A Wealth of Wireless – Missing Opportunities

This is the third of three postings to address the Strategic Core Infrastructure that is required to advance railroad operations . . . essentially, the technology that is required to pursue Strategic Railroading. Each posting addresses one of the three core technologies that together comprise the core infrastructure. Whereas the previous two postings addressed INTELLIGENCE (The Mobile Node) and POSITIONING (The Positioning Engine), this posting addresses COMMUNICATIONS.

As recently as 2 years ago, the adage too-much-of-a-good-thing would not have seemed appropriate when discussing wireless technologies that could be used by railroads. But since then, the sky has opened up with the expanding availability of commercial wireless networks and most importantly the opportunity to implement trunking in the railroads’ extensive 160-161 MHz band that is subjected to the FCC’s Refarming Order, a.k.a. narrow-banding.  As to the latter, the efficiency of trunking, which dynamically allocates available channels to users (versus the traditional use of dedicated channels, e.g., one channel per yard crew), in concert with the opportunity for a multiple-fold increase in the number of channels obtainable by narrow-banding provides the railroads with an unprecedented amount of capacity to handle both voice and data in even the most complex metropolitan and mainline operations.

Apparently that wasn’t enough for most Class I technicians.  They wanted more … and more … and so a 220 Mhz band was purchased several years ago that will result in two parallel VHF networks across the industry. The timing was fortuitous it seems, because with the subsequent, and foreseen, PTC mandate that would require a wireless data infrastructure, the 220 Mhz band readily resolved three major challenges for the technicians, albeit with a price tag expected to approach a cool $ Billion. First, the railroad technicians were able to avoid the significant challenge (but a clearly an achievable one with the use of trunking) of reshuffling the channels required for the FCC’s refarming mandate. Second, the railroad’s technicians once again were handed their most desired type of project, i.e., develop the ultimate wireless communication infrastructure whether it is needed or not.  Third, the railroads’ technicians finally had a true reason to cooperate in building an industry-based communications platform. Up until the PTC mandate, the “Roadmap to Interoperability”, as the technicians referred to their efforts to define conformity across the industry, better represented an etch-a-sketch of numerous paths with a roadblock on each since it seemed each major railroad had its individual technical agenda.

There are several key underlying points that are not being considered by Class I technicians or by their management when it comes to the cost-effective deployment of technologies- most importantly wireless data.

  1. It takes so little data to achieve the majority of the business benefits of advanced operations within a railroad, and across the industry. For example, for U.S. freight railroads the periodicity of train speed and position data required to optimize the use of meet/pass planners is no more frequent than every 5 minutes;
  2. PTC does not require extravagant wireless platforms.  This is not traffic control;
  3. Either the 160 Mhz with trunking or the sophisticated 220Mhz platform will handle any railroad’s requirements.
  4. Railroads could be using commercial cellular and/or the Meteorcomm that they bought into NOW to advance key operating advances. There is no reason to wait for either VHF infrastructure to be advanced.

Bottom-line: More can be done with less and it can be achieved NOW.

When it comes to implementing and designing for wireless data, the Class I railroads are not considering the railroad’s bottom line.  What a shame.  Hence, my posting on the use of Technologists in lieu of technicians to build a strategic technology plan in sync with a strategic operating plan, a.k.a. 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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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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