The Illusive Mobile Node
Is it politics or perspective that is causing the PTC debate to derail?
As discussed in the Last Mile posting, US railroads are still failing to take on the strategy of incorporating the advanced business applications that can be achieved with the wireless data path required to support Positive Train Control (PTC) so as to most effectively manage their resources.
Specifically, the voice radio and signaling infrastructures that are currently depended upon to provide train status data to the traffic control systems, are unable to deliver the timeliness and completeness as to both location and speed data for trains so as to permit the use of meet /pass planners that could optimize the railroads’ most dense and most critical operations. Therefore, this primal infrastructure needs to be advanced, and to do so effectively requires a perspective that integrates the three principle technology platforms (communications, positioning, and intelligence) to form a strategic core technology infrastructure. In this post, I address intelligence, i.e., the processing power for applications, of such an infrastructure. The other two platforms will be addressed in following postings.
With the shift from the mainframe of the 60’s to that of client / server of today, intelligence has made the transition from being only centralized to that of being distributed with seamless flexibility between the two, at least for those industries whose distributed resources are fixed as to location. For these fixed node operations, the challenges for distributing intelligence tend to be less technical and more functional as how to optimally allocate the processing power across a mesh of private and commercial networks, internet, and back office systems. But, what about railroads where the assets are mobile and, even worse, where those assets traverse across railroad boundaries? This convoluted concoction of mobility and interoperability adds new dimensions to distributed intelligence far beyond those of fixed node, thereby necessitating a mobile node perspective with philosophical, technical, and functional considerations garnished with industry politics.
From a philosophical standpoint, the mobile node should be viewed as an extension to the IT architecture, meaning that the discipline and expertise well established in the traditional wired-IT environment should be imposed upon mastering the wild west of wireless. In short, this means that railroads and suppliers alike need to coalesce wireless and IT expertise into a dedicated Mobile Computing organization in lieu of the parallel lines on an organization chart that are too often the case today.
As to a functional perspective, the deployment of mobile nodes offers the extraordinary opportunity to rethink business processes that can take advantage of unprecedented connectivity and the timeliness and accuracy of position and speed data that wireless data afford (think UPS or Fed Ex). For some this may be extraordinarily uncomfortable when they are confronted with revisiting the functionality of their traditional back office systems, e.g., how would train dispatching be done with train speed and location data available every 5 minutes?
Unlike the fixed node, the mobile node is technically challenged by both the constraints of the communication medium and the physical environment in which it operates as well as the requirements of interoperability. As to communications, the mobile node must be able to strut its independence given that the wireless throughput is relatively limited and unreliable compared to a fixed node’s wired throughput. As to the physical environment, what could be worse than the cab of a locomotive or a maintenance-of-way vehicle? For this challenge I subscribe to the screwdriver-penetration test, a railroad’s version of Psycho’s shower scene applied to on-board equipment.
Given the extensive interchange of trains between railroads in North America and the EU, there is often the issue of interoperability, i.e., the ability of foreign equipment to provide the desired functionality on a railroad’s property. There are only a few applications that have been recognized for this intra-industry pursuit. Unquestionably, the most important for this discussion is that of Positive Train Control (PTC) which has been mandated by the US Federal government for implementation across the major freight and passenger railroads before 2016. With an unprecedented level of cooperation, it would seem to many, that the primary 4 Class I railroads in the U.S, via a joint effort referred to as the Interoperability Train Control (ITC) agreement, are working on all aspects of interoperability to meet the deadline. The ITC efforts are being handled by 7 technical committees: Architecture, PTC Application, Wayside Signal, Messaging, On-board Platform, Communications Steering, and Data Management. The standards that come out of these committees are to be available by January 2011.
However, there are still 2 major points to consider. The first is that the effort does not have any purpose other than that of PTC. While many railroaders and suppliers will state the business benefits of PTC, they fail to recognize the foolishness of their own hype. Simply stated, it is the wireless path now required for the mandate PTC effort that will finally deliver business benefits not PTC itself; PTC is just one user of the wireless data infrastructure. BUT, the ITC efforts are not providing a business perspective of the on-board platform that would deliver a true mobile node perspective that could handle not only PTC, but also support business-value applications such as pacing, locomotive tracking, fuel consumption, in-train monitoring, etc.
There is also another reason that the ITC efforts are less than complete, certainly not altruistic, if not a bit misleading; it is the issue of industry politics. That is, each major railroad came to the ITC table with a very different technology agenda. There are solutions to address these differences, and the railroads more than ever are working in that direction. However, I believe the solution to develop a single technology platform is poorly evaluated as to both scope and costs, while other wireless spectrums are being very poorly utilized, i.e., Meteorcomm and narrowband 160-161 MHz … clearly a discussion for a forthcoming post.