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Rail-izing Positioning

Having lived in New Orleans (NOLA) for nearly a decade, I adopted the “positioning” methodology used by locals for locating a bar/restaurant/whatever in that crescent shape street infrastructure that romances the curve of the Mississippi. With such a fan-shape set of cross streets, one could not really use the North / South & East/West terminology that makes sense in cities with a rectangular street infrastructure. Rather, the folks in NOLA refer to a bar/restaurant/whatever as being Uptown or Downtown & Lake side (Pontchartrain) or River side (Mississippi) of the particular street. And, for many it seems, this is easier to remember and explain when jumping into a cab during a night of New Orleans’ revelry.

 

In the railroads, the positioning technology for tracking trains for a century or so has been to define the “block” of the track infrastructure occupied by the train without any accuracy of where in the block the train resides or at what speed it is traveling. And, unlike the case for NOLA folks, this positioning methodology doesn’t make sense anymore as railroads look for more capacity out of their current infrastructure. The railroad’s block perspective is due to the use of track circuits in conventional signaling operations for determining block occupancy. And even worse, roughly 1/3 of U.S. freight trackage does not even have track circuits for positioning – what is referred to as “Dark Territory” where the trains only “appear” to the dispatcher in spatial chunks of 20-40 miles when the train engineers  seek additional movement authorities.

 

Now, thanks to the U.S. Federal mandate of PTC, the railroads are required to implement a wireless data infrastructure. In my opinion this is the primary value of the mandate since PTC is far from being cost justifiable on safety benefits. Rather, PTC is a Godsend for railroads, whether they recognize it or not, because the mandate has forced the majority of railroads in the U.S. to make the transition to the digital age of wireless data that most Class I’s had been resisting due to the lack of a strategic technology plan aligned with a strategic operating plan, i.e., strategic railroading. But, what has yet to be railized by freight railroads is that the “virtual age” is upon them. Specifically, the use of virtual positioning technologies supported by the availability of wireless data can greatly reduce both capital and maintenance cost of railroad operations while significantly increasing the capacity.

 

The PTC mandate has forced the railroads to develop an accurate on-board platform that exceeds that of GPS alone.  The BAD news is that this component has been designed by technicians instead of technologists (who provide a bottom line perspective of the use of technologies) to far exceed the requirements for PTC. BUT, the good news is that this component provides the basis to make the transition from CTC to Virtual CTC (VCTC), both along the main line and in interlockings.

 

As presented in my previous posting on this blog, Railroads and the Virtual Age, VCTC means replacing physical block occupancy technologies, e.g., track circuits & axle counters, with virtual technologies that include an expansion of GPS with additional positioning technologies, e.g., tachometer, accelerometers, gyroscopes, GLONAS, etc., that are integrated via a Kalman filter (check Wikipedia) to achieve amazing, reliable accuracy even when GPS is not available in a tunnel, for example.

 

While a natural for mainline, VCTC’s capability with the addition of moderately accurate End-of-Train (EOT) positioning means that interlockings can use virtual technologies as well. After all, what is the real difference between mainline and interlockings? Answer: there really is not any difference that the proper use of technologies can’t resolve if technologists are involved.

 

BOTTOM LINE: The pursuit of VCTC, both along the mainline and in interlockings, offers freight railroads the opportunity to dump CTC. This is a fantastic opportunity for railroads as to both costs and efficiency if they can get their heads out of conventional operations. However, this is not good news for traditional CTC suppliers that benefit from the revenue of capital-intensive CTC infrastructure and the on-going extensive maintenance.

 

Welcome to the virtual age, you all. Even the NOLA folks have adjusted to virtual positioning (e.g., Google Maps), as we all have. But, they continue to use the uptown/downtown & lake side/river side description that is part of the charm of New Orleans. However, railroads don’t operate on charm. They operate on the bottom line, and VCTC along the mainline and in the interlockings is the future.

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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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