Archive for the ‘Signaling’ Category

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.

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.

Shaken! Not Stirred

About 20 years ago there was a cartoon in The New Yorker, a monthly periodical best known, arguably, by non- New York City residents for its cartoons.  This cartoon showed two wealthy gentlemen (in the style of the Monopoly game millionaire) lounging in the bar car of a passenger train with their martinis. (I think of them as Reginald and Wilfred).  Reginald states:  “This is a lousy martini. (pause) This is a Hell of a way to run a railroad”.

Being a martini enthusiast (only gin of course),  I can appreciate the nuance of making such an evaluation.

Back then, this now-shallow perspective was in actuality one credible way to evaluate passenger and freight rail operations in that it was “take or leave it” from the railroads’ perspective of running their railroads. That is, railroads provided the service that they wanted to provide given their monopolistic position as to transport.  However, beginning with the availability of the interstate roads during the Eisenhower administration, followed by the passing of the Staggers Act in 1980 that deregulated the freight railroads as to the price that they could charge for services, there was a gradual, but sustained shift to the customer’s perspective. That is, with these two major game changes of the interstate road infrastructure and the Staggers Act, entered competition not only between rail and truck transport, but also competition between railroads.

In the last several decades, both passenger but primarily freight railroads have taken on a different perspective; a perspective on what technologies can deliver to make a railroad’s operation both more safe and efficient. I must state first of all, that US railroads, both passenger and freight, are extraordinarily safe, especially when compared to operations across the globe. (See previous posting “ What Price Safety” for some additional insight on this point.  But, I need to go back to the martini point.)

There are martinis, and there are martinis. James Bond’s infamous standard of “Shaken, not stirred” makes the point. But first, I should note that based upon an independent analysis of literature regarding James Bond’s life style, it has been determined that he was quite a drinker with his consumption of an average of 45 martinis within a given week. OK, so that is 6 +martinis a night which makes him somewhat suspect as to his objective credibility as quoted by Dorothy Parker of Algonquin Round Table fame:  “ I like to have a martini, Two at the very most, After Three I’m under the table, after four I’m under the host.” So!  6+ martinis in an evening is clearly past the line.

The point of shaken, not stirred, can be applied to railroad operations, me thinks.  The difference between the two versions of martini preparations is that if a martin is shaken, then the ice can “bruise” the gin, where as stirred is like “Whatever, don’t mess with my gin.” Therefore, the parallel to railroads, you may ask, is that railroads have only been stirring their operational processes for the last several decades, at least, by simply upgrading their primary core technologies, i.e. communications, positioning, and IT, most noticeably with the shift from analog to digital, and the integration of distributed decision making platforms with the back-office infrastructure. But, railroads have not truly shaken up their business processes, a.k.a. process reengineering (dynamic work order is a good example), to take advantage of how the operation can change with advancements in technologies. Arguably, the most critical example is that of the management of train movements as to the underlying means of functional vitality (how movement authorities are generated) and the efficiency that an be achieved with more timely and accurate positioning of trains to advance from crisis-based fixed block operation to that of proactive, flexible block.

In this light, the passing of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 that mandates PTC deployment across most of the freight and transit rail operations in the U.S. has been both a blessing and a curse. That is, the PTC mandate is forcing the railroads to deploy an industry-based wireless data platform with mobile IT platforms on locomotives. That’s super. But, the over-engineering of PTC and the lack of technology strategy across the industry, has dampened the progressive advancement of business processes that can use these technologies.  Simply state, there is no business strategy in sync with a technology strategy, a.k.a. Strategic Railroading, in most of the railroads, yet alone with an industry perspective for freight operations.

So! Do you want to shake things up in your railroad – or your client railroads if you are a supplier? Or do you just want to stir the same old stuff, the same old processes, albeit with upgraded technologies? If you want to shake things up, then consider what can be done with virtual positioning and wireless data technologies.  For one example, click on the VCTC category on the right side on the home page of this blog and review the postings.

Finally, permit me to add my personal notes on gin. With my 46 years of legally enjoying gin across the globe, I offer my following evaluation of several:

  • Bombay Sapphire: a classic, a standard, not insulting to anyone.
  • Hendricks: Just too much rose – only good for 1 a month
  • Blue Coat: made in the U.S and excellent, but then again keep it down to several week if you drink your martinis dry.
  • Gibson: my favorite when in France – can’t find it in the U.S.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I wrote this posting while drinking wine only. Wine is for thinking and writing … and Martinis are for neither.

What Price Safety ?

On December 1, 2013, there was an accident on the Metro North Railroad (MNR) that resulted in 4 fatalities. In some 30 years of operation, this was the first accident on the railroad that resulted in passenger fatalities: quite a phenomenal record for any form of passenger transport. The source of the accident was the failure of the driver to reduce the speed of his train on a curve with the train flying off the track. The reason for his failure was, according to the driver, his dozing off.

There are actually two systems available on MNR to prevent accidents due to such driver errors with a third system due before 2016. However, neither of the current systems could be used by that given train on that given portion of track.  First, there is an alertness system that requires the driver to perform some action (e.g., touch a button) with a certain frequency (e.g., every 25 seconds) to silence an alarm and prevent an automatic brake application.  However, for this train that system was available in the locomotive in the front of the train, whereas the driver was operating from a position in the rear of the train. Second, unlike freight railroads that use wayside signaling, MNR (and many transits) uses cab signaling which in addition to knowing block occupancy and track divergence can include civil speed enforcement if such data is provided to the on-board platform. For that portion of track, there was no such data provided –that would have permitted the cab-signaling platform to enforce.  But, there is now.   Now, with the mandate to implement Positive Train Control (PTC), there will be a third enforcement approach that will prevent accidents due to driver errors including overspeeding anywhere along the track, passing the physical boundary of the movement authority, moving through misaligned switches, and entering a work zone without permission.

So! What price safety? Without any hard figures to back me up, my experience tells me the following:

  1. Alerterness systems are relatively inexpensive, but also somewhat limited as to safety value;
  2. Cab signaling is a no-brainer for transits. It is both a traffic control (versus very costly wayside signaling) and an enforcement system, although somewhat limited when compared to PTC.
  3. PTC is extremely expensive, but the most comprehensive in preventing accidents. However, as has been demonstrated by independent parties, the Cost / Value ratio of PTC across the rail industry is quoted at 20 to 1 for a 20 year period. However, my personal view is that the ratio is more likely 10 to 1 if the freight railroads’ technicians had not done such an irresponsible technical and functional overdesign of PTC (postings on this point are available by clicking on the PTC category on the right side of the home page.)

So! Perhaps a better questions is: Who should pay for a mandated system whose cost far exceeds its value?  In the case of the transits with both alertness systems and cab signaling there is another question that has not been answered to my knowledge: What is the true Cost / Value ratio for transits given that PTC provides incremental increase in safety given the use of alerterness systems and cab signaling?  This analysis would result in a higher Cost / Value ratio. And, does a government-owned entity really want to spend that kind of money for that incremental safety benefit?

Now, to the ridiculous of What price safety?  On the day following the MNR accident, I was contacted by CNN to see if I would be willing to be interviewed by Brooke Baldwin during her 2-4 PM show. They had interviewed me previously regarding the horrific train accident in Spain in July, also due to operator error as to overspeeding on a curved section of track. (As a side note, my colleague Dave Schanoes handled the evening show on CNN for both the Spain and MNR accident.) I was asked if I could discuss the use of seat belts on trains as well as federal regulation regarding train safety. After a silent gasp of “REALLY, you’re serious?”, I thought I was clear with them that I need not address the issue of seat belts, but surely no problem with the regulatory issues.  So! Guess how the 3 minute interview went.  The first question asked by Ms. Baldwin:  ” Ron, let’s just cut to it. Is it about time that we have seat belts on trains?”  With a smile I replied “That’s a very interesting point.” and went on to get the conversation back to a rational understanding that we run a safe railroad … and so on….  and that PTC is not justified.  Closing with “What cost safety?”  click here to see interview: cnn interview

Just as the mandate of PTC was a knee-jerk reaction by Congress to the Metrolink / UP accident in September, 2008, I have little doubt that there is some local, state, and/or Federal politician that would like to run with the seat belt concept.


Innocence Lost: Rail Operations

In the previous posting on this blog, I wrote about the Innocent Lost of Engineers, meaning that with the introduction of the commercially-available, hand-held digital calculators in 1972, engineers began to lose their ability to approximate solutions for a series of calculations with various powers of ten involved.  For example: engineers of that generation could quickly determine that 3.936 X 44,888 / 1,987 is somewhere in the range of 4x(90×500)/(4×500) …hence … 4×90/4 … hence …  90. Such capability was an art that complemented the use of the now-obsolete slide rule, an analog calculation device that performed multiplication and division by literally sliding sticks ruled with logarithmic scales. This lack in the skill of approximation for engineers not experienced with the slide rule is unfortunate because it is critical for thinking on one’s feet to obtain answers to move through complex situations efficiently, albeit not accurately. I also believe the ability to approximate solutions adds greatly to one’s level of creativity. Unfortunately, engineers of today feel compelled to deliver exactness limited by the number of digits displayed on their digital device. Their answer for the above problem would be 88.91754806240564…

Considering railroads, I see a significant lack of creativity with the current set of primary technicians across the industry as to their inability to “think outside of the boxcar, if you will. A case in point here is the pursuit of PTC in the U.S. where technicians are designing to extreme levels of exactness and capability that are clearly not warranted (see posting The Goods, The Bads, & The Uglies, March 5, 2013  found by clicking on the PTC category on the right side of the home page).

Now, I suggest that railroad operators are in the process of losing their innocence as well as to how they run their railroads. Fortunately, however, this is a good thing. Instead of operating a railroad as they have in the past to satisfy their own perspective of what a railroad is, i.e., take it or leave it, railroads are focusing now on customer service for the benefits of their own bottom line as well as that of the shippers by improving customer service. This customer / bottom line perspective started to evolve in the 80s as railroad executives began to recognize the increasing amount of freight traffic being captured by the trucking industry via the nationwide interstate road infrastructure. As a subject for a posting in the future, this was the genesis of the intermodal industry that has now replaced coal freight revenue as the top source of revenue for several Class I railroads.

As to operators losing their innocence, I see 4 phases that will permit them to eventually maximize the use of their resources while delivering optimal customer service.

  1. Resource Rationalization
  2. Scheduled Operations
  3. Proactive Resource Management
  4. Industry Management Perspective

Unfortunately, as explained below, most of the major U.S. railroads have only managed to achieve the first phase of resource rationalization in the last 2-3 decades. Too few railroads have begun to pursue the 2nd phase of scheduled operations, yet alone the 3rd phase of proactive resource management, and certainly not the 4th phase of industry management perspective.

1.    Resource Rationalization

This phase began with the signing of the Staggers Act in 1980 that deregulated the freight rail industry in the U.S. This act introduced competition to the freight rail industry by removing the role of the now-defunct Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) that regulated the tariffs for freight services. This first phase was managed via the infusion of MBAs in the railroads that struggled to work within the efficiency constraints of conventional traffic control systems and the associated operating processes. Such constraints included being confronted with the mindset of operators that fatuously believed that running a railroad without a true schedule was a test of their management skills. That is, a train schedule was something that was handed down to them by the ivory tower Service Design department staffed by MBAs, as “wouldn’t this be a great way to run a railroad”. But, a true operator was not being measured by such performance, but rather by his ability to work with conflicts as they occurred in traffic movements. Hence, what the MBAs provided at that point was limited to an analysis of contribution of individual rail corridors as to the railroad’s bottom, although that analysis was based upon non-scheduled operations. The result of their efforts was the shedding of rail corridors with less than acceptable performance. Unfortunately, the other primary assets, e.g., locomotives, rolling stock, crews, yard operations remained untouched as to their inefficiencies.

2.    Scheduled Operations

The railroads are now into the second phase of losing their innocence with the advancements in technologies, most importantly wireless data an virtual positioning, that can provide for more timely and aggressive handling of train movements by simply knowing where the trains are AND at what speed they trains are traveling. For most railroads in the U.S., they have only begun the process of deploying the necessary wireless data networks that can provide such data. It should be understood that this wireless deployment is not due to a strategy on the part of most railroads, but rather it is a deployment due to the Federal mandate to implement PTC, a system that requires a wireless data network.  I dare say that without that mandate, a number of railroads would still not being deploying such data networks due to a lack of operating strategy linked with a technology strategy (a.k.a. strategic railroading). For example, to my knowledge only 2 railroads in the US had such a strategy before the mandate to deliver the data required to improve the efficiency of their crisis-based dispatching processes.


With this additional level of timely and accurate train position and speed data, the challenge of efficiently dispatching trains increases beyond the mental capability of any dispatcher to deal with all of the variables in dense corridors. One should understand that effective dispatching until this time had been an art based upon not only the mental capabilities of the dispatcher, but also by his/her degree of experience with a particular corridor. And, based upon the principle that one can not effectively manage dispatching if one cannot measure the efficiency of dispatching, then I suggest that no major railroad had, and perhaps has, any effective measurement technique as to the efficiency of its dispatchers. Maybe, they think they do, but most likely it is based upon the conventional concept that a dispatcher should not make the same mistakes that s/he made yesterday, or the day before, or the week before, whatever.

Operating to schedule is not just about track time efficiency. Class Is are beginning to realize that the ability to run to schedule can result not only in better customer service, but also in a substantial reduction in the “slack resources” (a mathematical phrase when optimizing operations) that sit idle so as to permit some level of efficiency when locomotives are not where they need to be … or train crews outlaw … or the designated yard has insufficient in-bound tracks, etc. Simply stated, the unstructured inefficiency of depending upon the use of slack resources in a crisis-based, truly non-scheduled fashion is substantially greater than running to a schedule where slack resources are kept to a minimum to handle a substantially less level of conflicts when the schedule is corrupted…which is more the case than not.

3.    Proactive Resource Management

This next phase is that which only 2 Class Is to my knowledge have taken on. I introduced PTM a decade ago based upon a very simple construct. That is, in order to minimize conflicts of mobile assets, then wireless data is required to provide the timely and accurate data of where those assets are AND at what speed they are traveling.  With such information, then mathematical planners (basic algebra) can be used to predict where conflicts will occur. With that knowledge, then Operations Resource (OR) tools can be used that identify objective functions to minimize the consequences of those conflicts. For example, an objective function may be to reduce the travel time, or to maximize train velocity, for the set of trains being considered for a particular corridor, or for a set of corridors. Conventional CTC that is used across 50% of the U.S. freight rail trackage can only provide block occupancy with no knowledge of speed. For example, did that intermodal train come to a stop, and therefore the opposing merchandise is train being held on a siding for no reason? The other 50% of the freight trackage is dark territory where the dispatcher doesn’t even know which the block the train is in, yet alone the speed. Simply stated, PTM provides for flexible block operation (which is far short of the complexity, if not the questionable possibility of moving block) instead of the inefficiency of fixed block operation where trains vary significantly in length and speed. For further information on PTM, I suggest you read the posting Degrees of Separation, December 26, 2012 in the category Railroad Business found on the right side of homepage.

 4.  Industry Management Perspective

There  is a 4th  phase, which has yet to be initiated, that addresses the efficiency of the industry, and not just an individual railroad. The underlying point here is quite straightforward, but yet continues to be ignored. That is, given the substantial necessity of trains across U.S. railroads to operate within a specific region, yet alone to go from coast to coast, it is impossible to achieve the highest level of scheduled railroading if the interconnecting railroads are not running to schedule. So, there is a Catch 22 in that a given railroad cannot operate at its highest level of efficiency until the interconnecting railroads are running to schedule, but those railroads cannot operate to schedule until the given railroad is operating to schedule.


I see 2 requirements to break into this circular logic. First, the increasing use of PTM will narrow down the complexity of the interconnection challenges. Second, and most important, the annual bonuses of railroad executives need to be structured to place emphasis on industry efficiency, and not just the efficiency of their individual railroad.


Lastly, for the majority of railroads in the U.S., as well as for a number of low density corridors in the Class Is, there is still an issue of considering how wireless data, virtual positioning, and on-board intelligence (such as that being provided via the implementation of PTC), can replace their current dark territory and low density CTC operations with Virtual CTC (VCTC) as described in other postings, including videos, on this blog (click on the VCTC category on the right side of the homepage).


All of the above is really quite straightforward to understand, but the traditionalists of railroads have yet to grasp that a paradigm shift is available to them given a shift in the core technologies that is available to them: again, wireless data, virtual positioning, and on-board intelligence.

VCTC – Published Articles

For those individuals interested in the previous posting on Virtual CTC (Next Generation of Operating Systems ), I am providing below an article of mine that was published in the August issue of Railway Age. A similar article is planned to be published in the October issue of International Railways Journal (IRJ).

Next Generation Operating Systems

As the result of the study that my consultancy completed in Egypt in December 2012 to advance the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), there is now what I refer to as the Next Generation of an integrated Traffic Control, Traffic Management, and Enforcement systems. That is, Virtual CTC (VCTC) uses advancing technologies such as wireless data and virtual positioning, in concert with a CTC-type back office, to deliver tremendous safety and efficiency capability at a mere fraction of the cost that would be required for conventional or advanced signaling such as ETCS and CBTC.

The video below places VCTC in perspective to the traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement systems across the globe and addresses how both railroads and suppliers may want to pursue its development and deployment.

Railroad Operations: A Virtual Perspective

Based upon the study my team just completed in Egypt to evaluate the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), I have posted a video on youtube, and is provided below, as to the design for a new traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement system. This system is referred to as Virtual CTC + Enforcement. It offers small to medium railroads across the globe, both freight and passenger, a cost-effective and pragmatic solution to delivering both efficient and safe railroading with enforcement capability that exceeds PTC, ETCS, and ATC. VCTC does not require either the extensive capital investment or extensive on-going maintenance of conventional or advanced traffic control systems.
Check it out!

Back to Basics

It is reasonable to expect that most of the visitors to this blog are well-experienced railroaders for technically-savvy, established railroads, but not likely that knowledgeable of either traffic control systems or enforcement methodologies (prevention of human errors in the handling of movement authorities) that may exist elsewhere. Personally, until 3 years ago, my experience was almost exclusively with traditional signaling systems as well as non-signaled traffic control as used across 50% of the U.S. trackage – what is generically referred to as “dark territory”. With 40+ years of experience, including being the architect for the first overlay PTC system that provided the foundation for the PTC systems being deployed in the U.S. to meet a Federal mandate, my level of railroad basics had not been truly tested it turns out. It seems that I knew too much technically, but yet too little as to basic railroading. That is, I had a firm grip on understanding the pragmatic deployment of technologies to advance technologies for financially-successful, heavy density freight railroads. But, I really had never had to get to the basics of what safe railroading is when it comes to those railroads that have neither the internal resources (financial and technical) nor the support of suppliers who only deal with modern railroads thereby promoting only traditional signaling or advance systems such as ETCS.  How foolish, if not arrogant – I confess, on my part. But, again, that all changed 3 years ago when I became the Project Leader for a study funded by the U.S. Trade Development Agency (TDA) to study the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR).

ENR is the 2nd oldest railroad on our planet, the once-shining, now tarnished, star of the Middle East. I say tarnished for reasons primarily due to the raping of the Egyptian economy by the now-defunct Mubarek regime over the last several decades. ENR has deteriorated to a pathetic operation which is both highly inefficient and horrendously unsafe due to the reliance on human involvement in the generation and handling of movement authorities. Specifically, 2 points make the case. The traffic control systems across 82% of the trackage, Staff (token) and TYER (token-less), are block-by-block authority systems that stem from the middle of the 19th century.  Such inefficient traffic control systems have contributed substantially to the inability of ENR to handle freight operations that is critical for advancing Egypt’s economy. More tragically, the Egyptian people have been subjected to an amazing number of horrific train accidents resulting in fatalities. Specifically, within the last 2 months alone, there were two accidents that resulted in 55 fatalities due to errors by a mechanical interlocking operator and a level crossing guard.

Our study to address the safety and efficiency of ENR began 3 years ago, but was greatly hampered, if not threatened, by the politics and questionable ethics by key individuals that existed prior to Egypt’s revolution. Following the revolution, the project was assigned to ENR, and the professional railroaders at both MOT and ENR provided the means for the study to progress. The study is now complete, and the Prime Minister has directed ENR to immediately move forward with the study’s recommendation to implement our innovative traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement approach that is based upon proven concepts that until now have not been integrated to meet the unique requirements of ENR, and most likely many other railroads across Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere.  I have labeled this approach as Virtual CTC (V-CTC) + Enforcement. This approach required myself and my team members to challenge our understanding of the basics of safe and efficient railroading. Simply stated, those basics fall into two categories. First, there is the point of functional vitality (i.e., how are authorities generated) across this most antiquated railroad – and how does one minimize the capital investment to complement or replace those processes. Second, to what extent and by what means can enforcement be provided to prevent human errors in the handling of the movement authorities, again both generation and adherence?

Functional Vitality:

The primary purpose of a traffic control system is to prevent overlapping authorities, i.e., to authorize only one train to occupy a portion of track for a given portion of time. However, as is the case in the U.S. with Employees in Charge (EICs) for work gangs, there can exist a nesting of authorities. That is, a train can have an authority for a segment of track (multiple blocks) within which there is a second level of authority that must be obtained at some point. In the case of ENR, this was a critical consideration in that it deploys hundreds and thousands of mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards, respectively, that have the responsibility to provide a nested authority for a train to advance through their individual portion of control. In fact, the two accidents that I mentioned above where the result of the failure of these “vital employees” (see a previous posting on this blog with that title) to perform their responsibilities.


To provide enforcement means being able to obtain the parameters (time / distance / speed) of the movement authorities that are generated, including the nested authorities. We all understand how that works in signaled territory, and some of us understand how that works in dark territory. But very few of us have had to deal with the nested authority process. Without going into depth here, our solution for ENR presented a very pragmatic solution that minimizes the use of wayside infrastructure. This is important not only to the direct capital investment requirement and ongoing maintenance, but also due to the consideration of extreme weather and theft issues in Egypt that readily compromise the safety of any approach so dependent.

The bottom line to the above discussion is that dealing with railroads that are without the financial or technical resources, for whatever reason, to advance their operations, there are solutions that they can deploy that are not offered by major suppliers that sell major systems for major railroad operations, whether freight and/or passenger.  However, to develop such solutions means getting to the basics of railroad operations as to the generation of authorities and the means to provide enforcement. Our solution for ENR prevents accidents due to errors by dispatchers and train drivers, but also those errors by vital employees such as EICs, mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards. Such systems, to my knowledge, do not exist elsewhere  – that is prior to what we have designed for ENR.

If you wish to explore the above points further, then please contact me at or 904 386 3082 in the U.S. My team of seasoned railroaders can address functional, technical (including wireless), financial (business case), and mathematics-based (OR) traffic density from both a tactical and strategic standpoint.

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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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