Archive for the ‘Strategic Railroading’ Category

Innocence Lost: Engineers

Prior to the commercial introduction of the handheld digital calculator by Texas Instruments (the developer of the integrated circuit, a.k.a., micro-chip) in 1972, the act of performing mathematical calculations was often by means of the slide rule, a handheld analog calculator, that “miraculously” performs division / multiplication by adding / subtracting log scales via sliding bars. Using the slide rule back then was both a science and an art; an art that is now lost for those engineers nurtured only by digital technologies. That is, with the slide rule there was a certain level of innocence for those folks, myself included, in that we had to accept a marginal level of accuracy (versus doing time consuming, long hand mathematics) based upon the granularity of the scale provided on the sliding bars – what is referred to as significant digits. However, with the digital calculator, the accuracy level is only restricted by the number of digits displayed on the device.  For example, 8 / 3 on the slide rule would only permit a solution of 2.7 due to the principle of significant digits. However, on the digital calculator with 8 digit displays, for example, the answer would be 2.6666666. One consequence of such innocence, now also lost, was determining the placement of the decimal point in a series of calculations. For example, using the simple 8 / 3 calculation, the manipulation of the slide rule would be the same for 800,000 / 3 as it would be for 8 / 3.  Hence, the approximation of 2.7 shown on the slide rule required the user to interpret this as 270,000 – versus the 266,666 displayed on the digital calculator. And, for a series of calculations, this could indeed be a challenging effort.


The point of the above is that the innocence of approximating answers based upon significant digits and placing the decimal in one’s head has been irreversibly taken from us with the onslaught of the digital age. Unfortunately, this lost of innocence, in my opinion, has placed a fatuous belief in the importance of absolute accuracy, versus the pragmatic perspective of what really is required for a given situation. And, I suggest this difference is proving to be very expensive unnecessarily in the development and deployment of technologies across the majority of the rail industry that doesn’t deal with high speed / high density operations. Simply stated: Rail time IS NOT Real time for the majority of railroads across the globe.


A primary example of Rail vs. Real is the collection of PTC efforts in the U.S.  For the pragmatist, the timeliness and accuracy of train position and speed required for traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement (my generic term for PTC) for the majority of railroads across the globe, is rather basic and inexpensive to provide compared to the technical architecture being developed by the Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committees charged with designing PTC. To expand my point, I refer you to my previous posting on this blog as to the “The Simplicity of Complexity” where I refer to the “80/20” rule, i.e., where 80% of an objective of (choose a topic) can be achieved with 20% of the resources required to achieve 100% of the objective, if that 100% is even achievable. Applying the rule of 80/20 to PTC and traffic control /management (see my postings on VCTC), then unlike those individuals raised on digital precision, the position AND speed of trains in supporting PTC and effective traffic control / management is greater than that provided by fixed block signaling systems, but substantially less than real time. That means that engineers charged with designing virtual positioning approaches, e.g. GPS, and wireless data infrastructure to deliver the data for on-board enforcement as well as to the back office control / management systems, do not require anything approaching the complexity of the technologies being designed for PTC. Yet, our current breed of technicians that have been raised exclusively in the environment of digital communications, video games, and the instantaneous and unlimited throughput of wired IT architecture, do not have that 80/20 perspective. For example, why does a railroad need a level of positioning accuracy for PTC that far exceeds the accuracy of the braking curve for enforcement? And, yet, that is what has been designed by ITC. As to wireless, why do the railroads need a 220 Mhz network in parallel to the already installed 160 Mhz infrastructure? Actually, I know the answer to this wireless question, and it has to do with the failure of the railroad technicians (and their management) to develop a pragmatic strategy of what they could have done to replace their analog 160Mhz platform with a digital trunk system (e.g., TETRA) that would have greatly increased the capacity of that infrastructure to not only handle PTC, but also to readily handle the wireless voice requirements of crowded metropolitan areas such as Chicago and Kansas City.  Ok, so perhaps that last sentence is a bit technical here, but it shouldn’t have been for technicians that should have sought out pragmatic solutions.


The bottom line is that US railroads, for PTC implementation alone, will be investing $Billions more than that which is really necessary. One could perhaps make the argument that such an investment will have other benefits in the future such as developing an industry-based strategic operations plan involving the effective interchange of trains, chain of custody, asset and shipment management, etc.  BUT, that strategy does not exist … and nor will it until railroad executives are compensated via their personal objectives and associated bonus program to take such a viewpoint.


In a forthcoming posting I will be writing about the Innocence Lost: Rail Operations, But unlike the innocence lost for engineers, this will be a very positive perspective because it really addresses the Ignorance Lost.

The Simplicity of Complexity

During my 5 decades + of post-graduate experience in handling a wide variety of positions that have involved technical, functional, and mathematical challenges without any precedence, it seems that I have purposely sought out those unique engagements without any obvious solutions. I have done so based upon what I have proven to myself to be a truism: the more complex an engagement appears to be, the easier it is to resolve.   Although this concept is counterintuitive for most folks I expect, and not as true when dealing with leading-edge technologies, the fact is that too many professional types tend to over-think what needs to be done when it comes to threshold technologies. I am referring to those basic technologies that provide the data to support the processes that are required to manage one’s company’s operation in a truly cost-effective fashion. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the more that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) individuals are engaged with the subject at hand, the greater the risk that the solution will be over-thought … and therefore over-engineered … and therefore unnecessarily over-expensive as to both investment and maintenance. What is missing by the STEM professionals, in my opinion, are two primary principles of an MBA.


First, is the understated (and therefore underappreciated) principle in the application of statistics and realizing the rule of 80/20. That is, the variance in the coefficients of variables (if not the ability to identify all variables) that are required to make a mathematical / functional / technical analysis of (choose at topic) means that 100% of the objective is never achieved. Rather, one shoots for 80% of (chosen topic) which will require only 20% of the cost to purse an acceptable, achievable goal of (chosen topic).


The second principle of the MBA is to provide a Bottom line, Business perspective to what is being sought. This perspective suggests that STEM should be modified to be STEM-B. Below, I discuss Both the simplicity of complexity, the 80/20, as well as the Bottom line perspective. The distinction I am making here is the difference between STEM Technicians and STEM- B Technologists.


Complexity / Simplicity

As an example of the simplicity of complexity, I reflect on the early days of the U.S. space program. At one point, there was a significant effort on the part of space STEMs to develop a solution for astronauts to shave in a gravity-free environment so as to prevent the shaved whiskers from fouling the on-board electronic equipment. Several solutions would have been to use only Native Americans or female astronauts (assuming that smooth legs would not be a requirement). After significant research in vacuum-capture systems, the chosen solution at that time was to use a razor in concert with shaving cream that would capture the severed hair particles – how effective, how pragmatic.

In this vein relative to railroads, PTC is a prime example of how the technicians have clearly blown it. As addressed in earlier postings on this blog, these folks have totally over-engineered not only the functionality of PTC, e.g., the enforcement of intermittent signals (ISs), but also over-designed 2 of the 3 core technologies of PTC, i.e., communications and positioning (see posting on March 5, 2013 titled “The Goods, the Bads, & The Uglies” that can be found on the blog by selecting the category of “Strategic Core Infrastructure” on the home page). At least the third core technology of Information Processing was well thought out as to the use of 2of 3 processors to ensure the availability of the on-board PTC platform to avoid regulatory requirements to proceed at restricted speed should the PTC unit fail in route.

So! What is the simplicity of complexity? By this I mean that if one takes an 80/20 perspective of what can be accomplished by making good assumptions, then solutions can be realistically achieved.  For example, no railroad is 100% safe, even though the FRA fatuously states that there should be ZERO tolerance for unsafe railroad operations. The truth is that a railroad’s operation has 0% chance of being 0% unsafe unless it runs zero trains. That doesn’t make any sense, of course, and such expectations of absolute safety results in overbearing regulations such as the PTC mandate (thanks to a knee jerk reaction by Congress to the horrific MetroLink – UP accident in 2008) that is clearly not cost-effective for U.S. railroads. When I designed the first overlay PTC system in the U.S., and subsequently in Egypt (as discussed in the most recent postings on this blog), I made a 80/20 evaluation of what could be achieved with the technologies at hand relative to the operating environment of most railroads across the globe.  For example, it was clear that a vital system (that which generates the movement authorities for trains to advance) that integrated traffic control with enforcement, such as moving block, was not technically nor functionally achievable in a cost-effective fashion due to technologies, operating practices (including the handling of yard operations), given that the majority of train movements are unscheduled both within and between railroads (interchange). In the case of Egypt, the issues are even more complex given the use of “vital employees” that manually generate movement authorities. Hence, I designed Virtual CTC solution (VCTC) to address what could be done cost-effectively to prevent the majority of accidents in the U.S. as well as both the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) and the majority of small and medium railroads across the globe. This process required making assumptions as to what was really needed for safety – an analysis that subsequently proved to be right on. Do these solutions meet the FRA expectations for ZERO tolerance? – Absolutely not – BUT, then again, nothing can. However, VCTC is very cost-effective … and exactly what the Egyptian Railways and many other railroads across the globe need to make their railroads financially viable while providing unprecedented safety not achievable with conventional operating systems.

Being 80/20 in one’s thinking means having the mental and institutional ability to be creative, To be mentally creative means having the ability, again, to make assumptions that eliminate that 20% of the problem that can’t be achieved in any reasonable fashion, and then design a solution, followed by a subsequent review of the assumptions made to be sure that nothing critical was left out.  As to institutional freedom, I am referring to the organization permitting its employees to pursue justifiable, cost-effective solutions that make financial sense. Unfortunately, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that most executive bonus programs are based on the near term, without a long-term strategic perspective, that may restrict such a process.  A case in point here is the lack of an industry-business perspective by the US freight railroads that could deliver interchange data for minimizing the effect on scheduled operations. That is, a railroad dependent upon interchange is constrained to running to schedule if the other railroad is not running to schedule, and visa versa. This is an industry issue. (Does any railroad have the evaluation of interchange efficiency in its executive bonus program?) Interestingly, it is the PTC mandate that is forcing the railroads to develop an interoperable, industry-wide wireless data infrastructure that can deliver such industry wide applications for the benefit of all. Without that mandate, it is my opinion that the technical solutions of individual railroads would have prevented such a strategic perspective. This point introduces the second issue of addressing the bottom line.


The Bottom Line

So, how did the technicians manage to ignore the bottom line with the over-engineering of PTC to meet the PTC mandate?  And, arguably more important, why is there no Industry Strategy on how an industry-wide wireless network, that will be delivered to meet the interoperability requirement of PTC, can benefit the railroads both individually and collectively (e.g., the ability to improve scheduled performance with the availability of timely interchange data of foreign trains …  or … How is that foreign locomotive in the lead of the train on my property performing?)

On June 6, 2011 I made a posting “Six Wireless Decisions Your Wireless Management Shouldn’t Make”  (which can be found on this blog by selecting the category of Strategic Railroading on the right side of the home page, going to the bottom of the postings that are provided and then clicking on Older Entries). This posting paraphrased an article in the November 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) titled “The Six IT Decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make”. Simply stated, the HBR article makes the point, and my wireless version parrots, that operations management fails “to recognize that adopting systems poses a business – not just a technological- challenge. Consequently, they (a company’s senior management) don’t take responsibility for the organizational and business process changes the systems requires.” The result of this lack of involvement is that the CIO (or CWP – Chief Wireless Person), with a technology perspective exclusively, is constraining the advancement of the company’s business processes, and most likely the return on IT (or wireless) investment and, more importantly, the company’s bottom line.

In that prior posting I suggested the following 6 decisions that the CWP shouldn’t make as to wireless in sync with HBR’s article as to CIOs and IT.

  1. How much should we spend on wireless?
  2. Which business processes should receive our wireless dollars?
  3. Which wireless capabilities need to be company-wide (and industry-wide)?
  4. How good do our wireless services really need to be?
  5. What security and privacy risks will we accept?
  6. Whom do we blame if a wireless initiative fails?

To add my personal touch here, I list below some questions that the senior railroad executives may want to ask their Engineering and Operations management.

  1. What are the plans to use the wireless data for our internal purposes?
  2. What is the strategy for the industry to use the forthcoming wireless data network?
  3. What accuracy do we really need for train positioning and speed?
  4. Does CAD provide the necessary traffic management tools to perform proactive traffic management?
  5. What can be done to improve the reliability of interchange to increase scheduled operations?
  6. Does Operations know the condition of the foreign locomotive in our trains?
  7. How do we measure the efficiency of the dispatchers?
  8. Is Service Design aligned with what can be done with timely train position and speed data as to developing an achievable train schedule?
  9. Why oh why are railroads enforcing ISs for PTC?

The closing point is that the rail industry needs technologists, in sync with technicians, that can deliver solutions based on the bottom line, both for individual railroads as for the industry.  The railroads are not on schedule here as well.

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.

Teddy Bears Revisited

Three years ago in this blog I introduced a category of postings referred to as the “Teddy Bears” (TBs), as listed on the right side of the home page. Simply stated, TBs are convenient, but ill-justified, statements and beliefs that too many traditionalists in the industry (whether they be regulators, railroaders, or suppliers) fatuously cling to justify their perspective of railroad operations as to safety and/or efficiency. Unfortunately, these TBs are also restricting the opportunities to improve operations via the deployment of advancing technologies and associated business processes. Why these traditionalists do so, whether knowingly or not, is very likely due to the following:
1. They truly don’t consider the bottom line of railroading by not providing cost-effect technology strategies aligned with a strategic business plans;
2. Railroads relies on technicians instead of Technologists who can make a business case in sync with a technology strategy; and
3. Railroads’ upper management is focused on short-term goals to maximize their annual bonuses; and
4. There is little to no business strategy as to the advancement of operations across the railroads as an industry.

The TBs that I have covered so far include the following:
• No Time For Strategy (November 2010);
• CAD Delivers Traffic Management (October 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).

There are other TBs that have yet to be covered in this blog including:
• Real time data is the Real Thing for structuring technology solutions;
• The lack of reliable interchange by other railroads is a real problem for our railroad.
• 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;
• As regulators, we can only accept “zero-tolerance” for operational risk;
• The Service Design folks can’t deal with all of the exceptions that occur;
• Don’t question, yet alone criticize; and lastly
• Just a couple more years and it will be somebody else’s problem.

Most of the above TBs, if not all, still exist to a great extent across North America’s freight railroads, arguably the World’s most sophisticated freight operation. So! What chance is there for the antiquated and developing railroads across the globe that are being forced-fed the “conventional” traffic control and traffic management systems which are based upon century-old technologies?

Within the next several months I will have articles published in Railway Age , International Railways Journal (IRJ), and possibly another international journal that addresses vehicular technologies regarding the Virtual Centralized Train Control (VCTC) system I designed with my associates to address the requirements for the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), as well as many, many other railroads across the globe that are critical for expanding the commerce of their respective countries. Those articles in concert with the attached video, take on many of the TBs addressed above as to safe and efficient rail operations without the use of traditional, conventional solutions that are justified only for high density rail operations.


Lastly, I encourage you to suggest other TBs for my consideration of a possible posting.

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!

Faking It

I played a decent amount of basketball in my high school years.  However, being 6’3” was not enough by itself to compensate for my lousy shooting. And, I wasn’t a good shot because I was unwilling to practice enouigh to build that “muscle memory” of the physics associated with putting the ball in the hoop. Therefore, I spent my court time mastering the interception of passes between the opposing team players by anticipating their moves. I was really good at “reading” their intentions in the passing of the ball.  My skill, it seems, was a combination of perception and the ability to fake where my attention was in the other team’s handling of the ball. My strategy was if I could intercept their passes, then I could pass the ball to my team members who could make the shots. The point here is that there are those individuals that grab the ball, and there are those that can make the points once they have the ball.  This is one ideal “team” perspective in my opinion given so very few individuals can do both.  Unfortunately, in the U.S. railroads today, those who have the responsibility for obtaining the ball also have the responsibility for taking the shots – and they really suck at shooting. I am referring to the railroads’ technicians and their free-hand at designing and installing technologies without responsible upper management oversight. Simply stated: I think there is a great deal of faking going on in railroad management, whether it be intentional or just the nature of the organization.

Is there any doubt that there are times that each of us fakes it personally and professionally . . . but not necessarily for the wrong reasons? That is, we present viewpoints and take on tasks that are beyond our actual knowledge and skill set with the expectation (based upon past experiences) that we will succeed … and with the hope that our audience won’t be able to contest us either due to their lack of on-point knowledge or their lack of intestinal fortitude to take on the “authority”.  Unfortunately, however, in the railroads I see faking-it to be a two way street between the technical and operational managers that is resulting in a horrific waste of capital and, in the case of wireless, the waste of valuable RF spectrum. That is, the technicians fake that they have done their due diligence in promoting that there technical solutions are absolutely the most cost-effective . . . and the operators feign (or worse don’t even participate) that they have done their due diligence in challenging and understanding what they are offered by the technicians. While I am sure that there are some excellent examples where it is clear the technicians and the operators have worked together to deliver cost-effective technical solutions, there are too many examples where they have not. Arguably, the most egregious is that of the ITC efforts to address the interoperability challenges of PTC. There are 3 primary examples.

  1. I have already exposed in this blog as well my articles in Railway Age, and my submissions to the FCC, that the grab for more and more 220 MHz by the Class Is is an intentional scam (IMHO). This is faking-it taken to an unprecedented level for the industry because it is not a single railroad that is the perpetrator, but rather a class(1)action, if you will.
  2. Having spoken recently with a supplier of NXDN, a digital wireless protocol, I am of the opinion that the availability of the significant increase in channels  by narrowbanding VHF has afforded the railroad technicians the opportunity to once again forego their responsibility of using at least the 160 MHz band in a good-citizen, yet cost-effective fashion.
  3. As to positioning accuracy for PTC, the technicians are striving for levels of accuracy that are far, very far, exceed that which is really necessary due to their inability to understand what is really required, and rather to ensure that they will never be at fault regardless of the cost.

Fortunately, there are several railroads that don’t buy into these fatuous technology activities and recognize that there are solutions that are much more cost-effective. It would seem that these railroads have a team perspective of obtaining the ball and making the shot. But unfortunately for too many railroads, there is a lack of upper-management understanding and support for doing the right thing for the right reason. That is, for too many railroads the exploits of technologies by technicians goes unchallenged by the management teams that have the responsibility for their railroad’s bottom line, with or without consideration of what makes sense for a country with constrained RF capacity.

THE bottom line is that the technicians are in fact faking it as to providing technology-based solutions that are grounded in responsible economics. They are doing so because, IMHO, 1. they believe that it is their responsibility to provide the best (most complex) technology regardless of the cost and regardless of whether or not such complexity is required, and 2, railroad management has failed to get involved in understanding the business perspective of technology decisions. So! Who is at fault?  In my opinion, it is the RRs’ senior management failure in developing a business strategy in sync with a technology strategy that has set up the situation. Could the focus on the current year’s bonus plan have anything to do with this? Hmmmm!

So!   I ask you: When you fake it, are you doing so for the right reasons?  Are you avoiding the critical issues important to your organization so as to “kiss up” to your management or to your annual bonus, whether you work for a railroad or a supplier? . . . or . . . Are you realistic as to what can be achieved and willing to speak up? . . .  or  . . . Do you really care one way or the other? As an independent consultant I don’t fake it with my clients.  They will get both a short-term tactical and a long-term strategic perspective whether they want it or not. I will grab them the ball, but they have to make the shot.

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.

Degrees of Separation

The concept of 6 degrees of separation was initially introduced in a play written by John Guare in the early part of the 20th century declaring that each of us is only six steps of introduction from any person in the world. In current terms, this concept is readily acceptable given the advancement in communications and travel that has shrunk the world as to providing such connectivity. In fact, with the predominance of social networks available via the world wide conduit of the internet, one could argue that the six degrees of separation is now substantially less, if not just one. Arguably, the most dramatic example is that of the Arab Spring that has brought the citizens of suppressed countries, including their expatriates, to the point of uniting against their respective governmental tyrants.  One would like to think that our individual connectivity has no boundaries at this point as long as the paths of internet communications can be provided to the masses via wireless. However, as well demonstrated by the recent U.S. Presidential election, this same advancement in connectivity also provides the ability for those individuals that don’t have a rational understanding of facts to present their self-serving prejudices to misdirect those that solely place their faith in the written word, as to what can be achieved. To that point, only but the most uninformed or self-serving individuals would be quickly reminded by the Republican campaign for the recent U.S. President election which overwhelmingly (compared to that of Democrat’s campaign), consisted of a constant stream of a substantially misrepresentation of facts to present a phenomenally irrational, non-compromising  right wing perspective that serviced those most-selfish individuals that have benefitted from the benefits of a capitalistic  society, but without the recognition of the masses that have made their accomplishments achievable. Fortunately, for the benefit of the majority of the U.S. populace, President Obama was re-elected. With that stated, onward to railroads.

Playing on this concept of how technologies, most specifically wireless communications linked with Internet, have brought the world closer today, it also true the degree of train separation can also benefit from the introduction of technologies, again wireless data, and the use of advanced traffic management systems that can provide a substantial increase in traffic density for any given corridor by simply knowing the position AND speed of trains. With the availability of both position AND speed data, that doesn’t  exist for the majority of railroads across the globe, a railroad’s operations can project  and prevent conflicts that may occur even within fixed-block operations as determined by traditional electronic signaling operations that depend upon traditional wayside technologies that provide block-size positioning at best. I refer to this capability as Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) as is described in greater detail in  various other postings on this blog.

The deployment of PTM is quite inexpensive  both absolutely and especially relative to its value in that it can be provided as an overlay to a railroad’s choice of traffic control, whether it be signaled or non-signaled, WITHOUT replacing the dispatching platform. This is true because PTM is only a management decision tool and not an execution platform such as CTC or Track Warrant. As a decision tool, PTM can dramatically complement, if not replace in many cases, the skill set of the dispatcher who is a manager of the execution platform. This means that PTM is not functionally vital, i.e., it does not generate authorities that provides for the integrity of train movements. The ultimate deployment of PTM is when it is tightly integrated with traffic control thereby becoming some level of moving block – a vital system. But only a few high speed / high density railroads can benefit from a moving block capability. In fact, in the U.S. there are a number of operations-savy individuals that will note that moving block for the most dense freight traffic corridors would provide little benefit until the yard operations are optimized concurrently. So! As an overlay to traffic control, short of making a transition to moving block, what is holding back the deployment of PTM across the majority of globe? I believe the primary reasons differ between public and private railroads.

PUBLIC: Outside of the Americas, the predominance of rail operations are owned / controlled by the governments of the countries in which they operate.  Again, in general, these are passenger operations without a clear responsibility for addressing financial bottom line, i.e., providing cost effective solutions that have to pass the threshold business test as to making a profit, or else it is out of business. In these environments it seems that the suppliers often rule the roost in designing the traffic control solutions that aren’t necessarily cost-justified. Technicians thrive on promoting systems in this environment; they believe that they are justified in delivering solutions without restrictions as to costs. However, for those countries that are confronted with growing their economies internally, as well as integrating with the world economy, they are being presented with technologies that they simply cannot be justified.

PRIVATE: In the Americas, the freight railroads are competing with road, barge, and pipeline transport and therefore have to maintain a for-profit operation to stay in business … or they are out of business. Indeed, in the U.S. there have been tens if not hundreds of railroad bankruptcies in the last century. The Penn Central bankruptcy in the 70s (which the largest bankruptcy up to that time for all industries and for which I was the lead financial analyst for the Trustee Staff, is the ultimate example. This railroad lost its understanding of what it was, and eventually went under. That railroad went into a downward spiral as it reduced maintenance expenditures . . . which resulted in reduced traffic speed . . . which resulted in the loss of revenue . . . which resulted in further reduction in maintenance expenditures … and the downward spiral continued to the point of bankruptcy.  Conrail was the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the Penn Central. OK, back to the issue of separation.

The separation between trains, a.k.a. headway, is THE key issue in determining the type of traffic control that should be in place, whether it be freight or passenger operations. Those European suppliers that service the high speed, high density operations in place across that continent have developed sophisticated systems that provide for both safe and efficient operations. BUT, what about those countries in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere that need cost-effective solutions to bring basic rail infrastructure to grow their GNP, both internally and relative to the world market?  They cannot afford the likes of traditional signaling, yet alone ETCS 1,2,3. These railroads need cost-effective solutions ; they need traffic control solutions generically referred to as dark territory that are used by railroads in the Americas that have a clear vision to the bottom line. They also need enforcement systems to prevent accidents due to human errors.  I speak with experience on this point given my assignment as Project Leader to address the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) that still uses token and token-less traffic control across 82% of its operations.  With detail to be provide in the next posting on this blog, my team of independent consultants  (we don’t represent suppliers and we don’t accept commissions) have designed a traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement system that greatly improves both the safety and efficiency of ENR’s operation at a mere fraction of the cost to deploy ETCS.  This is a proven system as to the individual components that we have integrated. We have done so recognizing the true nature of ENR as to what they are and will be in the foreseeable future along with the realization of the capital investment that they can support. The approach I have titled as Virtual CTC (V-CTC) + Enforcement,  provides CTC functionality with the ability to prevent accidents due to drivers AS WELL as mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards, as well as the loss of train integrity. For example, two horrific accidents in Egypt in November, 2012 resulted in 54 fatalities that could have been prevented with V-CTC + Enforcement due to errors by mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards. Both of these accidents would not have occurred in the U.S., but in Egypt with their antiquated traffic control systems dependent upon “vital employees” (see the previous posting on this blog), there were human errors for which there was no enforcement system in place to prevent. But, through the efforts of my team in performing our study there, we recognized and modified the enforcement concept of PTC to handle. Specifically, we have designed an approach that monitors the traffic control activities of these vital employees to ensure that they have performed in providing valid movement authorities.  Most importantly, Virtual CTC + Enforcement minimizes the capital requirements to operate the railroad both safely and efficiently, versus slamming in signaling infrastructure and/or ETCS that would be 30 to 50 times more expensive by my rough estimate.

I can’t over emphasized the need for pragmatic, cost-effective solutions for traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement that traditional suppliers have refused to address for the majority of railroad operations across the globe.  Shame on them. Enough said. The next posting here will present V-CTC + Enforcement for those railroads and suppliers that are looking for solutions that support the majority of railroads across the globe that don’t provide high speed / high density operation – both passenger and freight. Please contact me at if you which to discuss your particular interests. My team of seasoned railroad professionals can address the functional, technical, financial, and mathematical throughput analysis of considering V-CTC + Enforcement from both a tactical and strategic perspective relative to expanding the safety and efficiency of a railroad’s operation, especially when integrating freight and passenger operations.

The bottom line here is that I warn railroads from being fooled by the written and stated words of suppliers that have solutions that are not appropriate for their operations. There may be pragmatic, cost effective solutions of which they may not be aware.

It Takes an Industry: Process

In the previous 2 posts of this set of 3 regarding Industry INTRAoperability (not Railroad INTERoperability for PTC) I addressed both the opportunity and the rail executive education that are required for the unprecedented opportunity to advance the railroads’ operations, both individually and as an industry. The underlying logic is that rail executives are motivated by their bonus plans to optimize the handling of their responsibilities. Hence, a strategic perspective that is beyond the horizon of their bonus program requires that top management be so educated to provide the incentive to think strategically as to the deployment of technologies to satisfy a strategic business plan, a.k.a. Strategic Railroading™. In this posting I discuss a well-proven process that provides the structure to do so.


In other postings on this blog I have referenced IBM’s efforts in the 70s and 80s to introduce the usage of computers across industries to replace manual business processes as well as to re-engineer business processes given the integration of computers with telecommunications, thereby establishing new flows of information within and between enterprises.  In addition to the prestigious executive sessions that IBM provided for its clients back then, IBM developed a very formal process for identifying the information flow architecture that would support the advancement of computers. Referred to as Business System Processing (BSP), the Wikipedia description properly identifies the primary objectives, i.e.,

  • understand the issues and opportunities with the current applications and technical architecture,
  • develop a future state and migration path for the technology that supports the enterprise,
  • provide business executives with a direction and decision making framework for IT capital expenditures,
  • provide information system (IS) with a blueprint for development.

Why BSP can be of great value to the railroads in particular at this point is the opportunity of developing “a future state and migration path” given the proliferation of wireless networks, both private and commercial. Even more to the point is the tremendous effort and investment that the railroads are making to lay in a 220 MHz network in the name of PTC. And, as noted in other postings on this blog, this decision by the railroads to deploy 220 MHz is really pathetic in two primary ways.  First, the railroads have failed to justify the need for additional 220 MHz as evidenced by FCC’s rejection of the railroads’ request for such spectrum in addition to what they already own. Second, there is no strategic business plan associated with any strategic technology plan (other than to just install 220 MHz) to cost-effectively use all of the spectrum that the railroads now possess. It is in support of both of these points that a BSP could lay the foundation of how wireless can benefit not only the individual railroads, but also the industry overall. In fact, had the railroads already performed a BSP for the industry, one that was truly understood and accepted by senior management, then the 220 MHz sham by the railroads’ technicians would have never gained any ground in my opinion.

So! It’s agreed then. A BSP can be greatly beneficial. But how is such a process performed?

BSP Process

There are 8 primary, structured & well-proven steps in performing a BSP, as follows:

1. Gain Executive Authority: This is often the most critical part of a BSP. Without the proper level of commitment to support the need for incorporating multiple departments of an organization within the study, the effort will fail with the first major disagreement between the departments, a disagreement that is inevitable;

2. Define the Business Strategy: This steps sounds difficult perhaps, but it actually is quite simple if the participants can be honest about the successes and failings of the organization and their individual departments;

3.Define the Business Processes: This is the most creative part of the BSP in that it requires visionaries that can look beyond the current processes and recognize the possible changes due to advancing technologies. For railroads it is the focus on wireless data that can provide for more timely and accurate management of the vast sets of mobile assets;

4. Define the Business Classes: Defining data classes (aggregates of related data elements) is very straightforward once the business processes have been defined.  (Note the very simplified example below of which business processes create / use the various business classes.);

5. Validate Finds with Management: This process establishes a line in sand with the management team that demonstrates the study is meeting the objectives of the study so as to ensure on-going commitment.

6. Define the Information Architecture: Ah Yes! This is the most fantastic step where the BSP effort really clicks and all participants and management can see what they have been missing as to information flow between the primary entities, and processes. (Note below a simplified example of a BSP that I performed for the intermodal industry. The arrows indicate the flow of specific data classes (descriptions not included) between operational entities and/or data bases. The black objects and arrows are current, the red objects and arrows are new relative to the changes in the business processes, and blue objects are hardware that need to be developed;

7. Establish Information System Priorities: The appropriateness and credibility of the information architecture developed via the BSP is first tested here as each player pulls for particular interests in establishing the priorities of the future information systems. Using the above diagram as an example, the order in which the red blocks are developed, either individually or collectively, can greatly affect the actual success of reaching the desired overall objective.

8. Make the Business Case for Management: YES! The most important business case. If nothing else, the BSP process takes the control of technology investment out of the hands of the technicians who seemingly have the desire to deliver the optimum system as to capability, whether it is required or not.  Again, the most current, and capital-wasting example of this is that of PTC deployment where the technologists are out of control as to wireless (220 MHz), a train positioning platform, and the use of wayside interface units to interface with Intermediary Signals ( see the previous posting on this block “IS … Not”).

Voila!  I have managed or participated in 4 BSPs … and this is really good stuff.

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Strategic Railroading™
Given recent tech advances there is now an unprecedented opportunity to advance railroad operations and the integration of high speed rail with freight. Real-time traffic management and communication is possible without significant development and deployment costs, but it will take a technology strategy working hand-in-hand with an operational strategy, it will take Strategic Railroading.™
Full Spectrum - Quarterly Journal

Full Spectrum is a quarterly railroading journal authored by Mr. Ron Lindsey. The majority of executives in the US railroad industry, including top members of the FRA and the major railroads, have subscribed to Full Spectrum for the past fifteen years.

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