The concept of interoperability is relatively new to the rail industry as railroads link their operations within and across country boundaries. In fact, the lack of interoperability between various European countries in the past century was a purposeful defense mechanism against invading armies that could use railways for rapid, massive troop and weapon movements. Now, interoperbility has been the driving force for deploying ETCS across Europe for the past decade or so. And in the U.S., interoperability is currently the most costly and exasperating aspect of delivering Positive Train Control to meet the U.S. government’s mandate of it being implemented across most of the country’s trackage before 2016. Specifically as to PTC, the Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committees that are primarily manned by CSX, NS, UP, & BNSF have been working intensely to address issues such as system architecture, on-board functionality, message set, communication network, data management, and an all-encompassing method of operation. However, what has not been addressed is dealing with the set of parameters that provide for interchangeability, i.e., the ability to exchange a component or entire on-board PTC unit when not on the owning railroad’s property. Actually, this can even be an issue within an individual railroad as is currently the case with one Class I railroad that has an inventory of on-board units with 8 different model #s. Clearly, as the railroads begin to implement PTC, the challenges of interchangeability, and hence the costs, if not handled properly very soon, are going to grow exponentially.
The parameters of interchangeability include the physical dimensions, electrical interfaces, as well as ensuring software and hardware compatibility at both the component and platform level. Perhaps some folks think that the issue of PTC interchangeability will not be that significant given that Wabtec is the only supplier of the on-board Train Management Computer (TMC). However, that point is quickly dismissed based upon a number of other considerations, including
- Other suppliers are looking to compete with Wabtec as to the TMC;
- Again, one Class I railroad already has 8 different model #’s for the Wabtec TMC;
- Railroads will want to ensure that a foreign unit is properly configured as to software and hardware;
- Railroads will want assurance as to a long-term supply of components and units;
- There is a vast number of individual locomotive configurations;
- Proprietary backplanes work against the railroads’ best interests in most cost-effectively deploying on-board systems;
- Lastly, given that industry politics seemingly are always at play, there are bound to be conflicts within the “standards” that are being provided by ITC. BTW, what about the one most critical standard that is not being provided by ITC. I refer to the TMC source code. More on this latter.
Volume 59 of my quarterly publication, Full Spectrum, that will be released around October 1st this year, will be addressing interchangeability in substantial detail as to the challenges and the opportunities.