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Degrees of Separation

The concept of 6 degrees of separation was initially introduced in a play written by John Guare in the early part of the 20th century declaring that each of us is only six steps of introduction from any person in the world. In current terms, this concept is readily acceptable given the advancement in communications and travel that has shrunk the world as to providing such connectivity. In fact, with the predominance of social networks available via the world wide conduit of the internet, one could argue that the six degrees of separation is now substantially less, if not just one. Arguably, the most dramatic example is that of the Arab Spring that has brought the citizens of suppressed countries, including their expatriates, to the point of uniting against their respective governmental tyrants.  One would like to think that our individual connectivity has no boundaries at this point as long as the paths of internet communications can be provided to the masses via wireless. However, as well demonstrated by the recent U.S. Presidential election, this same advancement in connectivity also provides the ability for those individuals that don’t have a rational understanding of facts to present their self-serving prejudices to misdirect those that solely place their faith in the written word, as to what can be achieved. To that point, only but the most uninformed or self-serving individuals would be quickly reminded by the Republican campaign for the recent U.S. President election which overwhelmingly (compared to that of Democrat’s campaign), consisted of a constant stream of a substantially misrepresentation of facts to present a phenomenally irrational, non-compromising  right wing perspective that serviced those most-selfish individuals that have benefitted from the benefits of a capitalistic  society, but without the recognition of the masses that have made their accomplishments achievable. Fortunately, for the benefit of the majority of the U.S. populace, President Obama was re-elected. With that stated, onward to railroads.

Playing on this concept of how technologies, most specifically wireless communications linked with Internet, have brought the world closer today, it also true the degree of train separation can also benefit from the introduction of technologies, again wireless data, and the use of advanced traffic management systems that can provide a substantial increase in traffic density for any given corridor by simply knowing the position AND speed of trains. With the availability of both position AND speed data, that doesn’t  exist for the majority of railroads across the globe, a railroad’s operations can project  and prevent conflicts that may occur even within fixed-block operations as determined by traditional electronic signaling operations that depend upon traditional wayside technologies that provide block-size positioning at best. I refer to this capability as Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) as is described in greater detail in  various other postings on this blog.

The deployment of PTM is quite inexpensive  both absolutely and especially relative to its value in that it can be provided as an overlay to a railroad’s choice of traffic control, whether it be signaled or non-signaled, WITHOUT replacing the dispatching platform. This is true because PTM is only a management decision tool and not an execution platform such as CTC or Track Warrant. As a decision tool, PTM can dramatically complement, if not replace in many cases, the skill set of the dispatcher who is a manager of the execution platform. This means that PTM is not functionally vital, i.e., it does not generate authorities that provides for the integrity of train movements. The ultimate deployment of PTM is when it is tightly integrated with traffic control thereby becoming some level of moving block – a vital system. But only a few high speed / high density railroads can benefit from a moving block capability. In fact, in the U.S. there are a number of operations-savy individuals that will note that moving block for the most dense freight traffic corridors would provide little benefit until the yard operations are optimized concurrently. So! As an overlay to traffic control, short of making a transition to moving block, what is holding back the deployment of PTM across the majority of globe? I believe the primary reasons differ between public and private railroads.

PUBLIC: Outside of the Americas, the predominance of rail operations are owned / controlled by the governments of the countries in which they operate.  Again, in general, these are passenger operations without a clear responsibility for addressing financial bottom line, i.e., providing cost effective solutions that have to pass the threshold business test as to making a profit, or else it is out of business. In these environments it seems that the suppliers often rule the roost in designing the traffic control solutions that aren’t necessarily cost-justified. Technicians thrive on promoting systems in this environment; they believe that they are justified in delivering solutions without restrictions as to costs. However, for those countries that are confronted with growing their economies internally, as well as integrating with the world economy, they are being presented with technologies that they simply cannot be justified.

PRIVATE: In the Americas, the freight railroads are competing with road, barge, and pipeline transport and therefore have to maintain a for-profit operation to stay in business … or they are out of business. Indeed, in the U.S. there have been tens if not hundreds of railroad bankruptcies in the last century. The Penn Central bankruptcy in the 70s (which the largest bankruptcy up to that time for all industries and for which I was the lead financial analyst for the Trustee Staff, is the ultimate example. This railroad lost its understanding of what it was, and eventually went under. That railroad went into a downward spiral as it reduced maintenance expenditures . . . which resulted in reduced traffic speed . . . which resulted in the loss of revenue . . . which resulted in further reduction in maintenance expenditures … and the downward spiral continued to the point of bankruptcy.  Conrail was the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the Penn Central. OK, back to the issue of separation.

The separation between trains, a.k.a. headway, is THE key issue in determining the type of traffic control that should be in place, whether it be freight or passenger operations. Those European suppliers that service the high speed, high density operations in place across that continent have developed sophisticated systems that provide for both safe and efficient operations. BUT, what about those countries in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere that need cost-effective solutions to bring basic rail infrastructure to grow their GNP, both internally and relative to the world market?  They cannot afford the likes of traditional signaling, yet alone ETCS 1,2,3. These railroads need cost-effective solutions ; they need traffic control solutions generically referred to as dark territory that are used by railroads in the Americas that have a clear vision to the bottom line. They also need enforcement systems to prevent accidents due to human errors.  I speak with experience on this point given my assignment as Project Leader to address the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) that still uses token and token-less traffic control across 82% of its operations.  With detail to be provide in the next posting on this blog, my team of independent consultants  (we don’t represent suppliers and we don’t accept commissions) have designed a traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement system that greatly improves both the safety and efficiency of ENR’s operation at a mere fraction of the cost to deploy ETCS.  This is a proven system as to the individual components that we have integrated. We have done so recognizing the true nature of ENR as to what they are and will be in the foreseeable future along with the realization of the capital investment that they can support. The approach I have titled as Virtual CTC (V-CTC) + Enforcement,  provides CTC functionality with the ability to prevent accidents due to drivers AS WELL as mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards, as well as the loss of train integrity. For example, two horrific accidents in Egypt in November, 2012 resulted in 54 fatalities that could have been prevented with V-CTC + Enforcement due to errors by mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards. Both of these accidents would not have occurred in the U.S., but in Egypt with their antiquated traffic control systems dependent upon “vital employees” (see the previous posting on this blog), there were human errors for which there was no enforcement system in place to prevent. But, through the efforts of my team in performing our study there, we recognized and modified the enforcement concept of PTC to handle. Specifically, we have designed an approach that monitors the traffic control activities of these vital employees to ensure that they have performed in providing valid movement authorities.  Most importantly, Virtual CTC + Enforcement minimizes the capital requirements to operate the railroad both safely and efficiently, versus slamming in signaling infrastructure and/or ETCS that would be 30 to 50 times more expensive by my rough estimate.

I can’t over emphasized the need for pragmatic, cost-effective solutions for traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement that traditional suppliers have refused to address for the majority of railroad operations across the globe.  Shame on them. Enough said. The next posting here will present V-CTC + Enforcement for those railroads and suppliers that are looking for solutions that support the majority of railroads across the globe that don’t provide high speed / high density operation – both passenger and freight. Please contact me at comarch@aol.com if you which to discuss your particular interests. My team of seasoned railroad professionals can address the functional, technical, financial, and mathematical throughput analysis of considering V-CTC + Enforcement from both a tactical and strategic perspective relative to expanding the safety and efficiency of a railroad’s operation, especially when integrating freight and passenger operations.

The bottom line here is that I warn railroads from being fooled by the written and stated words of suppliers that have solutions that are not appropriate for their operations. There may be pragmatic, cost effective solutions of which they may not be aware.

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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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