Innocence Lost: Rail Operations

In the previous posting on this blog, I wrote about the Innocent Lost of Engineers, meaning that with the introduction of the commercially-available, hand-held digital calculators in 1972, engineers began to lose their ability to approximate solutions for a series of calculations with various powers of ten involved.  For example: engineers of that generation could quickly determine that 3.936 X 44,888 / 1,987 is somewhere in the range of 4x(90×500)/(4×500) …hence … 4×90/4 … hence …  90. Such capability was an art that complemented the use of the now-obsolete slide rule, an analog calculation device that performed multiplication and division by literally sliding sticks ruled with logarithmic scales. This lack in the skill of approximation for engineers not experienced with the slide rule is unfortunate because it is critical for thinking on one’s feet to obtain answers to move through complex situations efficiently, albeit not accurately. I also believe the ability to approximate solutions adds greatly to one’s level of creativity. Unfortunately, engineers of today feel compelled to deliver exactness limited by the number of digits displayed on their digital device. Their answer for the above problem would be 88.91754806240564…

Considering railroads, I see a significant lack of creativity with the current set of primary technicians across the industry as to their inability to “think outside of the boxcar, if you will. A case in point here is the pursuit of PTC in the U.S. where technicians are designing to extreme levels of exactness and capability that are clearly not warranted (see posting The Goods, The Bads, & The Uglies, March 5, 2013  found by clicking on the PTC category on the right side of the home page).

Now, I suggest that railroad operators are in the process of losing their innocence as well as to how they run their railroads. Fortunately, however, this is a good thing. Instead of operating a railroad as they have in the past to satisfy their own perspective of what a railroad is, i.e., take it or leave it, railroads are focusing now on customer service for the benefits of their own bottom line as well as that of the shippers by improving customer service. This customer / bottom line perspective started to evolve in the 80s as railroad executives began to recognize the increasing amount of freight traffic being captured by the trucking industry via the nationwide interstate road infrastructure. As a subject for a posting in the future, this was the genesis of the intermodal industry that has now replaced coal freight revenue as the top source of revenue for several Class I railroads.

As to operators losing their innocence, I see 4 phases that will permit them to eventually maximize the use of their resources while delivering optimal customer service.

  1. Resource Rationalization
  2. Scheduled Operations
  3. Proactive Resource Management
  4. Industry Management Perspective

Unfortunately, as explained below, most of the major U.S. railroads have only managed to achieve the first phase of resource rationalization in the last 2-3 decades. Too few railroads have begun to pursue the 2nd phase of scheduled operations, yet alone the 3rd phase of proactive resource management, and certainly not the 4th phase of industry management perspective.

1.    Resource Rationalization

This phase began with the signing of the Staggers Act in 1980 that deregulated the freight rail industry in the U.S. This act introduced competition to the freight rail industry by removing the role of the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) that regulated the tariffs for freight services. This first phase was managed via the infusion of MBAs in the railroads that struggled to work within the efficiency constraints of conventional traffic control systems and the associated operating processes. Such constraints included being confronted with the mindset of operators that fatuously believed that running a railroad without a true schedule was a test of their management skills. That is, a train schedule was something that was handed down to them by the ivory tower Service Design department staffed by MBAs, as “wouldn’t this be a great way to run a railroad”. But, a true operator was not being measured by such performance, but rather by his ability to work with conflicts as they occurred in traffic movements. Hence, what the MBAs provided at that point was limited to an analysis of contribution of individual rail corridors as to the railroad’s bottom, although that analysis was based upon non-scheduled operations. The result of their efforts was the shedding of rail corridors with less than acceptable performance. Unfortunately, the other primary assets, e.g., locomotives, rolling stock, crews, yard operations remained untouched as to their inefficiencies.

2.    Scheduled Operations

The railroads are now into the second phase of losing their innocence with the advancements in technologies, most importantly wireless data an virtual positioning, that can provide for more timely and aggressive handling of train movements by simply knowing where the trains are AND at what speed they trains are traveling. For most railroads in the U.S., they have only begun the process of deploying the necessary wireless data networks that can provide such data. It should be understood that this wireless deployment is not due to a strategy on the part of most railroads, but rather it is a deployment due to the Federal mandate to implement PTC, a system that requires a wireless data network.  I dare say that without that mandate, a number of railroads would still not being deploying such data networks due to a lack of operating strategy linked with a technology strategy (a.k.a. strategic railroading). For example, to my knowledge only 2 railroads in the US had such a strategy before the mandate to deliver the data required to improve the efficiency of their crisis-based dispatching processes.


With this additional level of timely and accurate train position and speed data, the challenge of efficiently dispatching trains increases beyond the mental capability of any dispatcher to deal with all of the variables in dense corridors. One should understand that effective dispatching until this time had been an art based upon not only the mental capabilities of the dispatcher, but also by his/her degree of experience with a particular corridor. And, based upon the principle that one can not effectively manage dispatching if one cannot measure the efficiency of dispatching, then I suggest that no major railroad had, and perhaps has, any effective measurement technique as to the efficiency of its dispatchers. Maybe, they think they do, but most likely it is based upon the conventional concept that a dispatcher should not make the same mistakes that s/he made yesterday, or the day before, or the week before, whatever.

Operating to schedule is not just about track time efficiency. Class Is are beginning to realize that the ability to run to schedule can result not only in better customer service, but also in a substantial reduction in the “slack resources” (a mathematical phrase when optimizing operations) that sit idle so as to permit some level of efficiency when locomotives are not where they need to be … or train crews outlaw … or the designated yard has insufficient in-bound tracks, etc. Simply stated, the unstructured inefficiency of depending upon the use of slack resources in a crisis-based, truly non-scheduled fashion is substantially greater than running to a schedule where slack resources are kept to a minimum to handle a substantially less level of conflicts when the schedule is corrupted…which is more the case than not.

3.    Proactive Resource Management

This next phase is that which only 2 Class Is to my knowledge have taken on. I introduced PTM a decade ago based upon a very simple construct. That is, in order to minimize conflicts of mobile assets, then wireless data is required to provide the timely and accurate data of where those assets are AND at what speed they are traveling.  With such information, then mathematical planners (basic algebra) can be used to predict where conflicts will occur. With that knowledge, then Operations Resource (OR) tools can be used that identify objective functions to minimize the consequences of those conflicts. For example, an objective function may be to reduce the travel time, or to maximize train velocity, for the set of trains being considered for a particular corridor, or for a set of corridors. Conventional CTC that is used across 50% of the U.S. freight rail trackage can only provide block occupancy with no knowledge of speed. For example, did that intermodal train come to a stop, and therefore the opposing merchandise is train being held on a siding for no reason? The other 50% of the freight trackage is dark territory where the dispatcher doesn’t even know which the block the train is in, yet alone the speed. Simply stated, PTM provides for flexible block operation (which is far short of the complexity, if not the questionable possibility of moving block) instead of the inefficiency of fixed block operation where trains vary significantly in length and speed. For further information on PTM, I suggest you read the posting Degrees of Separation, December 26, 2012 in the category Railroad Business found on the right side of homepage.

 4.  Industry Management Perspective

There  is a 4th  phase, which has yet to be initiated, that addresses the efficiency of the industry, and not just an individual railroad. The underlying point here is quite straightforward, but yet continues to be ignored. That is, given the substantial necessity of trains across U.S. railroads to operate within a specific region, yet alone to go from coast to coast, it is impossible to achieve the highest level of scheduled railroading if the interconnecting railroads are not running to schedule. So, there is a Catch 22 in that a given railroad cannot operate at its highest level of efficiency until the interconnecting railroads are running to schedule, but those railroads cannot operate to schedule until the given railroad is operating to schedule.


I see 2 requirements to break into this circular logic. First, the increasing use of PTM will narrow down the complexity of the interconnection challenges. Second, and most important, the annual bonuses of railroad executives need to be structured to place emphasis on industry efficiency, and not just the efficiency of their individual railroad.


Lastly, for the majority of railroads in the U.S., as well as for a number of low density corridors in the Class Is, there is still an issue of considering how wireless data, virtual positioning, and on-board intelligence (such as that being provided via the implementation of PTC), can replace their current dark territory and low density CTC operations with Virtual CTC (VCTC) as described in other postings, including videos, on this blog (click on the VCTC category on the right side of the homepage).


All of the above is really quite straightforward to understand, but the traditionalists of railroads have yet to grasp that a paradigm shift is available to them given a shift in the core technologies that is available to them: again, wireless data, virtual positioning, and on-board intelligence.

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One Response to “Innocence Lost: Rail Operations”
  • Christel Frantz:

    I liked your article. Thanks for the clear explanation about
    PTM. Where do M&W issues receive coverage in the modeling? Are situations which arise due momentarily built into the modeling? How are emergencies handled?
    I favor solutions for Dark Territory. Is it economically a reality to automate the entire network nationwide at the same technological level eventually? What would the cost per mile be to do that today, March 2014? Thanks!

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