Teddy Bears Revisited: Practical Technology Solutions

It is time for me to revisit my Teddy Bears” (TBs) postings on this blog in 2010. TBs are those perspectives / beliefs stated by railroaders, suppliers, and regulators to rationalize they are doing the right thing in their respective roles. However, when viewed objectively by individuals without any financial or organizational conflict, e.g., independent consultants, there are some significantly different viewpoints (alternative facts for those Trump supporters). But, these alternative facts are objective, actual facts.

Following this first TB revisited posting below regarding Practical Technology Solutions, I will be making additional postings as to Railroads: Individually vs. Industry, Suppliers: U.S. vs. International, The Customer Perspective, Pragmatic Scheduled Operations, The Regulators, Rail Operations; Domestic vs. International, Railroad Mathematics, Rail IT Architecture, PTC: What IT Is & What It Isn’t, and others that I may think of as time passes. I welcome your TB suggestions for my consideration.

Being good at technology engineering does not necessarily make for being a good engineer when the bottom line is considered. There are several such examples in the rail industry that is still evolving from century-old technologies, e.g., track circuits, across much of the globe including the U.S. Arguably, the most telling and pathetic example is what the Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committee did in their development of an interoperable PTC system to address the Federal mandate of 2008. Below, I identify 4 primary issues in which ITC really failed each as to the lack of practical engineering in advancing PTC.

• The ITC designed an on-board positioning component to provide an accuracy of 18cm with 10-9 accuracy. Really! 7 inches with a risk of failure that will not occur in my lifetime? I assume this was based upon some vital track circuit / control specification developed over the ages. PTC is not vital in that it does not generate movement authorities and therefore does warrant such accuracy. In my rough estimation, this specification, if deployed, would raise the price of the component from $15,000 to $40,000 in my opinion – an unnecessary capital investment of $500 million plus ongoing maintenance for 20,000+ locomotives across the industry. I do understand that at least some of the Class Is have rejected such an over-engineered component, even though their collective technicians designed such.

• The monitoring of Intermittent Signals (ISs) were at least initially included in the specification. I don’t know where that stands now. However, with one estimate of 35,000 ISs across the industry at one point at perhaps at a price of $25,000 per installation, this would amount to another additional investment of $875 million plus ongoing maintenance with no added PTC or CTC value in that the Control Points are being monitored by PTC.

• A 220 MHz wireless data network is being installed without having performed any practical data modeling on what is really required for PTC, and without consideration of other technologies, including the 160 MHz network already in place. This was clearly a political move by NS and UP that had purchased the spectrum prior to and without knowledge of the PTC mandate. This amounts to a minimum $1 Billion unnecessary capital investment plus ongoing maintenance.

• Lastly, ITC did not involve the transits & commuter railroads in developing the interoperable operating rules. Hence, PTC as it stands could not prevent the recent in-terminal accidents where the passenger trains accelerated resulting in fatalities. Fortunately, this is a relatively simple fix via the use of GPS-fencing. The loss of life is already too much, and will only increase until PTC functionality is so expanded to consider the operating rules of transits & commuter railroads.

There are 4 primary technologies that should be addressed in a practical fashion as to their individual paradigm shifts within the last 2 decades that can advance both the safety and efficiency of railroads, as follows:

The U.S. railroads have been forced to install wireless data networks given the PTC mandate. Without that mandate, only a few railroads would have moved forward on their own with any urgency due to the lack of strategic wireless planning, both individually and collectively as an industry. Simply stated, knowing where the trains really are within a block (rather CTC or Dark Territory) AND the train’s speed is an absolute requirement for optimal “proactive traffic management” for medium to high density corridors, versus the crisis management that exists today given the lack of truly-scheduled operations. And, only wireless data networks can provide the necessary data for those traffic corridors. However, as noted above, the 220 MHz decision for PTC was poorly decided/forced for political purposes rather than functional / technical / economic reasons.

From a long term, strategic perspective, what are the railroads doing to take the most advantage of this wireless data infrastructure now that they have it, both individually and collectively as an industry? I expect little at this point.

For the last century, track circuits have provided the necessary positioning information as to track occupancy/vacancy for train movement integrity for most of the railroad operations across the globe. Interestingly, 1/3 of the U.S. freight trackage, referred to as Dark Territory, does not use track circuits but rather communications between the train crew and dispatcher that uses a train sheet (now computerized- referred to as “conflict checker”) to manually determine occupancy / vacancy of track allocations. Now, with virtual positioning, e.g., enhanced GPS, those track circuits can be eliminated for the majority of railroads with the availability of wireless data and “vital” back-office traffic control software (which is akin to the conflict checkers used for Dark Territory) . It was with this practical engineering point in mind that my consultancy designed Virtual CTC (VCTC) for the railroads of both Egypt and Kazakhstan. There is at least one U.S. supplier that can deliver a VCTC-type system currently. But, don’t look to traditional CTC suppliers, in Europe especially, to provide such systems in that there would be a substantial loss in their revenues given the avoidance of wayside infrastructure required for CTC & ETCS-L2, as well as the on-going maintenance.

Traditional CTC engineers will argue that there will be the loss of broken rail detection / protection with the elimination of the track circuit. However, consider the following points. First, there are other technologies that can provide for such detection / protection, most notably the advancing fiber optics based systems as offered by at least Frauscher (www.frauscher.com). Second, many railroads across the globe do not consider broken rail detection / protection to be a necessary requirement for their railroad. Third, in the U.S., 1/3 of the freight trackage is Dark Territory and without track circuits. Hmmmmm!, FRA hypocrisy at work.

IT Processing
Since the 1970s, the IT processing platforms have advanced from mainframe to client/server to the cloud. But, what is still missing is that of the Mobile Node, i.e., the locomotive-borne IT platform. PTC has now established that for safety reasons, but with only limited expansion in to business applications, e.g., locomotive engineer performance. My development of the first overlay PTC was designed as a mobile node to address the shortcoming of BNSF’s ARES system back in the 80’s that provide limited PTC functionality via the back-office system. ARES’s design was highly susceptible to wireless data issues as to reliability and throughput. But then again, BNSF was constrained by on-board technology at that point. We are now past that with PTC, but where is the strategic perspective to take advantage of that mobile node as to customer service, dynamic work order, car monitoring, train diagnostics, track diagnostics, schedule performance, etc.?

IT Architecture
All railroads operating since the 70’s unquestionably have a Silo based IT Architecture (SITA), i.e., systems developed on an individual department by department basis without effective data interaction between the department’s systems. Certainly, SITA was justified with the introduction of the main frame computers at that point. However, SITA results in the duplication of data collection, storage, processing, and distribution of critical operating and administration data. This duplication results in both inefficient and unsafe operations. What is needed instead is an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA) for the railroads, both individually and collectively as an industry.

My consultancy developed the first known design of a generic railroad EITA. This was done for Kazakhstan’s railroad, KTZ, that eliminates the tremendous duplication in the handling of data classes by disparate systems. EITA is Based upon a Single Source of Truth (SSOT) concept of designating singular data processes for generation of critical data. The classic approach to designing an EITA is referred to as Business System Planning (BSP) as first introduced by IBM in the late 60s (management consultancies have their own versions, but the basics are the same). The BSP process is very logical, but intensive, and it requires a firm commitment by upper management to participate because it takes on the individual departments’ IT fiefdoms. For further insight on EITA, I suggest my August 21, 2016 posting “The Market for EITA” on this blog in the “Railroad Business” category of postings on the right side of the Homepage.

For the U.S. freight railroads, it is critical that the EITA be extended to an industry level given the substantial amount of interchange between railroads. Simply stated, individual Class Is cannot run to schedule if the connecting railroads are not operating to schedule. To do so requires an efficient and timely exchange of operating status. That interchange of data does not effectively exist today due to both technical reasons as well the lack of truly scheduled operations by the individual Class Is.

So! Considering the ITC situations noted above, should the railroads continue to rely on their engineers for technology advancement given the lack of a bottom line perspective? Clearly, the answer is NO!  Also, the solution is not to look to many of the traditional suppliers because advance solutions can lead to reduced revenue due to lower capital investment and reduced on-going maintenance.

The answer to truly advance the safety and efficiency of railroad operations is to employ Strategic Technologists that can blend economics (business cases) with technology advancements to address specific advanced operations in a practical fashion. Such individuals are not employed now by railroads to my knowledge. Interestingly, the Class Is hired hordes of MBAs with the passing of the Staggers Act in 1980 to deal with the deregulation of freight railroad marketing. But now, it is well passed the time to bring in MBAs to address the practical tactical and strategic deployment of advancing technologies. For further insight, I suggest reading the article “Six IT decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make”, Harvard Business Review, November 2002, and substitute “Wireless” for “IT”.

In closing, I offer a suite of courses regarding Railroad Immersion (rational railroading basics), PTC, Advanced Traffic Control & Management, and Enterprise IT Architecture that address the spectrum of points noted above. These courses have been used by railroads and suppliers alike, both in the U.S. and internationally. A PDF brochure is available upon request. I am best reached at comarch@aol.com for comments and questions.

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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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