Freight Railroad Management Paradigm Shift

As a Strategic Technologist (syncing a business strategy with a technology strategy), I have focused for the last 2+ decades on the opportunities for railroads to advance both the safety and efficiency of their operations given paradigm changes in the core technologies that are required to improve both the safety and efficiency of freight railroads. Specifically, I refer to communications, positioning, information processing, and IT architecture. However, I have done so with relatively little expectation in my professional career that I could influence the conventional railroad operations practices of “crisis management” that prevent scheduled freight operations. Little had I expected that U.S. freight railroads would progressively pursue scheduled operations within their individual boundaries, yet alone as an industry given the high level of interconnection, e.g., how does a railroad run to schedule if the interconnecting railroads are not operating to schedule? One of my favorite telling comments that I consistently make is that Operations executive bonuses should be substantially, if not primarily, based upon interconnection efficiency. Expectedly, that comment has not been well received, but such financial motivation could greatly improve the efficiency of railroads, both individually and collectively as an industry. One notable exception has been that of Norfolk Southern (NS) with its advance traffic control and management systems. But, as far as I can tell, the remaining Class Is have yet to make significant changes given their conventional management mindset that it is all about running long trains and/or reducing crew starts, but at the price of inefficient use of primary resources, e.g., locomotives and crews. BUT now, there is now a potential of a paradigm shift in rail management that can be hopefully synced with core technology paradigm shifts. This is a paradigm transition from “crisis-based” management to “pragmatic” scheduled operations.

Scheduled operation is seemingly a simple concept to understand, i.e., there’s a lineup of train movements. But, that lineup is quickly corrupted with the poor handling of supporting resources, e.g., track time, locomotives, crews, maintenance, derailments, customer pressure, and of course the lack of reliability in the interchange with foreign trains. Consider the following example.

About 6 years ago I was engaged by the VP Operations of a Class I to determine why there was excessive crew deadheading and rest. Within 3 days the primary reasons were clear. Arguably, the most obvious was that Yard Masters were initiating trains on the line-up without any follow through to ensure that many of trains would actually run. The phrase used by Crew & Locomotive Management was that there were “ghost trains” that they had to continually challenge before assigning their respective resources. However, the amazing finding was that Operations stated that they couldn’t run to schedule because several of their major shippers scheduling their trains.. What Operations fail to accept is that those shippers were doing so because they couldn’t rely on the railroad to meet their requirements. For Operations, this was their excuse as to why they couldn’t run to schedule. But the truth is that the railroad’s failure to maintain schedule had forced the shippers to make such demands. Simply stated, Operations was at fault.

With the exception of the interchange issue noted above, passenger airlines are confronted with the same resource management issues as freight railroads, and yet they operate quite well to schedule, weather permitting. So! What permits the airlines to operate to schedule versus U.S. freight railroads? I will address that point below, but first it is fair for you to question what the big deal is about operating to schedule? The answer to that question is quite simple as to concept, but not achievable without the proper management mindset and supporting technologies.

Running to schedule means that the management of the primary operating resources are in sync with the train lineup. That means from a railroad perspective that the schedules are in place for each primary asset, e.g., track time, locomotives, crews, yard tracks, and rolling stock. This means, for example, that 1) there are no excessive pools of locomotives, 2) crews are properly aligned with minimum deadheading, etc. This also means that trains may run short based upon customer service performance. Granted excess resources (referred to as “slack resources” in mathematical terms) are required when exceptions occur, e.g., derailments or weather. BUT, the slack resources required to handle exceptions in scheduled operations are substantially less than those that are required for crisis management. This means that responsible management must consider the cost of excessive slack resources, e.g., locomotives @ $2.5 million each, excessive crew rest and deadheading, the cost of poor customer service, etc. These are costs that are not now being considered, I believe, by conventional railroad management; these are costs that greatly affect the Operating Ratio of railroads. It is this point where a paradigm shift in rail management can really pay off. VOILA! Enter Mr. Hunter Harrison with a “top down”, integrated management perspective instead of a fragmented rail department by department perspective of conventional freight rail operations predominate in the U.S. freight railroads.

In March 2017, Mr. Hunter Harrison became the CEO of CSX. To the limited extent that I have tracked his career and operational philosophy at CN and CP, this is an individual with an unprecedented perseverance that can revolutionize CSX’s operations to pursue pragmatic scheduled operations. However, to do so involves 2 primary perspectives, i.e., 1) within an individual railroad’s boundaries, and 2) addressing the industry perspective of scheduled operations given the extensive interconnection with foreign roads that are not themselves operating to schedule.

Mr. Harrison is expected to drive CSX to execute an operations perspective as he did with CP and CN relative to CSX’s market not subject to interchange. However, to do so CSX will need to make some technology changes, most importantly Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA), as described in a previous posting on my blog, “The Market for EITA”, Simply stated, EITA minimizes the duplication in the generation, storage, processing, and distribution of data for the railroad’s operating systems. It is EITA that major passenger airlines have deployed to operate most efficiently as to scheduled operations.

As to an industry perspective of scheduled operations, the EITA perspective is greatly important as well to ensure the efficient exchange of data as to what each railroad is doing relative to interchange. Actually, EITA and supporting technologies are relatively simple, but unquestionably quite difficult to achieve until the primary railroads buy into scheduled operations as will undoubtedly be demonstrated by Mr. Harrison within CSX’s boundaries. This is a railroad politics issue.

With the appointment of Mr. Harrison as CSX’s CEO, I have never been more encouraged as to the possibility of U.S. freight railroads moving towards scheduled operations, both individually and as an industry. The technologies are available to do so, but the conventional operations’ mindset will have to make a major paradigm shift for several Class Is.

If you are interested in the above perspective, you can check out my article in the April, 2017 issue of Railway Age, titled “Enterprise Perspective” (pages 53-54). Also we can discuss further by contacting me at or 904 386 3082.

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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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