The Positioning Engine – changing railroad’s core technology

The North American railroads have the opportunity to make a phenomenal paradigm shift in running their operations, both individually and collectively as an industry. However, to date they have failed to recognize the possibilities, yet alone to take a proactive position to break away from traditional railroading and make the transition to strategic railroading, i.e. syncing strategic operations with a strategic technology plan.

The reasons for such an unfortunate lack of progress are actually quite few but nonetheless difficult to overcome with the railroads’ current management teams.  In the simplest terms, the reasons reduce to the lack of a true business perspective relative to the deployment of technologies by railroads and suppliers alike.  This is due to the lack of Technologists that can provide cost-effective technology solutions that support operational changes … instead of the current terror of technicians who believe they are driven to deliver the ultimate system, i.e., technology platforms that only they can design.

The shift to strategic railroading is based upon making substantial changes in a railroad’s core technology infrastructure, i.e., the mixture of communication, intelligence, and positioning technologies.  Such changes will eliminate the constraints placed upon operations by the two traditional technologies that have been in use since the early part of the last century, i.e., track circuits and wireless voice.  Each of the three technologies that comprise the core technology infrastructure will be explored in individual postings with this one addressing the positioning perspective.

I start this perspective by first looking back to the 80’s and 90’s to several interesting, not always successful, pursuits of various positioning concepts. At that point, wireless data was beginning to get some facial hair with End-of-Train (EOT) being the first true application of its use across the industry.  More importantly, or so it seemed at the time given the hype of the GE-Harris combo, a significant attempt was made by several railroads to advance traffic management. Referred to as Advanced Train Control Systems (ATCS), this platform attempted to incorporate a concept for a positioning technology to ascertain which track a train was on when in parallel track operations, as well as another concept for determining the precision of position along the track required for moving block. Fortunately, the industry soon rejected the two ill-founded concepts, i.e., transponders embedded in tens of thousands of track miles, and expensive, on-board gyro platforms infused with convoluted track databases.

Shortly after the demise of ATCS, I was employed by CSX to develop a Positive Train Control (PTC) system for dark territory operation.  A major challenge was to find a solution for parallel track operation without the availability of track circuits to declare block/track occupancy. Luckily, I had the advantage of what not to do given the ATCS failure. The solution I developed, that has since been used in all PTC pursuits by freight railroads in North America, was to monitor switch position for the back office system to “route” the train within the accuracy of GPS once the initial track was known by PTC.  There were significant additional advantages to monitoring switches, i.e., being able to enforce a train should the crew be in danger of violating either the switch’s position or run-through speed.

While routing has been incorporated successfully into PTC functionality, there still remains the issues of accuracy and timeliness of positioning data for the purpose of advancing railroad operations. Specifically, what is missing is the middle ground between what the century-old technologies provide and what the technicians left unmanaged with seemingly unlimited capital funds would provide (as is currently the case).  The former can only provide block ID, and not actual position or speed of a train in signaled territory. In dark territory, not even that level of information is available.  Contrarily, the un-tethered technician will attempt to deliver real time data of both position and speed, even though it clearly isn’t necessary. Such fatuous pursuits by technicians result in expensive wireless infrastructures.

There are two key points here –

1) The advanced traffic management systems being deployed in Europe, ERTMS, are using GSM-R wireless with base stations as close as every 4Km so as to insure no more than a 7second lapse in transmitting critical information to keep the high speed trains moving.  Such an approach can increase the cost of the wireless infrastructure by a factor of 10 compared to what is required when dealing with slower freight trains.

2) A number of years ago, I contracted an Operations Research (applied mathematics) consultancy to determine the pragmatic requirement for reporting train position and speed in a fashion capable of supporting meet/pass planners.  This analysis showed the optimum frequency of reporting such data ranges from reports every 5 – 15 minutes, depending upon the level of traffic. This is not real -time data, but rather in-time data; the difference is critical when deploying wireless data infrastructure as well as the design of the back office systems that use the data. With in-time data, dispatchers can foresee traffic conflicts and dynamically re-plan train movements; a concept I refer to as Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) and introduced to the industry 6 years ago.

In addition to the use of wireless to report train position and speed, there is a variety of positioning data that are being provided for singular activities, including OS’s, AEI and wayside detection reports. Hence, there is an opportunity to merge these data into a single data base/server that can be used to service all requiring applications with improved timeliness and quality of data. Such capability would be the function of a positioning engine that is a type of Kalman filter that maintains a statistically rational tracking of trains based upon a continuously updated data base. I know of only one railroad that has built, reportedly, such a strategic component within their IT infrastructure.

Revving up a positioning engine requires a succession of steps; I can envision the following: 1. Construct a locomotive tracking platform by integrating AEI reports with recurring wireless data transmissions from the locomotives; 2. Incorporate a locomotive-to-train converter to form a train tracking platform; 3. Introduce train OS’s from CAD as well as the status of critical manual switches (e.g., dark territory operation) and layer on train routing logic. Voila! You have an IT server that is available for all purposes including the management of traffic, crew, track gangs, and locomotives, as well as PTC. This is an enterprise solution that, most interestingly, can be provided outboard and independently of the CAD – CTC infrastructure. This is a solution that can stand easily on its own merits without the organizational, technical, and functional barriers that are normally confronted when taking on changes to a railroad’s operations practices or its stoic IT infrastructure.

I am not suggesting that the above 3-step process to obtaining a positioning engine is particularly easy. But, it needs to be done now given that the PTC mandate has resulted in the railroads finally working together to develop a wireless strategy, albeit an overly complex and unnecessarily expensive one. Actually there are really two levels of positioning engines required. The first level is required by each railroad, and for a railroad not to do so affects only that particular railroad. The second level of positioning engine is for the industry.  What I refer to as industry intra-operability is a strategic platform that is required to improve the advancement of all railroads. It is the ability to know where assets are regardless of which railroad they are operating. The advantages can be significant, including fueling, maintenance, and traffic management. Industry intra-operability will addressed in a separate posting.

Lastly, positioning data is only as good as the reliability and accuracy of the reference points.  This means that the railroads require substantial GIS systems.  Fortunately, that seems to be the case for each railroad individually, but not necessarily from an industry standpoint.  Furthermore, the GIS platform within a railroad needs to be enterprise level in concert with the positioning engine. That is, the E-GIS platform needs to be common to all applications requiring such data, and the data collection and modifications requirements need to be specifically assigned to individual departments with no overlap. Simply stated, there can only be one source for any given data element … or … a version of the positioning gateway is required to blend multiple sources of the same data into one usable source. This is a critical design point for safety systems such as PTC.

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One Response to “The Positioning Engine – changing railroad’s core technology”
  • Dennis Moldenhauer:

    The tech needed for all of this has been around for years. Railroad companies for whatever reason simply will not empliment them and move into a new era, whom ever is in charge of R@D simply are not doing their homework. All rail roads have the biggest transportaion advantage over the market and the future of industry, looking at things in a different light is hard to do when traditional methods are all that are wanted and/or expected.
    The industry only struggles because of lack of knowledge and wisdom to impliment it applications. Which is a terrible waste and I\’m sad to say I can only sit and watch.
    Dennis Moldenhauer Carman.

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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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