posting?  Perhaps what caught your attention is the peculiarity of the title. After all, neither of the words strategic nor technologist are easy to find individually, yet alone together, in the North American rail industry. The fact that you came to a blog called Strategic Railroading is itself most appreciated .  But the Strategic Technologist is one additional leap of exploration.

Neither railroads nor suppliers traditional to the rail industry employ technologists, i.e., those individuals that address a pragmatic deployment of technologies based upon cost-effective analysis.  Accordingly, neither railroads nor suppliers have comprehensive strategies as to the deployment of advancing technologies aligned with progressive business processes (i.e. Strategic Railroading).  Instead, both rely on technicians who are chartered with keeping on with evolving generations of technologies without delivering a business perspective as to how advancing technologies can best be utilize to improve the railroads’ business processes.

Unquestionably, the most critical example of this dire situation until recently has been that of the two primary technology infrastructures that the railroads continue to depend upon for their operations: track circuits for signaled territory and voice radio in dark territory. These two technologies have their roots in the first and second quarters of the 20th century, respectively. As such, the dispatching systems dependent upon these ancestral technologies are geared only for reactive traffic control vs. the opportunities for proactive traffic management.  The difference between  the two is substantial when the dysfunctional train dispatching (to be kind) of the former is compared to the latter’s ability to re-plan train movements to avoid foreseeable traffic conflicts based upon timely knowledge of train speed and location knowledge that is not available via the current reliance on track circuits and voice radio.

The technicians are not solely at fault here in that there are no operation strategists pursuing the advance business opportunities across a railroad’s system that advancing technologies could support.  Operations management lacks the awareness, and heretofore the impetus, to pursue more effective means of running the railroad. The net result is that there is neither strategic business nor strategic technology plans within the railroads, yet alone the critical synergistic link between the two. Keep in mind, that each railroad will readily claim that they in fact do have a strategic technology plan. However, it is at best a plan to integrate wireless data-based applications into the IT infrastructure in a “real time” fashion.  As will be discussed in other posts, the phrase “real time” is a major indication that there really isn’t any true technology plan.  With the exception of moving block operations, which have been rightfully rejected by freight railroads, real time is a completely unnecessary goal for wireless systems … and a very expensive one if truly pursued.

Unlike any other time in the history of North American railroads, there are now several key market drivers that demand a change in the way of deploying technologies and, more important, in rethinking the primary business processes.  I am referring to the Congressional mandate to deploy PTC before 2016, and the FCC Refarming Point and Order that will require a $1 billion investment in the VHF  -161MHzinfrastructure between now and 2013.  The former requires the availability of a wireless data system for which the railroads technicians have decided to deploy a capital intensive 220 MHz network parallel to the 160 MHz infrastructure, thereby essentially doubling the capital investment . There is little justification for parallel networks in my opinion in that the refarmed 160 MHz could readily handle the current requirements as well as those projected for PTC.  The only rational reason, but inexcusable nonetheless, is that technicians made the decisions to avoid the complexity of a proficient 160 MHz platform and instead saw the opportunity to create a new network.  That is what technicians like to do and the railroads will pay heavily for this traditional, myopic perspective.

Enter the Strategic Technologist: a conceptualist that determines the demand for critical information flow and subsequently designs the technical architecture to service that demand in a cost-effective, holistic fashion across the railroad’s system. This blog will be covering a number of underlying issues associated with the role of the Strategic Technologist relative to 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.™
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