Author Archive

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.

Paradigm Shifts

Throughout my 2½ decades of independent consulting, including performing market studies and developing technology strategies for suppliers and railroads, I have had the opportunity to speak with a variety of senior railroad operation managers. During those discussions I would often ask the individual if his/her railroad ran to schedule. The response was consistently the same: “Yes, but … (some fatuous excuse, e.g., reducing crew starts given short trains)”. To some extent these responses can be seen as understandable given the data handling constraints of century-old operating technologies and associated practices as well as the evolving, inefficient silo-based IT architecture since the 1970’s. Additionally, there is little to no enterprise perspective of the consequences of one department’s action relative to other departments, e.g., excessive locomotives to cover shortages due to lack of actual schedule. However, the challenges to even approaching truly-scheduled operations are not just technical, functional, and organizational. Arguably, the most difficult challenge is that of modifying the management practices that have existed for decades. Therefore, advancing the efficiency and safety of U.S. freight railroads requires making shifts in both the technology paradigms as well as that of management.

Technology Paradigms
My article, Enterprise Perspective, in Railway Age’s April, 2017 issue addressed the paradigm shifts in the 4 core technologies that can greatly advance both the safety and the efficiency of railroads: 1) wireless voice to wireless data; 2) physical to virtual positioning; 3) mobile IT processing, e.g., locomotive borne, in addition to back-office; and the shift to an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA) from conventional silo-based IT architecture. The example provided in the article as to advancing the first three technologies was the design of what I titled as Virtual CTC (VCTC) that my consultancy, Strategic Rail, LLC (SR) performed for the railroads of Egypt and Kazakhstan. Simply stated, by using virtual positioning, wireless data, and locomotive-borne IT processing, VCTC eliminates the extensive use of wayside infrastructure, e.g., track circuits, control points, and signals, and hence the avoidance of the substantial capital and maintenance expenditures. Additionally, VCTC can provide for both fixed and virtual block operation that can increase the throughput for a plethora railroads across the globe that unjustifiably have been financially and operationally held hostage to the fixed-block operation of conventional CTC.

While designing VCTC was an extraordinary experience for SR, deploying it would be even greater so, of course. Such is the case with 4Tel, an Australian supplier whose Managing Director, Derel Wust, presented its Virtual Block Traffic Control System at the Next Generation Train Control conference in Philadelphia on October 20, 2017. This system is deployed in revenue service on 1,400 miles of the NSW Country Regional Network railroad in Australia.

Mr. Wust’s presentation also included an Artificial Intelligence (AI) perspective for future operations that can eventually lead to the on-board platform driving the use of proactive resource management systems elsewhere, e.g., wayside, back-office, and mobile platforms. Such a perspective requires the 4th core technology, EITA, which eliminates the duplication in the generation, storage, processing, and distribution of critical data to optimize efficient and safe operations. The passenger airlines have demonstrated the value of EITA for truly scheduled operations for years.

Lastly, as to the 4 core technologies’ paradigm shifts, I quote Mr. Wust that the future of railroads is about Smart Trains & Dumb Tracks. As AI technology matures, this paradigm shift will see available dollars invested into AI-based, on-board locomotive systems and away from signaled track systems as a more effective way to move trains safely, economically and efficiently.

Management Paradigm
Until this past March I had little expectation that the conventional “crisis management” practices of Class Is would be challenged by any railroad to pursue actual scheduled operations. It was then that Hunter Harrison became the CEO of CSX to implement a major management paradigm shift to Precision Scheduled Railroad (PSR) based upon his past experiences at CN and CP. With out any detailed knowledge of PSR, but by using my perspective of truly-schedule operations that I have been promoting throughout my consulting career, I see 3 levels of truly-scheduled operations: 1) Internal; 2) Industry; and 3) Enterprise of which the first and possibly the third are being addressed by CSX.

Internally, I expect that CSX is attempting to optimize the schedule of its trains that stay within its own network. Those trains service the majority of its shippers, and hence arriving at a balance of increasing satisfactory customer service while decreasing dwell time and increasing average speed cannot be accomplished quickly. Arguably, to do so is more of an art than a science at this early stage of PSR. Additionally, there are major constraints to how effective PSR can be that are not within the control of CSX, as follows.

Industry-wise, the leading question is “How can a railroad run to schedule if the railroads with which it interconnects are not operating to schedule?” What would seem to be a very obvious observation, the point is rarely mentioned regarding scheduled operations in general, and PSR specifically. In fact, individuals from other railroads that are make disparaging comments about PSR, especially in its infancy, don’t realize that they are likely part of the problem given their lack of truly-scheduled operations. As to an industry perspective of truly-scheduled operations, the requirement for EITA is critical 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 impossible to achieve until the primary railroads buy into truly-scheduled operations. This is an industry politics issue that perhaps could be best addressed, I believe, if all railroad top executives were paid bonuses based upon the efficiency of interchange.

From an enterprise perspective, running to schedule requires that the management of the primary operating resources are in sync with the actual train lineup, i.e., 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 there are no excessive pools of locomotives, and that crews are properly aligned with minimum deadheading. 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 truly-scheduled operations are substantially less than those that are required for crisis management. To do so requires that 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, and thereby greatly affect the Operating Ratio of railroads. It is this point where a paradigm shift in rail management can really pay off, partially by delivering an EITA and the associated changes in the major resource management systems.

In closing, to effectively make the paradigm shifts in technologies and management require a unique discipline that is unlikely to be found in the U.S. freight railroads. I refer to strategic technologists as opposed to the current technicians that are not held accountable to the railroad’s bottom line for what they deploy. Strategic technologists are required to advance the railroad’s operating and market strategies in sync with a technology strategy. That syncing is not the case today for the Class Is individually, and certainly not as an industry.

FTA: WHO or WHAT One Knows?

In 2011 the Federal Trade Administration (FTA) released a RFP to perform a study: Positive Train Control for Commuter and Regional Rail Systems. The stated objective of the RFP was to “evaluate the safety and reliability of PTC technology in commuter rail and regional rail operating environment, and to recommend the best practices in the implementation of PTC systems”. Without question, this proposed study had great potential benefit for commuter and regional rail operators. As such, the final report of the study was to be provided by June 30, 2013. After several years of seeing nothing from FTA, I confronted a FTA official as to the status of the report. I received no meaningful response (basically I was brushed off) , and I let ago of following this study as a fatuous effort by FTC that hopefully didn’t result in anyone being paid the $900k budgeted for the study.

Forward to July 2017 when the Final Report was released 4 years late: Technical and Safety Evaluation of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority PTC Deployment Project. Unfortunately, the study and the resulting Final Report was a total sham as demonstrated by the contents of the report as explained below.

To understand my issues with the study, I need to state first that I headed a team of well-experienced railroad consultants that responded to the RFP, and we were not selected. Not being selected is not the issue here IF indeed had a credible consultancy been selected. However, that is clearly NOT the case as I explain below. To be blunt, it appears to me that the selection of the University of Southern California (USC) team of professors was done by whom they knew, and NOT by what they knew. The proof of my position is readily noticeable in the report submitted by USC. I address 3 areas to make this point: PURPOSE, TIMING, & CREDENTIALS.

PURPOSE: It was clear to my team that the primary purpose of the study was to explore the issues of implementing PTC from a commuter and regional rail perspective, AND to present that information in a timely fashion that would be valuable to those operations. We knew that a primary issue would be the operating rules of these agencies were not being considered by the freight railroads via the Interoperability Train Control (ITC) committee. In fact, that has indeed been proven to be the case. In short, this means that the PTC handling of operating rules being deployed by freight railroads is not truly aligned with the requirements of the commuter railroads specifically. For example, consider the recent accidents within passenger terminals were the train accelerated resulting in fatalities. PTC if properly designed for commuters could readily have prevented this situation, but that was not done so by the freight railroad’s Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committee given its freight-only perspective. USC did not have the credentials, yet alone the insight to recognise this critical point.

Simply stated as to PURPOSE, the report is critically constrained for commuters in that it didn’t address critical PTC issues that are specifically oriented to such operations.

TIMING: The July 2017 report provided by USC was 4 years late, and hence is at best a “reactive” analysis versus a “proactive” analysis that could have been valuable to passenger operations. In short, this report is meaningless as to providing assistance to other agencies: the horse was already out of the barn, if you will.

Simply stated as to TIMING, the report was totally useless as to assisting the other passenger operations with their activities.

CREDENTIALS:
One has to read no further than the study’s ASTRACT to realize the lack of credentials of the USC team of professors without any notable railroad domain expertise. I quote: “Positive Train Control (PTC), often referred to as Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) …”. This statement is totally wrong and naïve as well; I don’t know how this major point got past the USC team of authors, as well as FTA. That is,

• PTC is a NON-VITAL, overlay enforcement system to prevent train accidents due to human errors.
• CBTC is a VITAL traffic control, management, and enforcement system

For my purposes here, VITAL is best defined as the means by which movement authorities are generated, i.e., the integrity of train movements, whether that be wayside equipment, office software, or an individual. PTC does not generate movement authorities and hence is not vital.

Simply stated as to CREDENTIALS, USC clearly did not understand PTC as well as lacking the ability to work with the PTC community as they stated in their report; they were shunned. They are outsiders without credible domain knowledge, thereby resulting in a useless analysis that provided no real value.

In conclusion, FTA awarded a project to USC that was not warranted at best, and that suggests irresponsible, if not unethical, practices by FTA as to the use of U.S. funds.

Given that there appears to be no current FTA Administrator, I submitted yesterday my letter of complaint (noting the above points) to the Associate Administers of Administration, Program Management, and Research, Demonstration and Innovation. I requested the courtesy of a response from these individual to explain how this study was awarded, apparently not monitored as to delivery (again, 4 years late), and yet accepted starting with the amazingly naïve, false equivalency of PTC to CBTC. So! Will one or more of them respond to my letter, and then proceed to have the report corrected? Or, will it be brushed under the rug and ignored since it is valueless?

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.

PRACTICAL TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS
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:

Communications
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.

Positioning
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.

“Teddy Bears” Revisited Again

Throughout 2010 I introduced a series of “Teddy Bear” (TB) postings on this blog. TBs are the perspectives of railroad management, regulators, and suppliers that provide them comfort in thinking that what they are doing is appropriate. However, the truth can be quite different when addressed objectively by those not financially or organizationally compromised by being objective, e.g., an independent consultant.
TBs that were addressed then included the following:
• No Time For Strategy (November 2010)
• Train Dispatching is Too Difficult for That Math Stuff (August 2010);
• Digital Authorities are Vital (July 2010);
• PTC is Vital (June 2010);
• Operating a Railroad Safely Requires Signaling (June 2010);
• There’s Nothing Vital in Dark Territory (May 2010);
• PTC Delivers Business Benefits (May 2010);
• We Run a Scheduled Railroad (May 2010);
• CAD Delivers Traffic Management (October 2010).
Since then, additional postings have gone into further depth for several of the TBs with additional issues identified without the TB notation, including the following:
• Real time data is the Real Thing for structuring technology solutions;
• My railroad can run to schedule without consideration of other railroads;
• The railroad environment is unique and therefore requires unique technology solutions. Hence the railroads’ technicians must do the design;
• Only traditional suppliers can possibly understand railroad operations;
• It’s all about the main line – yards operations are secondary;
• Regulators must only accept “zero-tolerance” for operational risk;
• The Service Design folks can’t deal with all the exceptions that occur;
• Our railroad’s IT architecture is perfectly okay in that it has evolved over 50 years;
• In just a couple years it will be somebody else’s problem.
Sooooooooo! Postings to follow this one will hit the TB trail again in that there have been, and have not been, major changes in the technologies and the mind sets of railroad and supplier management, respectively. This is such a fertile field for discussion, that I am pressed as to where to start. I see some mixture of the following perspectives:

• Practical Technology Solutions;
• Railroads Individually vs. Collectively (Industry Perspective);
• Suppliers, Domestic and International;
• Customer;
• Regulatory;
• International Rail Operations;
• The Application of Mathematics.

Stay tuned, Please!

Your comments are always appreciated and best sent to comarch@aol.com for my consideration and possible response.

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 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.

RAIL MANAGEMENT PARADIGM SHIFT
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.

INDIVIDUAL RAILROAD
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.

U.S. FREIGHT RAIL INDUSTRY
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.

BOTTOM LINE
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 comarch@aol.com or 904 386 3082.

Vital PTC, Really?

I have been fortunate during my corporate management and consulting careers to take on and succeed with a wide assortment of assignments for which there was little to no precedence including the following:
• Architect of the first overlay Positive Train Control (PTC) system;
• Development of mathematical, financial, & liquidation analyses for the resolution of the bankruptcy of the Penn Central Railroad; the largest bankruptcy until that time;
• Development of a mathematical model for the blending of ferrous scrap to minimize the cost of electric furnace steel production;
• Development of an econometric model for the U.S. ferrous scrap market;
• Development of a computerized train crew management system;
• Design of a virtual Centralized Traffic Control (VCTC) system design for Kazakhstan’s and Egypt’s railroads; a system applicable to a wide variety of global passenger / freight rail operations including token-based, dark (non-signaled), and CTC railroads;
• Development of a wireless strategy for the U.S. rail industry based upon supply and demand;
• Development of a strategic Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA) for the U.S. intermodal industry;
• Development of an EITA for a generic railroad.

While the above list of engagements is diverse, the same primary, fundamental development concept contributed to their successful completion. That is, the more complex the challenge was, the easier it was for me to complete the assignment. That is, I have consistently taken a pragmatic, 80/20 approach to avoid the unnecessary, overly complex design issues that contribute very little value (20%), but that prevent others with their 100% perspective of being successful. The success of the 80/20 approach is directly dependent upon the ability to make the proper assumptions to avoid over-thought garbage – and then to revisit those assumptions once the air has cleared. There are two complimentary points that permitted me to be successful. First, I was in charge and could drive the solution to completion with little interference. Second, I was fortunate to identify and include excellent associates that were willing to support my efforts; it was usually a team effort. But, what happens when there is not an objective team and/or no rational (80/20) individual who is in charge? For example, consider the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committee relative to PTC and the concept of vitality.

To start with, it is necessary to define vitality in that there is a significant amount of misunderstanding across the industry, including management, regulators, and suppliers. So! Vitality is the process that is used to ensure the integrity of train movement authorities, i.e., only one train within a specified track segment at any time. In CTC operations, the vitality is within the wayside infrastructure of track circuits and control points. In Dark territory, vitality is the train sheet whether physical or computerized (conflict checker software). For some ex-colonies of the British empire, e.g., Egypt, vitality is the approach that provides for a physical token to be delivered to the driver, it can be that simple. However, to be clear vitality does not include the delivery of movement authorities, e.g., signals, cab signals, voice/digital transmission, or tokens.

Starting with the FRA’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) that took on PTC over a decade ago, there was the ongoing challenge on my part to obtain a common understanding that PTC is NOT “Vital” since it is not involved in the generation of authorities. The reason to make the distinction was driven primarily by my concern that undue risk analysis and system design would be sought by the FRA, if not suppliers and railroads, for PTC’s safety enhancement functionality that had no effect on the “vitality” of the railroad’s operations. My approach was to describe “functional vitality” in addition to “equipment vitality” that is associated with CTC wayside infrastructure. The functional definition was required to address how movement authorities are generated in non-signaled, “Dark”, operations since conventional suppliers have little to no experience with Dark. Hence, they will state that there is nothing “vital” there in that they only deal with equipment vitality. This “equipment” perspective made it too convenient for the FRA to fatuously associate the concept of vitality with PTC equipment while ignoring the concept of functional vitality for Dark operations.

FRA was not alone in abusing the vitality perspective. Specifically, the Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committee was also guilty of pursuing a non-pragmatic perspective of PTC presumably based upon what they thought was necessary for a seemingly vital system. This group of conventional Class I engineering and operational individuals, that were charged with designing an interoperable PTC perspective for the U.S. rail industry, far exceeded the necessary requirements for a non-vital PTC. I offer the following: 1) development a positioning accuracy for PTC that was totally ridiculous, i.e., 18 cm with 10-9 confidence level, 2) integrated the need to enforce to Intermittent Signals (ISs); and 3) forced the implementation of a parallel wireless data infrastructure without developing a data model for PTC and thereby not identifying alternatives that should have been considered. These were serious engineering design errors that resulted in a tremendous increase in the capital investment, on-going maintenance costs, and implementation time to install PTC across the industry. Additionally, ITC failed to take on the requirements for transits and commuter operations. An example of this ITC’s purposeful exclusion (ignorance, arrogance?) is the inability of the current PTC design to prevent the recent accidents due to trains over-speeding in passenger terminals. To be clear, such prevention requires no additional investment to that of PTC along the mainline. The solution requires only the addition of GEO-fencing for trains entering terminals. But, ITC’s lack of integration of the transits and commuter railroads in their activities means that such situations will not be included, at least in the initial rollout of PTC.

Now, FRA has made a declaration of “Vital PTC”. Some of the material I read on the FRA Website that discussed vital systems also had PTC enforcement functionality and were branded as Vital PTC systems – which they clearly are not. Rather, they are Vital Systems (traffic control) with integrated PTC-type functionality. How desperate is the FRA to make such inappropriate associations?

Along this same line of thinking, perhaps FRA is presenting the Vital PTC perspective in that the on-board PTC platform can also display digital authorities via the wireless data platform that PTC requires for its functionality. Hence, FRA considers this to be Vital PTC. However, there is a primary fallacy here. That is, the transmission of authorities, whether verbally, visual (signals), or electronically is NOT a vital function. Such transmission and display is safety critical at best, i.e., one wants such transmission and display to be highly reliable, but if it fails then the engineer resorts to the underlying vitality of any railroad. i.e. the Book of Rules.

I am encouraged by recent conversations with colleagues that the railroads are now pushing back on FRA’s declaration of “Vital PTC”. Welcome to FRA’s La La Land.

The Market for EITA

My Strategic Rail, LLC (SR) team recently completed a major study for Kazakhstan’s railroad, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ) to develop an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA). Simply stated, EITA is the next paradigm shift in IT architecture for companies / industries that can benefit by the integration of information flow between their current, disparate systems to eliminate the duplication of generating, storing, processing, and distributing data. Since I know of no current implementation of EITA by railroads, contrary to its common usage in other industries, EITA has a substantial, to-be-developed market for the majority of railroads across the globe. Additionally, there is also an interesting twist to the value of EITA for railroads that are government owned, specifically those railroads that have a Soviet heritage such as KTZ.

Kazakhstan is a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a regional organization that came about with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Hence, KTZ’s operating practices had been largely based upon the cookie-cutter procedures and operations structured by the previous Soviet regime. This meant that KTZ was Government-owned and self-contained as to health care, education, and overall welfare of the railroad’s employees; nothing Capitalistic there. However, that is no longer the case in that for the last decade or so KTZ has been making the transformation to a partially-capitalistic railroad where the rail infrastructure remains government owned, the personnel support facilities are shed to local governments, and the operations and resource management / maintenance are being transitioned to privately owned and operated. For such railroads, the use of an EITA addresses 5 issues as I see it: 1) Shift in IT architecture, 2) Deployment of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), 3) Advancement in Resource Management Systems based upon 4) integrating advancing technologies, and 5) Privatization.

  • IT Architecture Shift

As is the case for the majority of railroads across the globe in existence since the mid 20th century, they use Silo-based IT Architecture (SITA). That is, the systems used by the railroad departments are self-serving and developed independently of the other departments’ systems without constructive consideration of sharing data.  This fatuous perspective is now working against the benefit of the railroads overall, but again is typical for the 70-90’s time frame of IT integration with railroad operations. However, now is the time for transformation to responsible IT that looks at the railroad from an “Enterprise” perspective. That means accepting that no department is an “island” in that it is truly dependent on what is happening as to traffic movement, maintenance, procurement, etc. of the railroad overall. Additionally, as discussed further below, there have been paradigm shifts in the core technologies within the last decade that are now available to railroads to greatly improve the efficiency and safety of their operations. To explain this point from your own standpoint, consider how one operated prior to the availability of the cell phone initially and then with GPS and integrated information processing (intelligence). As such, so is the case for the majority of railroads across the globe that need to recognize the possibility of using such advanced technologies versus how they operate today based upon century-old technologies.

Pursuing an Enterprise perspective means making the transition to an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA).  An EITA is an integrated information flow structure where key operating data (Data Classes) are independent of the Business Processes within the various departments’ systems. Referred to as Single Source of Truth (SSOT), each Data Class is generated by only a single Business Process and is made available to those Business Processes / Systems that require such data. The advantages of this approach are many including the following:

  • Elimination of the duplication of data generation, processing, storage, and distribution;
  • Assurance of data accuracy and timeliness to eliminate conflict across the railroad that can result in inefficient and unsafe operations;
  • Absolute accountability for data that are being used across the railroad;
  • The elimination, or modification, of Business Processes;
  • The simplification of adding advanced resource management systems without concern of generating the necessary data.

As demonstrated in the KTZ study, the process used to create an EITA is generically referred to as Business System Planning (BSP) and has been well proven since the 70s across many industries with the railroads, again, being a major exception. The engagement with KTZ to my knowledge is the first effort across the rail industry to move beyond the SITA mindset. A primary reason for this is that railroads have failed to make the business case to advance new technologies given their heavy investment in legacy systems and technologies, as will be explained below.

  • ERP Deployment

There has been a significant amount of attention lately as to the Internet of Things (IOT) as a means to generate enterprise knowledge from disparate data bases associated with disparate systems. Simply stated from my standpoint, IOT is a seemingly rational, but actually knee-jerk, attempt to make the most of the inefficiencies of a company’s SITA. These are companies / industries that don’t have the willingness or strategic foresight, to move towards the ideal of EITA. IOT will undoubtedly provide benefits, but it is only a bandage. What those companies relying on IOT require is the transition to Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), which can simply be thought of as an overlay suite of resource management systems on an EITA. That is, the variety of management systems that may be deployed from an ERP perspective are facilitated by the integrated information flow that has been already established via an EITA structure.

 

  • Advanced Resource Management Systems

A basic management rule is that the more timely and accurate the data are as to the status of a company’s primary resources, the more efficient the operation will be with the proper management systems that can respond to the change of asset status, e.g., “What is the position and speed of trains which is not available today with conventional traffic control systems?”. For a railroad where the resources are mobile, the opportunities can be extraordinary, both as to efficiency and safety, if such “in time” data (not necessarily “real time”) are available. Additionally, as to be expected with many railroads across the globe, there is likely to be a tremendous amount of manual capture of asset status, e.g., locomotives, wagons, and marshaling yard status. The deployment of systems that provide such data automatically e.g., wagon tracking systems, can greatly reduce the costs of manual collection while providing more accurate and timely data.  However, the primary resource management systems that exist today across most railroads are not geared to handle such data.  Therefore, improving the reporting of asset status has to be integrated with advanced resource management system to handle such data. That means that there has to be an honest assessment as to how such advanced management systems can be integrated or as a replacement for current, conventional management systems. The usage of advanced resource management systems is largely dependent upon advancing the core technologies.

  • Core Technologies

As with the cell phone reference above, how can railroads change their operations accordingly? That is, there are 3 primary core technologies that a railroad requires to manage its mobile resources: Positioning, Communications, & Information Processing. For railroads, their operations are largely based upon century-old versions of the 3, i.e., physical positioning, voice communications, and a mixture of wayside and back-office information processing (intelligence). Unfortunately, most railroads have not yet considered the advancement to wireless data, virtual positioning, and locomotive-borne intelligence respectively.  For example, I recently completed another assignment for KTZ, as well as several years earlier for Egypt’s railroad (ENR), to design an advanced traffic control / traffic management / enforcement system (prevents train accidents due to driver errors). This concept that I refer to as Virtual CTC (VCTC) replaces the century-old physical positioning of where trains are with virtual positioning, thereby greatly eliminating extensive capital expenditures and on-going maintenance for the conventional positioning approach. Additionally, wireless data communications are used in lieu of voice communications, and the primary intelligence is shifted from the wayside to both locomotive-borne and back-office platforms. A version of VCTC has now been implemented by at least one supplier.

  • Privatization

KTZ is making the phenomenal transition from exclusively Government-owned to a capitalistic perspective of Government-owned infrastructure and privatization of supporting operations such as maintenance of railroad infrastructure and the handling of freight and passenger operations. This is a transition that would be valuable for many railroads that are government owned today. The overlay of ERP on an EITA provides an honest presentation of what’s what across the railroad that will result in the improvement of both the efficiency and safety of the railroad as well as financial and operations accountability required by investors.

A public version of the EITA study that I performed for KTZ is available upon a request to me at comarch@aol.com.

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.

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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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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