Look to the Skies

About 11 years ago I presented at a NTSB conference regarding PTC. Having been the architect for the first overlay PTC system that provided the initial design (architecture and dark territory operations) for what is being installed to meet the Federal mandate, I focused on what PTC IS and what it ISN’T. That was most important at that point since there was a great deal of confusion and misinformation regarding PTC that was circulating throughout the industry, including railroad management, suppliers, FRA, and NTSB. Specifically, I addressed two major points: 1. PTC is NOT vital, and 2. PTC itself DOES NOT deliver business benefits other than eliminating movement disruptions due to accidents. The underlying logic for both points is that PTC does not generate movement authorities.

In the audience there was a VP Operations for a Class I. True to my nature, I decided to state during my presentation that Class Is were failing miserably to run to schedule given their “crisis management” mindset. I then mentioned that major passenger airlines have figured it out, and that railroads would do well to bring in that discipline by hiring such executives. After the conference, the VP took me aside to discuss investigating the heavy level of crew deadheading that his railroad was experiencing. I took that assignment and within a week I recognized the prime issue noting to the VP that he was actually the underlying source of the problem. In short, the yardmasters were generating “ghost trains” on the lineup and crew and locomotive management were operating accordingly. The bottom line: there was no actual schedule to begin with (regardless of Service Design efforts), and to the extent that there was a lineup, it was readily violated, e.g., not running short trains. As a side note, during my engagement it was amazing to me the range of fatuous excuses by the railroad’s management team as to why they couldn’t run to schedule. All except one, the arrival of ships in ports, were the fault of management.

So, imagine my surprise when I read that Amtrak had brought in the retired CEO of Delta, and subsequently a number of ex-Delta executives. Somebody looked to the skies and saw the light of running to schedule; an executive mindset that has not existed in the rail industry until Mr. Hunter Harrison was brought into manage CSX. Sadly, Mr. Harrison has now past on and hopefully there is still a mindset to pursue such a difficult course, as per my previous posting: Paradigm Shifts.

Of course, there are a number of challenges to operating to schedule, other than bringing in an executive team from the airlines. Most importantly, Delta had to commit heavily to the following.

1. Delta had developed an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA) that eliminated unnecessary data generation, storage, processing, and distribution;

2. Delta reconfigured its resource management systems to work with the EITA in a true “real time” operation.

However, fortunately for Delta, it does not schedule interchange with airlines other than codeshare operations.

The benefits of such an operation are clearly evident including the following:

1. High level of customer satisfaction;
2. Tremendous reduction in ”slack resources” to handle disruptions;
3. Nearly optimal efficiency of operations
4. Happy crews;
5. Loyal personnel and customers.

So, what needs to be done by the railroads if they want to reap the awards of scheduled operations? As with Delta, they need to individually invest in EITA and reconfigure their major resource management systems to operate in “in-time” operations, if not real time. That means that they need to strategically think how to use PTC’s platform to provide timely train location and speed information. I expect that several Class Is are already there, but only as to SILO based IT architecture. However, unlike Delta, they need to develop an industry perspective of an EITA. This won’t happen until industry politics breaks down, and the railroads build a collective mindset. As I have mentioned in previous posts, this could occur most quickly, I would like to think, if Class I executives’ bonuses where largely based on the efficiency of interchange. Lastly, I do encourage the use of passenger airline executives that have the true discipline of scheduled operations and thereby drive the railroad to make the necessary changes as to EITA and proactive, in-time resource management systems.

As a closing note, my consultancy Strategic Rail, llc (SR) developed the first and only generic EITA in the industry for Kazakhstan’s railroad that they used to move to their specific IT design. Developing an EITA requires a major commitment by management, granted, but our generic design is an excellent beginning.

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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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