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Railroads and the “Virtual Age”

This is my first posting in over a year.  I have been working on redesigning a VCTC solution (see VCTC category for postings on that subject) for Kazakhstan’s railroad, KTZ.  That project is now successfully completed – So, back to the blog.

Four years ago I made a posting about “Significant Digits”  Below, I expand upon that perspective relative to railroads making the transition to the “Virtual Age”.  This discussion was published in the Railway Age’s C&S Buyer Guide in December, 2014. It is not available digitally, so I provide it below.

As an increasingly mobile society we have all experienced major changes in our way of doing life with the shift from analog to digital technologies:  wireless, IT, and positioning. And, we have done so at a much more rapid rate than many industries, including freight railroads. Of course, our individual situation of adopting new technologies is much simpler than for a railroad with 10,000s of radios, 10,000s of miles of track circuits, 1,000s of locomotives, and 100,000s of rolling stock. However, there is more to the lack of transition for railroads than just that of massive fixed and mobile technology base and the necessary financial investment. There is also an inherent thought process for engineers today that didn’t exist a half century ago prior to the introduction of the digital age.  And now the virtual age is upon us, and its opportunities for railroads will be delayed as well unless engineers apply the art of engineering via approximation versus the science of engineering via precision.
The Analog Age
For those of us who completed our formal engineering studies before the 70s, the practicality of the slide rule, a.k.a. the slipstick, is well appreciated. This intriguing device of a sliding set of scales between 2 fixed sets, miraculously performs multiplication and division via the addition and subtraction of logarithmic-based linear distances. This analog calculator was the answer to the engineer’s prayer to replace paper and pencil for performing an endless flow of operands encompassed in engineering equations. But to use the slide rule, it was necessary for the engineer to accept that the solution would not be precise, but rather in the form of “significant digits”, i.e. limited to only 3 to 4 digits of relevance with preceding or tailing 0s. Additionally, the engineer had to mentally calculate the placing for the decimal in that an answer of .27 and one of 2,700 appeared the same on the slide rule. This dealing with significant digits and powers of 10 created a unique discipline of engineering as to problem solving by approximation. This is a discipline that is now lost to today’s engineers. And, this loss is resulting in over-engineering, e.g., PTC, and not developing pragmatic solutions for primary challenges to advance a railroad’s efficiently and safely with the advancement of wireless, IT, and positioning technologies.

 

 

The Digital Age
With the introduction of the digital personal calculator in the early 70s, the art of approximation quickly gave way to absolute precision. This is precision which is instantly, effortlessly provided to the user on a hand-held device’s green-lighted displays. Additionally, if one requires a discounted cash flow, for example, then only a single pressing of the appropriate function key is required once the data has been entered. The mind is given the absolute, precise answer without thought, without question, and unfortunately without the personal responsibility to truly understand the underlying mathematics. This mindless precision, in concert with the use of apps and software packages, has resulted in a substantial reduction in creative, practical engineering.

Unfortunately, the transition to digital for railroads has done little to improve the performance of railroad’s primary operations and processes. Dispatchers for most of the U.S. freight railroads are still working with the same non-intelligent CTC platform based upon where the trains were at some point within fixed blocks, but not where they will be and whether or not they’re even moving. Subsequently, the performance against schedules for these railroads suffers as to track time and the resulting inefficient utilization of key operating resources including locomotives, train crews, yard tracks, and maintenance crews.
The Virtual Age
Perhaps most advantageous to railroads, versus other industries that manage mobile resources, is the arrival of the virtual age where physical positioning technologies can be replaced with virtual positioning based primarily, but not solely, on GPS. As such railroads have the opportunity to reduce both the costs of operations as well as increase the efficiencies and/or safety in three primary areas: traffic control (mainline and interlockings), traffic management, and scheduled operations. Each of these areas is described below as to “What Is” and then as to “What Can Be” by applying creative engineering focused on the art of approximation, pragmatic precision if you will.

 

Traffic Control
Traffic control systems provide the vitality (integrity) of train movements along the mainline and within interlockings by generating the movement authorities provided to trains, of which there are 2 basic types used for U.S. freight: signaled and non-signaled, a.k.a. dark territory.

What Is: I often comment on the sanity of dark territory operation, especially when compared to signals, as to its providing cost-effective capacity and safety for small to medium density rail corridors up until now. Approximately ½ of U.S freight rail trackage is dark territory, albeit 1/3 of that is nested with signals referred to as ABS. In the classes I teach on railroad operations and PTC, I point out that signals are not installed for safety, but rather for capacity. That is, dark territory is safe, but its capacity is constrained due to the manual processes involved in tracking trains and transmitting  / rolling up movement authorities.  Hence, the use of signals is justified only on increasing capacity, but at a phenomenal cost of both capital investment and on-going maintenance expenses.

What Can Be: The creative engineer nurtured on the art of approximation should ask, “In this digital / virtual age, what can be done to replace or minimize the manual processes so as dark territory could replace a significant portion of CTC, thereby greatly eliminating the capital investment and on-going maintenance of CTC?”  Additionally, the creative engineer should consider how to eliminate the substantial physical and electrical infrastructures in interlockings that deal with positioning and routing integrity.   The answer for both mainline and interlockings is quite straightforward and now very approachable for those railroad corridors mandated to implement PTC.

To replace the use of time-consuming, and somewhat risky, voice radio between the train crew and the dispatcher to deliver authorities in dark territory requires a wireless data link between an on-board platform to display the authorities and the back-office conflict-checking software that generates the authorities. This concept of digitized authorities should be readily acceptable to most railroads at this point given that PTC’s implementation will provide the necessary wireless data infrastructure and the on-board display. However, to release (roll-up) authorities automatically will require positioning accuracy that must include both the train’s head end position provided by the PTC onboard platform, as well as the end-of-train position which is not delivered by PTC. The latter can be provided either through some form of end-of-train device and/or a default train length depending upon the headway between trains for the railroad’s corridors. The combination of these two positions provides “virtual” positioning” thereby eliminating the requirement for physical positioning.

With virtual positioning, a railroad can replace fixed block operation of CTC with virtual (flexible) blocks that ideally approaches the capacity and enforcement of moving block. Hence, a railroad can replace conventional dark territory and a significant portion of its CTC with Virtual CTC (VCTC), but without the extensive capital investment and on-going maintenance of CTC or the back office complexity and extensive wireless data requirements of moving block. With VCTC, both the mainline and interlocking vital infrastructure is replaced with a software-based conflict-checking platform. And, without the need for wayside vitality infrastructure and supporting code-lines, the dispatching operation becomes a virtual office permitting location flexibility and dynamic allocation of work load, including the ability to manage interlockings locally and/or integrated into a dispatcher’s responsibilities. Lastly, an additional benefit of VCTC with its virtual positioning based upon end-of-train, is that the loss of train integrity can be detected both within and outside of the boundaries of a train’s authority, which is a critical concern for many railroads across the globe.

 

Traffic Management
Traffic management serves the business perspective of moving the trains subject to the capabilities of the traffic control systems in place. Ideally, this is the challenge of the dispatcher to manage a plethora of variables to manage train movement based upon an  optimized schedule provided by the railroad’s Service Design.

What Is: For most U.S. freight railroads, traffic management is crisis-based, management that handles traffic conflicts as they occur. This type of management is inherent in CTC operations given fixed block positioning of trains without knowledge of train speed. Additionally, for optimal dispatching there are numerous variables whose continuous evaluation are beyond the capability of the human. Dispatching  continues to be more an art than it is a science.
What Can Be: The creative engineer nurtured on the art of approximation should ask, “In this digital / virtual age, what can be done to eliminate the constraints of crisis-based management. The answer is to make the transition from reactive to proactive by feeding timely train position AND speed data to mathematical planners that provide recommendations to dispatchers. The recommendations are based upon “objective functions” that represent the business model of the railroad. Again, the implementation of PTC will provide the necessary wireless network and on-board platform to provide the train status data.

 

Scheduled Railroading
As with major passenger airlines, the highest level of operational efficiency is based upon having a schedule that integrates the management of the primary assets to optimize the business objectives of the company. For railroads, those assets include track time, locomotives, train crews, yard trackage, and maintenance crews. And, as demonstrated by the passenger airlines and only a few major railroads across the globe, the IT architecture has to be so designed to provide the efficient and handling of critical operating data.

What Is: The truth is that the majority of US. Freight operations do not operate to schedule with any significant level of positive consistency. The railroads have their reasons of why this is so. But, based upon my engagements to study this for clients, the reasons are most often excuses by rail management to shift the responsibility to areas not directly under their control. My favorite example is a Class I that blamed the lack of scheduled operations on a major customer that insisted on setting up the schedule for its trains. In fact, the customer did this because the railroad had failed to maintain a schedule. There is also the now Catch 22 of scheduled operations given the high level of interchange between railroads. That is, how can one railroad operate to schedule if the roads with which it interchanges aren’t doing so, and visa versa?
The cost to the railroad of not operating to schedule is not just the loss of rail capacity, but also the increased level of key resources required (slack resources) due to their inefficient usage, including locomotives, train crews, and yard capacity.
What Can Be
The creative engineer nurtured on the art approximation should ask, “In this digital / virtual age, what can be done to improve the level of scheduled operations both within and beyond a railroad’s borders. The use of, and commitment to, proactive traffic management provides the first step. However, achieving scheduled operations is an industry issue as well. Therefore it is necessary for railroads to individually and collectively develop Enterprise IT Architectures (EITAs) and an Industry IT Architecture (IITA), respectively, that present an IT structure for operations and asset management based upon virtual positioning.
Bottom line: I see three major challenges for railroads to make the transition to the virtual age relative to the areas discussed above. First is the change in the mindset of the railroads’ engineers to work via pragmatic engineering so as to think objectively about virtual positioning. Second, is the shift in the discipline of labor to work with on-board enforcement/positioning and software-based, back office vitality.  Lastly, and perhaps the most critical, is that traditional traffic control suppliers will not provide such solutions naturally in that their revenue in marketing VCTC and the associated on-going maintenance costs are greatly reduced.

VCTC is the future, and it will happen. While the slide rule lasted 3 centuries before its obsolescence, I’m guessing that CTC and crisis-based management won’t make its first century at 2027 for many U.S. freight railroads.

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