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Back to Basics

It is reasonable to expect that most of the visitors to this blog are well-experienced railroaders for technically-savvy, established railroads, but not likely that knowledgeable of either traffic control systems or enforcement methodologies (prevention of human errors in the handling of movement authorities) that may exist elsewhere. Personally, until 3 years ago, my experience was almost exclusively with traditional signaling systems as well as non-signaled traffic control as used across 50% of the U.S. trackage – what is generically referred to as “dark territory”. With 40+ years of experience, including being the architect for the first overlay PTC system that provided the foundation for the PTC systems being deployed in the U.S. to meet a Federal mandate, my level of railroad basics had not been truly tested it turns out. It seems that I knew too much technically, but yet too little as to basic railroading. That is, I had a firm grip on understanding the pragmatic deployment of technologies to advance technologies for financially-successful, heavy density freight railroads. But, I really had never had to get to the basics of what safe railroading is when it comes to those railroads that have neither the internal resources (financial and technical) nor the support of suppliers who only deal with modern railroads thereby promoting only traditional signaling or advance systems such as ETCS.  How foolish, if not arrogant – I confess, on my part. But, again, that all changed 3 years ago when I became the Project Leader for a study funded by the U.S. Trade Development Agency (TDA) to study the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR).

ENR is the 2nd oldest railroad on our planet, the once-shining, now tarnished, star of the Middle East. I say tarnished for reasons primarily due to the raping of the Egyptian economy by the now-defunct Mubarek regime over the last several decades. ENR has deteriorated to a pathetic operation which is both highly inefficient and horrendously unsafe due to the reliance on human involvement in the generation and handling of movement authorities. Specifically, 2 points make the case. The traffic control systems across 82% of the trackage, Staff (token) and TYER (token-less), are block-by-block authority systems that stem from the middle of the 19th century.  Such inefficient traffic control systems have contributed substantially to the inability of ENR to handle freight operations that is critical for advancing Egypt’s economy. More tragically, the Egyptian people have been subjected to an amazing number of horrific train accidents resulting in fatalities. Specifically, within the last 2 months alone, there were two accidents that resulted in 55 fatalities due to errors by a mechanical interlocking operator and a level crossing guard.

Our study to address the safety and efficiency of ENR began 3 years ago, but was greatly hampered, if not threatened, by the politics and questionable ethics by key individuals that existed prior to Egypt’s revolution. Following the revolution, the project was assigned to ENR, and the professional railroaders at both MOT and ENR provided the means for the study to progress. The study is now complete, and the Prime Minister has directed ENR to immediately move forward with the study’s recommendation to implement our innovative traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement approach that is based upon proven concepts that until now have not been integrated to meet the unique requirements of ENR, and most likely many other railroads across Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.  I have labeled this approach as Virtual CTC (V-CTC) + Enforcement. This approach required myself and my team members to challenge our understanding of the basics of safe and efficient railroading. Simply stated, those basics fall into two categories. First, there is the point of functional vitality (i.e., how are authorities generated) across this most antiquated railroad – and how does one minimize the capital investment to complement or replace those processes. Second, to what extent and by what means can enforcement be provided to prevent human errors in the handling of the movement authorities, again both generation and adherence?

Functional Vitality:

The primary purpose of a traffic control system is to prevent overlapping authorities, i.e., to authorize only one train to occupy a portion of track for a given portion of time. However, as is the case in the U.S. with Employees in Charge (EICs) for work gangs, there can exist a nesting of authorities. That is, a train can have an authority for a segment of track (multiple blocks) within which there is a second level of authority that must be obtained at some point. In the case of ENR, this was a critical consideration in that it deploys hundreds and thousands of mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards, respectively, that have the responsibility to provide a nested authority for a train to advance through their individual portion of control. In fact, the two accidents that I mentioned above where the result of the failure of these “vital employees” (see a previous posting on this blog with that title) to perform their responsibilities.

Enforcement:

To provide enforcement means being able to obtain the parameters (time / distance / speed) of the movement authorities that are generated, including the nested authorities. We all understand how that works in signaled territory, and some of us understand how that works in dark territory. But very few of us have had to deal with the nested authority process. Without going into depth here, our solution for ENR presented a very pragmatic solution that minimizes the use of wayside infrastructure. This is important not only to the direct capital investment requirement and ongoing maintenance, but also due to the consideration of extreme weather and theft issues in Egypt that readily compromise the safety of any approach so dependent.

The bottom line to the above discussion is that dealing with railroads that are without the financial or technical resources, for whatever reason, to advance their operations, there are solutions that they can deploy that are not offered by major suppliers that sell major systems for major railroad operations, whether freight and/or passenger.  However, to develop such solutions means getting to the basics of railroad operations as to the generation of authorities and the means to provide enforcement. Our solution for ENR prevents accidents due to errors by dispatchers and train drivers, but also those errors by vital employees such as EICs, mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards. Such systems, to my knowledge, do not exist elsewhere  – that is prior to what we have designed for ENR.

If you wish to explore the above points further, then please contact me at comarch@aol.com or 904 386 3082 in the U.S. My team of seasoned railroaders can address functional, technical (including wireless), financial (business case), and mathematics-based (OR) traffic density from both a tactical and strategic standpoint.

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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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