Archive for the ‘Strategic Railroading’ Category

It Takes an Industry: Education

This is the 2nd of 3 postings that address Industry INTRAoperability (I/I), i.e. the development of systems that support the business interest of the entire rail industry, versus the advances in technologies and systems made by each individual railroad for its singular purposes.  I/I is not the same as Railroad INTERoperability, as is required to deploy Positive Train Control (PTC) as a safety enhancement to the traffic control systems that provide for the integrity of movement operations. Rather, I/I addresses the business perspective of the advantages to the industry by the improved management of key resources subject to the interchange of trains between railroads. The assets that I am referring include the full array: track time, train crews, yards, locomotives, rolling stock, and shipments of high value and/or involving security issues.

Yes! I did state track time, train crews, and yards even those assets don’t cross borders. The reason for doing so is that the use of those assets increases in efficiency as the degree of scheduled operations increases . . . And, the ability of an individual railroad to run to scheduled operations is partially dependent upon the schedule reliability of the railroads with which it interconnects . . . And, since most railroads have yet to demonstrate their ability to run to schedule to a significant extent, contrary to their claims, then a valuable opportunity of pursuing I/I is that of providing timely data of train movements, both position and speed, across all interconnecting railroads so as line-ups can be adjusted in a timely fashion.  Unfortunately, even with such data, a number of roads are incapable of using it to any great extent given their lack of Proactive Traffic Management techniques that I introduced 6 years or so ago in my quarterly publication, Full Spectrum. However, it is encouraging that at least NS and BNSF have made such advancements via the deployment of pragmatic wireless solutions that can report the speed and position of their own trains on their respective properties.

As to the locomotives, rolling stock, and shipments that do cross railroad borders I identified a number of I/I applications in the FRA-funded study I performed in 2008: A Demand and Supply Analysis of the Opportunities for Wireless Technologies in Passenger and Freight Rail Operations, ( As the result of that study, I decided shortly thereafter to take the same approach that IBM used in the 60s and 70s to bring about major changes in the traditional business processes of a full range of industries with the introduction of main frame computers. That is, IBM established major executive education facilities and curriculums across the U.S. to expose their prospective clients’ top management teams to what could be done with computers. As noted in the previous posting, the initial efforts focused on replacing manual data handling processes, e.g., payroll, accounts receivables / payables, with computerized data processing. However, with the introduction of affordable disk storage and the integration of telecommunications with computers, the curriculums expanded in scope by identifying how to change the traditional business processes given the opportunities to rethink the flow of information within and between enterprises (The process of structuring a strategic information flow architecture will be discussed in the next posting: It Takes an Industry: Process).

So, following IBM’s lead I put together an Strategic Railroading Symposium for top railroad executives that would be sponsored by the supplier community overall to remove even the perception of bias. The symposium schedule (presented below) that I put together consisted of 2 tracks, Operations & Engineering, with two categories of topics each, that addressed I/I opportunities as well as other possible applications that I believed at that time would be valuable exposure for railroad top management. Actually, this effort was progressing well with the expression of key suppliers to participate . . . that is until the ramifications of the just-ordered PTC mandate took effect. At that point, rail’s management teams withdrew into their caves rejecting the consideration of anything other than the challenges of implementing PTC. The suppliers, hence, backed away from the opportunity given their inability to market even their current products and services, yet alone the challenges and risks of developing a long-term strategic perspective.

As you will see in the agenda below, several of those applications have had sporadic initiations across the industry in the last several years.

Traffic Management
Delivering Proactive Traffic Management NOW without new CAD
The pragmatic application of meet/pass planning tools
Effective management of the line-up
The challenges and opportunities of effective interchange
The challenges to increasing scheduled operations
Reconciling the perspectives of Service Design vs. Operations
Integration of yard status with main line dispatching
Minimizing conflict between high speed passenger and freight trains
Resource Management
Optimizing crew management relative to the lineup
Balancing locomotive fleets across the industry
Industry tracking of key rolling stock and shipment status
A new look at work order reporting in light of TSA requirements
Maintaining chain-of-custody for critical shipments
Opportunities for improved yard management
Track & Wayside
Unattended, locomotive-borne track inspection
Enhanced safety for on-track workers without authorities
Enhanced safety for workers within work zones
Monitoring the position and health of critical maintenance equipment
Rolling Stock
Locomotive tracking & diagnostics across the industry
Performance-based locomotive maintenance
Industry-based locomotive maintenance
In-train monitoring systems of equipment and shipments

When rail management surfaces from the PTC abyss, then perhaps there will be an opportunity to reconsider some version of the Strategic Railroading Symposium.

It Takes an Industry

There is unlikely to be anyone significantly involved with the U.S. freight industry that has not been exposed to the phrase railroad interoperability given the Federal mandate of Positive Train Control (PTC), an overlay enforcement system. This mandate, via the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, has consumed extensive capital and human resources of the railroads and selected suppliers to design and implement PTC before 2016 in such a fashion that the movement across railroad borders will be transparent to the on-board PTC system. This transparency of interchange, a.k.a. railroad INTERoperability, is unprecedented in the U.S. as to both technologies and cooperation between the railroads, and only exceeded by the European countries in their development and deployment of ETCS, a traffic control system with integrated enforcement. However, unlike ETCS which has been handled by the supplier community, PTC is primarily an effort of the 4 primary Class I railroads, much to dismay of the commuter railroads that are basically at the mercy of what the Class Is provide (see a previous posting on this blog: A Wag of the Finger).


While providing for PTC interoperability across railroads is an extraordinary effort for which the Class Is deserve tremendous credit for addressing the technology challenges (albeit a tremendous overkill as to wireless – see previous posting: Don’t Drink the Kool Aid), the railroads are failing to an equal or even greater extent to address the functionality issues of this effort that are available to them. That is, the technicians for PTC are doing what they are required to do to address PTC functionality, but the Class Is’ senior management teams are not considering what can be achieved across the industry as to operations and resource management given the wireless network that is to be deployed for PTC. I refer to this industry-wide functionality as Industry INTRAoperability (I/I) as was introduced in the FRA-funded study I performed in 2008: A Demand and Supply Analysis of the Opportunities for Wireless Technologies in Passenger and Freight Rail Operations (


So! Why are railroads not pursuing I/I ? The answer involves two components. First, railroad executives are highly motivated, if not exclusively so, by the executive bonus programs that are provided them. Second, to pursue I/I requires resources that are not generally available in the railroads, i.e., technologists (not technicians) that can envision and develop cost-effective, strategic technology plans in sync with strategic business plans, a.k.a. Strategic Railroading. As to both of these components, I offer a primary example.  If railroads truly wanted to pursue scheduled operations, then to do so would mean that the railroads with which they interchange must be striving for schedule operations as well. That means reliable cooperation within and between roads . . . which means that the executive bonus programs must be so structured  – but they aren’t.  If they were, then perhaps the railroads would provide for the second component, the technologists that could work together just as the technicians from the railroads have been doing for the last several years to pursue railroad interoperability for PTC deployment.


So! How can I/I be pursued given the lack of both appropriate executive bonuses and technologists?  The answer to this question is two-fold: 1. Education and 2. Process.  Both of these points will be addressed in the next two postings to the blog. So! Please check back into this blog during the next several weeks.



Six Wireless Decisions Your Wireless Management Shouldn’t Make

In the November 2002 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) there was an article titled “The Six IT Decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make”. It was a great article about how Operations management for so many companies have abdicated responsibility for IT decisions to IT executives, thereby resulting in a significant loss in the return on their IT investments.  The underlying truth is quite straightforward. That is,  Operations management “failed to recognize that adopting systems posed a business – not just a technological- challenge. Consequently, they didn’t take responsibility for the organizational and business process changes the systems required.”   The result of this lack of involvement was that the CIO, with a technology perspective exclusively, was constraining the advancement of the company’s business processes, and most likely the return on IT investment and, more importantly, the company’s bottom line.


Shift now to railroads and their nearly total dependence on managing mobile and remote resources. In this environment, the strategic IT environment extends to the “mobile node”, the locomotive platform, by incorporating a strategic wireless data perspective in sync with the IT strategy. And, has been so unfortunately demonstrated in the North American railroad industry, it’s the wireless technicians that are constraining the advancement of business processes by their pursuit of non-strategic wireless networks, most recently in the name of PTC.  I refer specifically to the intended deployment of the 220 MHz band in parallel with the 160 MHz band that will be shifting to a digital platform to meet the FCC’s narrow-banding mandate. In line with the HBR article, the railroads’ Operations management have not been involved with the evaluation of how wireless technologies will be deployed. I stress that it is not the technicians’ fault that they have such a free hand, but rather that of the railroads’ upper management that have failed to be involved.


Paraphrasing the key points of the HBR article, below are the 6 decisions that a wireless manager should not make about the deployment of wireless technologies, from both a strategy and execution standpoint.



  • How much should we spend on wireless?
  • Which business processes should receive our wireless dollars?
  • Which wireless capabilities need to be company-wide ( and industry-wide)?



  • How good do our wireless services really need to be?
  • What security and privacy risks will we accept?
  • Whom do we blame if a wireless initiative fails?


Via several following postings to this blog, I will address some of these questions in greater detail.


PTC Spring Sale – 80% off

ACT NOW! Don’t wait any longer. This is your last chance opportunity to get PTC before the technicians take your railroad to the edge of the PTC investment abyss and give you the financially-fatal push.

"PTC is on Sale! Act now to capture these amazing prices!"

The PTC approach being pursued by the Class Is via the Interoperable PTC Committee (ITC) manned by CSX, UP, BNSF, and NS, is tremendously overdesigned as to functionality, technology, and infrastructure. The net of this is a 5-fold increase in investment (my estimate). However, it still is not too late to scream “ I’m not going to take anymore!” and design your PTC implementation in a fashion to avoid most of the unnecessary stuff.  Here’s the story in 3 simple bullets.

  • As was addressed in an earlier posting on this blog, YOY WIUs, it is clear that the recent estimate of 50,000 wayside interface units (WIUs) that provide wireless data paths from wayside infrastructure components to the PTC client on the locomotive and the PTC server in the office is off by a factor of 60%, minimum. As explained in the earlier posting, WIU’s are not required for Intermediary Signals (ISs) and control points. The former is not a required function of the PTC mandate (in fact, doing so may actually increase risk), and the latter can be done via the already installed code line.
  • I find no evidence of anyone doing an actual data throughput analysis for PTC. From my personal experience, having been the architect for the first overlay PTC system that provided the foundation for the Class I pursuits, there is very little data throughput required (save track data base downloads that can be handled via WiFi in the yard).  And yet, the ultimate wireless data system is being developed by ITC.  It is clear that PTC has nothing to do with this development in actuality. The railroad technicians want the network (they love the challenge), and perhaps someday they will need it (there currently is little to no strategy as to how the network could be used), and they are using PTC as the excuse.
  • Complimentary to the above point, the railroads actually don’t even need the 220 MHz network.  What they failed to do several years ago was to use digital trunked radio technology to outfit the current analog 160 MHz infrastructure to meet the FCC’s narrowbanding requirement.  They are already switching that network from analog to digital, but they have chosen to use conventional radio instead of trunked. Granted it would have been a complicated transition, but $1 billion cheaper by avoiding the 220 MHz infrastructure. Again, the railroads’ technicians took it upon themselves to address challenges without proper executive management understanding and oversight which would have required proper business case analyses.


Last Chance! Positive Train Control at great prices!

The bottom line on the railroads’ bottom lines is that the cost of PTC implementation could be reduced from the estimate $10 Billion to a mere $2 billion, give or take a $1 billion. But to take advantage of this Spring reduction, someone has to stand up now and say scrap the 220 MHz, install digital trunk 160 MHz, and ignore 60% of those WIU’s.  Of course that won’t happen. What a shame.

Benchmarking Wireless

So many words, phrases, and processes that were used in 70s regarding computers have faded to the point that it is likely that few under 50 years of age would have heard of them, yet alone understand their usage. I am referring to terms such as core memory, thrashing, I/O bound, DP, TOS, DOS, boot strap, JCL, punched cards, re-IPLing, LCS, and core dump. This was the era of mainframe computers with orders-of-magnitude less processing power and storage than available today at orders-of-magnitude higher prices.  Indeed, as the phrase DP suggested, this was a period of batch processing of data, e.g., payroll or inventory update, versus that of dynamic generation of information.

Back then, one process in particular was extremely important when making decisions about the investment in computer systems. That is, customers would often require that a computer supplier to benchmark it’s various levels of systems, or against competitor systems, to compare the efficiency and adequacy relative to the cost of those systems.  In truth, having been actively involved in such activities as an IBM DP Marketing Representative, benchmarking was more often than not a shell game played by the vendors’ System Engineers that tweaked each part of their computer parameters (constraints such as I/O speed, partition size, disk access speed, etc.) to maximize the throughput of a particular a system in favor of each customer’s individual expectations. Getting the customer’s order was often the result of the vendor’s Marketing Representatives and System Engineers working together to set up the customer expectations and then to demonstrate the ability to meet them, respectively, euphemistically referred to as having account control.

With the move from back-office / mainframe computing to that of distributed client/server, the art and science of benchmarking has become that of legends for those still able to remember the good ole days.  With seemingly unlimited computer power and communication links, there is rarely an issue today of whether or not the IT architecture will handle the requirements and at what cost. Over the last several decades the investment decision has shifted from costs/power to that of developing / obtaining the software relative to business value. Well, that’s almost totally true. For industries that rely on substantial mobile and remote resources, advancing IT can also be a significant infrastructure and hardware cost as well and therefore worthy of benchmarking.  Unfortunately, that continues to NOT be the case for railroads.

As I have noted in other postings on this blog, and in my quarterly publication, Full Spectrum, most of the major railroads in North America have failed to develop a strategic technology plan in sync with a strategic operations plan (Strategic Railroading). What is not understood, and therefore not appreciated or evaluated by railroads, is the paradigm shift that can be made for these predominantly unscheduled railroads by increasing the accuracy and timeliness of the status of their key assets, including track time, locomotive diagnostics, fuel, crews, and yard occupancy. And, the primary technology to do that is wireless data.  So, if companies found it appropriate to benchmark computer systems for the paradigm shift that they made in the 70s by replacing clerks with MIPS, then why are the railroads not doing the same in pursuing their deployment of wireless? There are two points to consider to address this question, i.e., MOTIVATION and PROCESS.


In the case of railroads with 1000s of locomotives and the possibility of incorporating them as mobile nodes on the IT architecture, as a manufacturer would consider fixed nodes, then there is definitely something missing. What is missing is the understanding by railroad management, and suppliers failing to taking a proactive position, of what can be done with IN-TIME data. I am not referring to REAL-time data. The difference between IN-TIME and REAL time is critical in understanding the constraints of using wireless data, versus the seemingly infinite capability of wired links as in a manufacturing environment.  To be explained in a future posting, IN-TIME data for train speed and position information in unscheduled operations is no more frequent than every 5 minutes for other than moving block operations. Hence, the railroad technicians that are charged with designing wireless networks can’t help themselves, nor are they held responsible, in making technical decisions which are not related to true business evaluation. Stated simply, technicians will always over design to make sure that they don’t come up short.


As nearly everyone now appreciates with the proliferation of cell phones and laptop computing, wireless is clearly limited in its throughput speed and coverage. It has been an eye-opening experience for those folks that expected that their internet connectively on their cell phone and notebook would match their in-the-office-cubicle desktop performance. There are two primary ways to determine what needs to be done.

1.      evaluate every possible wireless-based application as to data requirements and calculate the ultimate throughput requirements.  At least one railroad tried this approach several years ago, and the process bogged down in detail thereby insuring nothing would be resolved.

2.      evaluate on an 80/20 basis as to evaluating throughput requirements relative to a variety of wireless options recognizing the two key parameters of wireless data parameters. i.e. throughput and coverage. This approach was used a decade ago when I structured such a study that was participated in by the big 4 railroads in the U.S. with oversight by the AAR. The results of that study were used at that point by the AAR to justify the industry’s usage of the 160 VHF spectrum to the FAA. However, that was all the farther it went. Basic details follow.

Developing a Wireless Strategy for a railroad, or for an industry, needs to be pragmatic and adjustable to each railroad’s technical agenda, assuming there is one.

The process is rather simplistic in structure, but a true commitment is required by a railroad’s upper management to provide the players involved with the proper motivation to address the bottom line at the same time. To be brief, the process requires developing a matrix that plays off THROUGHPUT requirements against COVERAGE.  For railroads, the THROUGHPUT requirements may include simple categories such as Voice, Monitoring (locomotive diagnostics, shipment status), Out-bound Transactions (PTC targets), Process Control (moving block), and Interactive (M of W activities, in-train management). As to COVERAGE, the categories can be as simple as Terminal, Metropolitan (major cities with multiple railroads), Main Line, and Group (M of W gangs, Trains/Cars).  Within each Throughput / Coverage block of  the matrix, the possible applications are identified with a pragmatic evaluation of data requirements.  This provides the Demand perspective.

The next step is to evaluate the various wireless data options, both commercial and private, as to their ability to service the demand. This is the Supply perspective that results in Wireless Corridors, if you will, that permits structuring a manageable number of wireless strategies based upon business evaluation as to costs vs. value. Such an analysis, in my belief, would have prevented the phenomenal, unwarranted investment in the 220 MHz spectrum that is being made in the name of PTC, even though the railroads are required to spend $100s millions to rebuild the 160 MHz infrastructure as required by the FCC by 2013.

For those small to medium railroads outside of North America that are being slammed with ETCS, and the requirement for GSM, the analysis goes even deeper. That is, as described in other postings on this blog, the use of dark territory (with or without PTC) and the deployment of cost-effective wireless solutions can provide substantially lower capital investments to run a railroad both safely and efficiently.

Bottom Line, railroads should be benchmarking the use of wireless technologies with a pragmatic understanding of both Demand and Supply. Further details of such a process can be obtained by contacting me to discuss individual situations. This is what I provide as a consultant.

Hey! Watch this.

Last week there was the story on National Public Radio about the young fellow who challenged his friends to the old chestnut about not licking a stop sign’s metal pole in freezing weather.  The story went on to state how the boy was standing on the tips of his toes for 15 minutes until the firemen were able to release his tongue.

Hey!  Watch this! (H!WT)  Ah yes! The last spoken (and printable) words of impetuous young males who fatuously attempt to perform ridiculous if not impossible acts. Whether it is a passion for the limelight, a flash of perceived brilliance, or a display of bravado, whatever, such acts of pure stupidity can result in serious degradation of the soul, if not destruction of the body. Fortunately, somewhere in our post-teen years we mature and we take on a sense of self-preservation for the benefit of ourselves and our family and learn to not yield to such temptations. We become responsible and reflective and make clear cut, well-justified analyses of the matters at hand before we take action.  And, should we find that we are in error with the actions we took, then we adjust our reasoning by adding a new variable to the equation, or perhaps adjusting the coefficients, and we are then just that more effective should the situation occur in the future. Yes! Life is good … and all makes sense . . .  eventually.      Well! Maybe not always.

Unfortunately, stuff happens that is forced upon us, instead of being of our choice, and the manner in which we respond is more often than not, I believe, directly related to the level of the chaos of the situation. That is, the more chaotic / disturbing the situation, the more ill-structured, the more irresponsible our reaction may be. In such situations, the impulsive H!WT response still occurs but in a reactive fashion versus the proactive fashion of our youth.  Now, if you mix this reactive response with politics and a high level of public exposure, then you have the underlying explanation of why Positive Train Control (PTC) has been mandated in the U.S. This is a situation where a proactive H!WT begot a passive H!WT. First, some statistics.

According to the U.S.’s General Accounting Office (GOA) report of December, 2010 regarding Rail Safety, Human errors have been the primary cause of rail accidents (34%) for the past decade relative to 5 other common causes.  Track issues are a close second (32%), with the remaining 1/3 due to crossings, equipments, signals (only 2%), and the ever present other. As to the movement of trains, the two primary human factors are dispatchers and train crews. While traffic control systems are used to prevent dispatcher errors, there has been very little provided prior to PTC to prevent crew errors across North America’s freight railroads. Back to H!WT.

The train accident at Chatsworth, CA on September 12, 2008 between Metrolink and UP in which 25 people died was a proactive H!WT on the part of the Metrolink driver that thought he could text message while operating his train. In less than 5 weeks Congress did their H!WT knee-jerk reaction, as in we have to stop the carnage due to train crew errors, by passing the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. This act mandates PTC before 2016 across most of the nation’s trackage. Clearly, there was no cost vs. value justification, even though it was already known by the FRA and the railroads from the RSAC-PTC process that PTC was not cost justified on safety benefits. From Congress’s standpoint, something just had to be done, regardless of the cost. And, about those costs, the price tag is horrific. Specifically, as estimated by the FRA, the cost of meeting the mandate ranges from $9. Billion to $13.1 billion. As to the benefits, the safety value of PTC over 20 years is estimated to range between $440 million to $674 million. That is a 20-to-1 cost/value ratio that is way beyond any rational business decision that would be made in the private sector. Undoubtedly, to their defense, Congress was being fed misleading statements of PTC delivering business benefits (see my previous posting Really! You Gotta Let it Go), Additionally, NTSB was stoking the PTC fire with its long standing proclamation that PTC was on its Most Wanted list. Rational financial thinking was out of the window, and self-preserving politics were in play for those on the Hill.

Although the Chatsworth tragedy was directly responsible for the mandating of PTC, it was not the first to tempt such fate. In 1996, a MARC commuter collided with Amtrak in Silver Springs, MD resulting in 11 deaths.    Given that its engineer was the driver of the MARC commuter and was at fault, CSX decided to pursue the development of the yet-to-be defined overlay PTC concept. CSX did this in anticipation of a H!WT by Congress, especially considering that the accident took place in Congress’s backyard. This is where I entered the picture in that I was hired by CSX at that time to deliver what was then referred to as  Positive Train Separation (PTS).  The resulting system, known as Communications Based Train Management (CBTM), provided the underlying architecture and functionality of the current PTC pursuits by the freight railroads to meet the mandate.

So! Why did Congress not do a H!WT after the Silver Springs’ accident? The answer, I believe, is two-fold. First, UP was in the process of abandoning an extremely expensive and undeliverable Precision Train Control (PTC™) system. Although the same acronym as Positive Train Control, there is a key difference between PTC™ and PTC.  That is, PTC™ was meant to be both a traffic control (moving block) and enforcement system, whereas PTC is only the latter. Undoubtedly, UP and its Class I siblings had to be all over the Hill at that time to prevent a mandate of such a technology. The second reason is that CSX took the initiative to “develop something that is effective, but cheap” as were my marching orders, thereby lessening of the pressure on Congress to H!WT .

There was also a second accident that could have resulted in the mandate of PTC. In January 2005, a NS train proceeded through a misaligned switch and collided with a standing NS train in Graniteville, SC. This accident involved hazardous material and resulted in 9 deaths and the evacuation of 5400 residents within a mile of accident for 2 weeks. While it didn’t result in a mandate, the accident did result in a fourth core objective of PTC, i.e., prevent movement through a misaligned switch, in addition to the original 3 core objectives defined in the RSAC-PTC process nearly a decade earlier: 1. prevent train-to-train accidents (PTS), 2. prevent over-speeding, and 3. prevent trains from endangering on-track workers.

PTC is definitely not justified on safety benefits, and it doesn’t deliver business benefits. At first that seems bad for PTC deployment outside of the U.S. However, that is really not true in that there are so many railroads, whether private or state owned, that don’t incorporate safety as part of the mantra of operations. There are so many railroads, whether private or state owned, that are being forced by traditional suppliers with traditional solutions to deploy traffic control and enforcement systems that are totally unjustified for their level of operations.  In these environments, the consideration of PTC in concert with non-signaled traffic control, a.k.a. dark territory, would present a solid, cost-effective solution for both safe and efficient operations – that is if they were willing to listen. Now, as to North America, PTC is really not a loser financially as well, that is if there would be a strategic technology plan associated with its implementation that permits the necessary wireless data platform to be used for business benefits as well. Unfortunately, however, most of the Class I’s have not gained such a perspective. This is due to the fact that there are so few technical staffs of the railroads, and even less executive management teams of railroads and suppliers alike, that are willing to do a proactive H!WT as to syncing a strategic technology plan with a strategic operations plan. Yes! I am referring to Strategic Railroading.

In closing, I will be the Chairman of the PTC Congress in Miami, FL on February 22. If you and/or your colleagues are attending that event, then I would appreciate the opportunity to meet you.

Significant Digits

Railroad execution and planning need to be dealing with the same range of significant digits.

For those of us who began our engineering studies before the 70’s, the practicality of the slide rule is well appreciated. This intriguing device of sliding scales, that miraculously performs multiplication and division via the addition and subtraction of non-proportional linear distances, minimized the terror of dealing with an endless flow of variables encompassed in complex engineering equations. That was the heyday for analog mathematical devices as digital computers were being somewhat reluctantly infused into the engineering ranks, and accordingly, it was the pinnacle for the art of approximation, the art of defining squishy limits. Using the slide rule required thinking in terms of powers of 10 as well as understanding that there was a clear rationale to acceptable precision, what was referred to as “significant digits”. For example, did the resulting answer of 8.something shown on the slide rule’s “D” scale after multiplying and dividing a series of 27 numbers actually mean 8.2 ? or 8.25 ? or perhaps was it .0082 ?  or maybe 8200 something?  Back then, “being close” was good enough, in fact expected, as test scores were partially determined by the proper use of the slide rule.  Significant Digits

With the introduction of the personal calculator, arrived the immediate requirement for precision. This was not a level of precision, however, that one had to work for, but instead it was that which was instantly provided to the user on green-lighted displays. If one required the square root, or even a discounted cash flow, one needed only to push the appropriate function key once the data had been entered. And, there was no limit to the number of digits of preciseness it seems. The mind was given the answer, without thought, without question and, unfortunately, without the opportunity to truly understand the underlying mathematics.

Interestingly, for major railroads in North America and across the globe that are either primarily non-scheduled or without moving block operations, the planning and execution processes for traffic management employ opposite extremes of understanding the underlying mathematics and the discipline of approximation.  Practically speaking,  there is a very real opportunity for railroads to transition train dispatching from an art to a science by including mathematics-based movement planners. Currently, the approximations inherent to moving trains are so broad that the railroads are running below capacity in critical corridors. These inefficiencies are due to the lack of both timely train position and speed and the tools to handle the continuous mathematical processes, specifically reactive and proactive planners.  The former would assist the dispatchers with the current approach of crisis-based traffic management, whereas the latter would provide for the prediction of traffic conflicts and subsequently the ability to avoid them.

Whereas the execution side skimps on the mathematical processes, thereby resulting in broad approximations, the planning side of operations embraces the other extreme. Supported by incredibly complex mathematical algorithms being endlessly massaged on digital wizards capable of truly mind-boggling computations per second, the railroad planners pursue the absolute opposite of approximation with the concept of significant digits being totally unknown in their profession. To them, precision is a truly achievable dimension that is to be expected and respected. As such, the Planners proudly serve up their precise results to the execution side, only for many of those results to be dismissed either directly or during execution as reality sets in. This rejection is the inevitable result of either the inability or unwillingness of Operations to handle the significant problems and changes that come with execution and that inevitably make the Planners “precise” schedule an impossible reality. Operations, of course, accepts this lot in life and their thus “un-planned” execution as…inevitable, since they rationalize the events that befall the schedules to be beyond their control.  However though, most are actually within their control.

The execution side has a long way to go in tightening their processes. They need the data and tools that will permit them to approach the level of performance that the planners are attempting to achieve. Conversely, the planners need to back off. They need to incorporate squishy limits into their planning processes.  I have seen some asset planning tools that have managed to do that, but I assume most still do not .  In a rather simplistic way, one could say that execution and planning need to be dealing with the same range of significant digits.

They clearly aren’t today.

Really! You Gotta Let It Go

Norfolk Southern Logo

Norfolk Southern is a Class I Railroad in North America

In a recent issue of a rail industry periodical there was an informative article on Norlfolk Southern’s use of advancing technologies to advance their operations. What was most interesting to me was the very brief description of GE’s RailEdge Movement Planner that is being rolled out across NS’s network in concert with their next generation CAD platform.  This 1-paragraph discussion validated the Proactive Traffic Management concept that I introduced 5-6 years ago in my quarterly publication, Full Spectrum, as well in Railway Age and more recently in postings on this blog.

The successful deployment of such capability has been a long time coming. Going back a decade, the GE-Harris combo first attempted to implement their moving block, Precision Train Control (PTC™), platform on Union Pacific.  PTC™ (not to be confused with Positive Train Control) was abandoned eventually for 2 primary reasons. First, there was not a cost-effective wireless data solution at the time and second, the Harris side of the operation, driven by Jack Welch’s progressive positioning of technologies , had the “if we can place a man on the moon, then we can run a railroad.” attitude. They truly missed the 80/20 solution – developing solutions that will work … versus the fatuous pursuit of perfection.  It seems that GE and NS have now figured it out, including the evolutionary expansion to include yards, crew operations, and locomotives into RailEdge.  This is great stuff, but this is not the primary purpose of this posting.

In the same issue as the NS article there is a Guest  Comment, PTC – the next great railroad revolution by a gentlemen with impeccable rail credentials.  Here is an individual that has held very responsible positions across all aspects of the industry, i.e. Class I & II railroads, FRA, major supplier, and even education.  But, with all of that said, this fellow just can’t give it up. He can’t give up on associating business benefits with PTC.

Below are two quotes from his commentary:

Business won’t be the same after PTC, if railroads implement it properly, business will be better – for everyone.

The continuous, accurate, real-time train location and speed information from PTC is not available to precision dispatching systems, thus making train meets and passes less efficient

Stop! No more erroneous PTC promotions!

Stop! You gotta let it go. PTC alone does not provide business benefits.

In addition to the above comments, he references several FRA-supported studies that “point to the potential for substantial business benefits (from PTC).”  What he doesn’t state is that he drove several if not all of those studies, and those studies were rightfully dismissed by railroads and independent consultants that could see through the primary folly. That is, PTC requires a wireless data path, as do the primary business benefits to be derived from knowing the position and speed of trains.  However, a railroad doesn’t require PTC to get the wireless data network.   A secondary fundamental point here is that the advancement of traffic management is dependent upon the more efficient generation and delivery of movement authorities. PTC doesn’t do either. PTC only uses the parameters of the movement authorities once they have been generated. You can read more on this subject in my previous post: “PTC Delivers Business Benefits?

What this gentleman doesn’t understand by forcing PTC at the beginning of events to achieve business benefits is that all of the excessive PTC-design activity in the name of operability is actually holding back railroad advancement for most railroads. These railroads have failed to take a business perspective of how to use technologies now, most specifically wireless data.  But, that’s not the case for NS, is it?  They saw the light 2 or so years ago when it was decided to put train position/speed reporting devices on the locomotives to bring in that most simple, but most critical data that could be used by “precision dispatching systems”, to quote the commentator.  And, they did it without PTC.

While I appreciate the commenter’s passion in pressing his perspective that goes back 2 decades, his lack of objectivity is a very costly, if not a financially dangerous perspective for railroads. Really! You gotta let it go.

Teddy Bear- No Time For Strategy

Arguably, the most frequent Teddy Bear (i.e. fatuous, rationalizing statements) coveted and expressed by railroaders and suppliers alike is “We have no time for strategy. . .  too much going on.” As a consultant that focuses on the strategic deployment of technologies aligned with the appropriate changes in the business processes (a.k.a. strategic railroading), I have been able to maintain my cool in such conversations by chiming in with “Really?”, and with some semblance of respect, I believe. But, what I want to do, really, is reach across the desk and slap the guy silly while calmly screaming “What in the world are you thinking here?” … or … “You need to let go of those next-year’s bonus issues for a moment.” … or … “So, I guess you don’t own, or plan to own, stock in the company?” Granted, I have a self-serving interest in getting this individual to think beyond the horizon of his bonus plan. And, if s/he did so we could have a win-win … Really!

Approaching a railroad or a supplier to talk about technology and process strategies, either individually or ideally together, is not a simple cold-call situation for which I was well trained 40 years ago during my span with IBM.  Back then IBM was challenged with getting business executives to understand the value of computers to handle simplistic clerical efforts, e.g., updating inventory, accounts receivables, and processing payroll. Back then, the primary functions didn’t change with the use of the computer. The clerks just disappeared. Therefore, any business executive with a clerical workforce was a possible mark for a computer salesperson that could spin business cases. As such, a major part of IBM’s training was on how to make and present the business case using real-world adaptations to the principles that the thousands of MBA’s that were hired had learned in class. We talked about inventory turnover, return on investment, internal cost of capital, discounted cash flows, regression analysis, and even econometric modeling. BUT, we didn’t talk about changing the underlying business processes beyond that of the back office; we didn’t get into the functional operations of the company. The point here is that making a cold-call on an  executive back in the 70’s was not the same as hitting on Operations management of today that don’t understand what technologies can do for their core business processes.

Today, there are four primary challenges to advance railroad operations in sync with a strategic technology plan.

The first challenge is identifying which positions in the individual railroads and across the supplier community would be willing to talk about technology and/or process strategy?  Unfortunately, to my knowledge, there is not one position associated with operational (non IT) technologies in any of the railroads or the suppliers that have any form of the Greek root strategia in its title. Additionally, as I have pointed out in other postings on this blog, there aren’t even technologists. That is, while the railroads and suppliers have scores of technicians that push technologies at any costs, there aren’t those individuals that could do so in a pragmatic, cost-effective fashion, with or without modifying the underlying processes to take advantage of what the advancing technologies can do.

The second challenge is that the focus of the Class I railroads to meet the Positive Train Control (PTC) mandate deadline of 12/31/2015 has been the black hole of technicians. They have been totally and reluctantly drawn into the challenge of interoperability, or so it would seem. Actually, what has really happen is that they have willingly escaped into their respective caves to do what they really like to do; design the ultimate technology platform, whether or not it is required.  No one is watching, challenging, or redirecting these guys because they are the High Priests of what can has to be done … and no one else really understands, and therefore challenges, the underlying principles of their religion.

The third challenge, therefore, is getting railroad operations management involved so as they will take charge  of advancing their railroads via advancing technologies based upon sound business logic that is both pragmatic and cost-effective; business cases that include terms like return on investment, discounted cash flows, regression analysis, etc. Again, there is no position in the railroads currently that could be reasonably charged with this responsibility: It certainly isn’t the CIO. What is needed is a Chief Technologist or something like that … maybe Chief Strategic Technologist, whatever.

Lastly, the fourth challenge is that of involving and evolving the suppliers. With only one exception in the past 2 decades in North America, they have kowtowed to the tactical issues that drive their railroad customers so as to make their bonuses. The bottom-up approach to marketing products and services in the rail industry is a very traditional approach and rightfully so for the past 100 years because the technologies have been, aaahhh … traditional. Now, wireless data offer a paradigm shift in operations, just as IT has evolved over the past 40 years, and to bring the possible advancements to the industry will require top-down marketing.  That simply isn’t happening today … and probably won’t until the PTC issue has subsided sometime after the < 2016 deadline.

The good news is that I am starting to hear rumblings from railroaders and suppliers alike that the PTC interoperability issues are out of control.  Indeed, it is possible that perhaps some railroads won’t buy into the 220 MHz network as it being the universal wireless data panacea. Indeed, the requirement for a Communications Management Unit (CMU) on board to handle multiple wireless paths, as first addressed in my quarterly journal Full Spectrum a decade ago, is hopefully being revitalized. Maybe, it never really died in the minds of some, especially when the 220 MHz network began being slammed down the throats of several Class I’s two years ago.

Teddy Bear – CAD delivers Traffic Management

For those new to this blog, I should first explain that Teddy Bear postings address beliefs or statements that railroaders like to state as the truth, but in fact are misleading, if not totally false. Such beliefs and statements are unfortunate rationale for those individuals that strive to be comfortable with what they understand of their railroad operations without either the understanding and/or motivation to adjust their concepts of railroading based upon advancing technologies. Keep in mind that it was the 1st and 2nd quarter of the last century during which the two key technologies that the railroads depend upon today were introduced, i.e., track circuits and voice radio, respectively.

In this light, this posting strikes at the core of operations in that it takes on the hype that the freight railroads are doing the best that can be done with their primary operations platform, i.e., Computer Assisted Dispatching (CAD).

CAD came into play decades ago as railroads implemented Centralized Train Control (CTC) systems to consolidate block operators into centralized dispatching operations for both the efficiency of train movements as well as eliminating the multitudes of block operators with their individual track segment kingdoms. Clearly, CAD platforms have serviced the railroads well, but not as well as they can now given the recent advancement in technologies, most importantly wireless data and computer-based intelligence that can handle a substantially greater number of operational complexities than the best, most experienced dispatcher.

I start my argument with the fact that CAD is NOT a PLANNING platform in any true sense, i.e. CAD is NOT a traffic management platform. That is, CAD provides a view of where the railroad was at some point in time, but not where it is currently (e.g., CAD does not know if a train has stopped or is still moving) … or more importantly, where it will or can be. Rather CAD is a traffic control platform, an EXECUTION platform, that presents to the dispatcher the status of the railroad as to block-occupancy with the dispatcher left to make his/her too often crisis-based evaluation as how to throw switches to route trains. That is, the dispatcher uses his/her convenient, traditional processes, based upon the status of block occupancy, to decide how to request the routing of trains via the vital wayside infrastructure. CAD then executes those requests based upon the vital process of the wayside control points in permitting or not permitting the switches to be thrown subject to the condition of the appropriate track circuits (a train detection technology). The underlying point is that the dispatcher cannot throw a switch to route trains (usually), if the track circuit indicates that another train is already in the desired blocks. Simply stated, CAD does not do any analysis of what is the best way to meet the operating objectives of the railroad. Granted, there is a simplistic Autorouting process that is used primarily by Western U.S. railroads in selected, straight-shot corridors to set up the switches for high priority trains, e.g., intermodal traffic. But, such a mindless process does not consider critical variables including the status of crews, the availability of yard receiving tracks, and the need of locomotives to be available for other trains.

Autorouting is robotics, not planning.

So! If CAD is not a planning platform, then what is? … and how can it be provided?

These are two great questions that several Class I’s so very recently have addressed, although only to a limited extent in my opinion, as follows –

A TRUE planning platform is one which balances a number of objectives as to the most cost-effective movement of trains based upon a mixture of variables, including the status of yard receiving tracks, crew status as to outlawing and minimal crew deployment cost factors, track maintenance, fueling requirements, locomotive management, as well as being able to react to unpredictable circumstances, e.g., derailments, main line switching, etc.  If that seems to be very complex, then you understand why it can’t be expected that dispatchers take these issues into the routing of trains. In fact, they don’t. Rather, dispatchers work to get the trains across the railroad based upon some simplistic objective without consideration of the above points that can directly affect the railroad’s bottom line as well as the welfare of the employees. That is why mathematical planners, using clear objectives, are necessary especially in the majority of operations that are truly not scheduled. This is even more critical now given the increased push for comingling high (rather, higher) speed passenger trains with freight.  If indeed railroads were truly scheduled by the railroad’s Service Design department, and if those schedules were truly held to by Operations, then the objective function would be relatively simple, i.e., minimize the cost of getting back to schedule.  But, truly working to a schedule takes a leap of faith that traditional railroaders simply can’t accept.

Hmmmm! Surely, with the consolidation of passenger airlines, there must be some of those folks that understand and function by scheduled operations that would be willing to work in the rail industry.   😀

As to providing planning platforms, railroads can expect to be approached by suppliers to replace their CAD platforms with movement planners integrated into their operation, e.g., with CAD displays that permit the dispatcher to perform forthcoming conflict analysis based upon how trains are progressing as to their movement authorities, whether it be signaled or non-signaled operations. However, providing planning platforms can be done without swapping out a railroad’s CAD platform. That is, a planning platform can be implemented that is outboard and independent of CAD. This is really straight-forward stuff that seems to be just too convenient to ignore by traditional traffic control suppliers. Additionally, I need to point out that it can be done NOW, with or without consideration of PTC implementation.

So! What can my team of railroad operations, planning, and technology professionals do for your railroad?  Perhaps we can expose the key issues, backed by objective analyses and technical insight, as to what your railroad can do so as to balance what you are being told by internal resources and suppliers that have not advanced their railroad process thinking in sync with the advancement in technologies. Simply stated, suppliers don’t understand, yet alone are pursuing Strategic Railroading.  Keep in mind that my team neither represents nor accepts commissions from suppliers.  We work in a railroad’s best financial, operations, and safety interests.

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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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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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