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Archive for the ‘Strategic Core Technology’ Category

High … or Higher … Speed Passenger Rail

The U.S. freight railroads are caught up in their own hype at this point.  They like to state how scheduled they are, when in fact they aren’t. Now, with the threat … err opportunity . . .  to integrate high speed passenger rail into those fine schedules so as to receive a bunch of Federal funds, they may have to fess up as to the true lack of scheduling. Well, maybe not. Perhaps the Feds will buy into the idea that if the railroads add more infrastructure, arguably sidings being the most popular, the freight railroads will be able to squeeze in those high speed passenger trains between the freight slugs. Really? Not a chance.  There may be an opportunity for Higher speed passenger rail, but clearly not High Speed Rail as enjoyed across a good portion of the globe outside of North America. The basic truth is that the only way to achieve High speed passenger rail is with so-dedicated track, save the 1-5 A.M window.

What is being missed by the Feds and several of the Class I’s is what can be done by investing in positioning technologies and mathematical tools, in lieu of additional trackage, to improve the effective capacity of the railroads’ current infrastructure instead of just the raw capacity. What is missing by several of Class I’s is how to complement (not replace) their current dispatching platforms (a.k.a. CAD) with execution platforms infused with mathematical planners fed by both timely train position and speed data via simplistic wireless data systems, whether commercial or private. (And don’t forget those OS reports). These are the type of data that are being fatuously promoted as a subsequent capability of PTC, when in fact it has nothing to do with PTC. It can be done NOW with or without PTC. This is really simple stuff, but railroad technicians are not expected, capable, or interested in focusing on the functionality and the business case of advancing technologies. Rather, their interest, their responsibility, is to deliver the ultimate systems whether they are required or not in the name of PTC interoperability. So be it!

I think the following quote of a quote in a recent on-line posting by John Boyd of the Journal of Commerce regarding the criteria for Federal funds being provided to freight railroads to incorporate high speed rail, is quite revealing.

Szabo (FRA Administrator) now says the agreements must include quantifiable service outcomes based onmutually agreed upon analysis / modeling that includes trip times, train frequencies and schedule reliability to the extent it is under a party’s control.

There are a number of key points being promoted in this quote, but arguably the most important is that of the last 4 words, i.e., “ under a party’s control.” Simply stated, the Class I’s don’t have control over a significant part of their “schedules”. But what they won’t admit to themselves, it seems, is that the need to dynamically schedule the lineup continuously is their own fault as to mutually-abusive railroad interchange, as well as specific customers, e.g., mines, that determine when the trains will run. The railroads don’t seem to understand that their lack of credible customer service is at fault here; the shippers are simply protecting themselves.

For more in-depth understanding of the above, you may want to consider obtaining the next issue of my quarterly publication, Full Spectrum, Volume 55, titled Buerre Manié which addresses the above in further detail along with other things you may want to consider.

Please contact me via the contact form or directly at ron@strategicrailroading.com, if you wish to discuss further.

___________

Operability’s Dimensions

Capitalizing on RR Industry Intra-Operability

Any Class I railroad’s Chief Engineer can quickly and dispassionately list the challenges of handling an “unequipped train” when new technologies, equipment, and systems are being deployed across the property. This perspective of railroad intra-operability is an inherent aspect of maintaining the physical plant and functionality of a railroad as technologies evolve. For example, the migration to narrow-band VHF will involve the eventual replacement of nearly ¼ million radios nationwide without interfering with operations. Now, with the enactment of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, an additional level of operability that has been long discussed and studied, but effectively unresolved, has come to the forefront of the technicians’ tasks. I refer to railroad inter-operability as the ability of trains with foreign power to cross onto and perform PTC effectively.

With the pursuit of railroad inter-operability consuming unprecedented levels of resources and cooperation across the industry to meet the end-of-2015 deadline, a different perspective of operability is not even being considered, yet alone pursued. This is the concept of industry intra-operability that provides the ability to track resources without regard to the property over which they are operating. Unlike railroad inter-operability, industry intra-operability offers substantial business benefits that are either being handled poorly today or are not even available to the railroads, both individually and collectively as an industry.

The business benefits fall into three categories, i.e., resource management, equipment maintenance, and security, as follows -

Increased resource management effectiveness is potentially available via industry intra-operability including moving from the current crisis-based management processes prevalent today to that of being proactive.  This means having timely data on train position and speed and approaching a railroad’s network in sync with the tools to project conflicts in a railroad’s lineup whether truly scheduled or not. Such projections will permit the various resource managers to minimize, if not avoid altogether, the effect of projected conflicts including track-time, yards, train crews, locomotives, and critical rolling stock.

Industry intra-operability offers unique advantages as well in the maintenance of locomotives including knowing the status of a foreign locomotive and the opportunity for performance-based maintenance in lieu of prescriptive mandates. An accurate and complete history of diagnostic data could also result in a different concept of competitive nationwide maintenance and warranty services contracted on a railroad if not an industry basis.

Given the increasing expectations and requirements for security of shipments for both commercial and safety purposes, industry intra-operability provides a reliable and commanding level of data for both a shipment’s status and its chain of custody, including TIH shipments. As noted in the Teddy Bear posting PTC Delivers Business Benefits, these business benefits as well as a range of other business benefits that are mistakenly associated with PTC, can be achieved relatively easily with a strategic railroading perspective leveraging the three core technologies discussed in the three prior postings – if the appropriate human resources are provided.

As noted earlier, the railroads are applying substantial technical resources to obtain railroad inter-operability. Fortunately, these technicians are not the same resources required to pursue the business benefits. Unfortunately, the appropriate human resources actually don’t exist in the railroads today, i.e., technologists that can deliver a unique blend of multiple disciplines including wireless & IT technologies, business case development, business process analysis, operations research, and a touch of Six Sigma. Fortunately, however, the ROI’s of the business benefits that can be delivered are quite substantial and can thereby justify obtaining and committing the appropriate resources. Unfortunately though, few railroads, if any, have identified the use of technologists to rethink operations based upon advancing technologies, most specifically wireless.  It seems that there are no senior technologist positions in the railroads that can develop and present a threshold business case to senior management to pursue developing a strategic technology plan in sync with a strategic business plan.

As to the supplier community, there are at best a few that have the wherewithal to put together synced business / technology strategies, albeit somewhat biased undoubtedly. But even those suppliers that may be capable of doing so are reluctant to take on the railroads in a top-down fashion instead of the politically correct but likely ineffective bottom-up approach. In either intrinsic railroad practices or supplier marketing practices, senior railroad management is not getting the message as to what can be done with advancing technologies.

The bottom line is that the railroads don’t need to wait for the business benefits that have been inappropriately associated with the deployment of PTC. The financial justification is there to deploy a team of technologists to structure the business and technology strategies, the implementation of which will handsomely offset the investment required for narrow-band 160-161 MHz and PTC’s 220 MHz. The cost to take full advantage of narrow-banding as well as the somewhat green-field deployment of the 220 MHz bands for PTC by 2016 will be extraordinary. However, the business value that the new-found wireless capacity can deliver is unprecedented, that is if the railroads collectively expand the dimensions of operability.

A Wealth of Wireless – Missing Opportunities

This is the third of three postings to address the Strategic Core Infrastructure that is required to advance railroad operations . . . essentially, the technology that is required to pursue Strategic Railroading. Each posting addresses one of the three core technologies that together comprise the core infrastructure. Whereas the previous two postings addressed INTELLIGENCE (The Mobile Node) and POSITIONING (The Positioning Engine), this posting addresses COMMUNICATIONS.

As recently as 2 years ago, the adage too-much-of-a-good-thing would not have seemed appropriate when discussing wireless technologies that could be used by railroads. But since then, the sky has opened up with the expanding availability of commercial wireless networks and most importantly the opportunity to implement trunking in the railroads’ extensive 160-161 MHz band that is subjected to the FCC’s Refarming Order, a.k.a. narrow-banding.  As to the latter, the efficiency of trunking, which dynamically allocates available channels to users (versus the traditional use of dedicated channels, e.g., one channel per yard crew), in concert with the opportunity for a multiple-fold increase in the number of channels obtainable by narrow-banding provides the railroads with an unprecedented amount of capacity to handle both voice and data in even the most complex metropolitan and mainline operations.

Apparently that wasn’t enough for most Class I technicians.  They wanted more … and more … and so a 220 Mhz band was purchased several years ago that will result in two parallel VHF networks across the industry. The timing was fortuitous it seems, because with the subsequent, and foreseen, PTC mandate that would require a wireless data infrastructure, the 220 Mhz band readily resolved three major challenges for the technicians, albeit with a price tag expected to approach a cool $ Billion. First, the railroad technicians were able to avoid the significant challenge (but a clearly an achievable one with the use of trunking) of reshuffling the channels required for the FCC’s refarming mandate. Second, the railroad’s technicians once again were handed their most desired type of project, i.e., develop the ultimate wireless communication infrastructure whether it is needed or not.  Third, the railroads’ technicians finally had a true reason to cooperate in building an industry-based communications platform. Up until the PTC mandate, the “Roadmap to Interoperability”, as the technicians referred to their efforts to define conformity across the industry, better represented an etch-a-sketch of numerous paths with a roadblock on each since it seemed each major railroad had its individual technical agenda.

There are several key underlying points that are not being considered by Class I technicians or by their management when it comes to the cost-effective deployment of technologies- most importantly wireless data.

  1. It takes so little data to achieve the majority of the business benefits of advanced operations within a railroad, and across the industry. For example, for U.S. freight railroads the periodicity of train speed and position data required to optimize the use of meet/pass planners is no more frequent than every 5 minutes;
  2. PTC does not require extravagant wireless platforms.  This is not traffic control;
  3. Either the 160 Mhz with trunking or the sophisticated 220Mhz platform will handle any railroad’s requirements.
  4. Railroads could be using commercial cellular and/or the Meteorcomm that they bought into NOW to advance key operating advances. There is no reason to wait for either VHF infrastructure to be advanced.

Bottom-line: More can be done with less and it can be achieved NOW.

When it comes to implementing and designing for wireless data, the Class I railroads are not considering the railroad’s bottom line.  What a shame.  Hence, my posting on the use of Technologists in lieu of technicians to build a strategic technology plan in sync with a strategic operating plan, a.k.a. Strategic Railroading.

The Positioning Engine – changing railroad’s core technology

The North American railroads have the opportunity to make a phenomenal paradigm shift in running their operations, both individually and collectively as an industry. However, to date they have failed to recognize the possibilities, yet alone to take a proactive position to break away from traditional railroading and make the transition to strategic railroading, i.e. syncing strategic operations with a strategic technology plan.

The reasons for such an unfortunate lack of progress are actually quite few but nonetheless difficult to overcome with the railroads’ current management teams.  In the simplest terms, the reasons reduce to the lack of a true business perspective relative to the deployment of technologies by railroads and suppliers alike.  This is due to the lack of Technologists that can provide cost-effective technology solutions that support operational changes … instead of the current terror of technicians who believe they are driven to deliver the ultimate system, i.e., technology platforms that only they can design.

The shift to strategic railroading is based upon making substantial changes in a railroad’s core technology infrastructure, i.e., the mixture of communication, intelligence, and positioning technologies.  Such changes will eliminate the constraints placed upon operations by the two traditional technologies that have been in use since the early part of the last century, i.e., track circuits and wireless voice.  Each of the three technologies that comprise the core technology infrastructure will be explored in individual postings with this one addressing the positioning perspective.

I start this perspective by first looking back to the 80’s and 90’s to several interesting, not always successful, pursuits of various positioning concepts. At that point, wireless data was beginning to get some facial hair with End-of-Train (EOT) being the first true application of its use across the industry.  More importantly, or so it seemed at the time given the hype of the GE-Harris combo, a significant attempt was made by several railroads to advance traffic management. Referred to as Advanced Train Control Systems (ATCS), this platform attempted to incorporate a concept for a positioning technology to ascertain which track a train was on when in parallel track operations, as well as another concept for determining the precision of position along the track required for moving block. Fortunately, the industry soon rejected the two ill-founded concepts, i.e., transponders embedded in tens of thousands of track miles, and expensive, on-board gyro platforms infused with convoluted track databases.

Shortly after the demise of ATCS, I was employed by CSX to develop a Positive Train Control (PTC) system for dark territory operation.  A major challenge was to find a solution for parallel track operation without the availability of track circuits to declare block/track occupancy. Luckily, I had the advantage of what not to do given the ATCS failure. The solution I developed, that has since been used in all PTC pursuits by freight railroads in North America, was to monitor switch position for the back office system to “route” the train within the accuracy of GPS once the initial track was known by PTC.  There were significant additional advantages to monitoring switches, i.e., being able to enforce a train should the crew be in danger of violating either the switch’s position or run-through speed.

While routing has been incorporated successfully into PTC functionality, there still remains the issues of accuracy and timeliness of positioning data for the purpose of advancing railroad operations. Specifically, what is missing is the middle ground between what the century-old technologies provide and what the technicians left unmanaged with seemingly unlimited capital funds would provide (as is currently the case).  The former can only provide block ID, and not actual position or speed of a train in signaled territory. In dark territory, not even that level of information is available.  Contrarily, the un-tethered technician will attempt to deliver real time data of both position and speed, even though it clearly isn’t necessary. Such fatuous pursuits by technicians result in expensive wireless infrastructures.

There are two key points here -

1) The advanced traffic management systems being deployed in Europe, ERTMS, are using GSM-R wireless with base stations as close as every 4Km so as to insure no more than a 7second lapse in transmitting critical information to keep the high speed trains moving.  Such an approach can increase the cost of the wireless infrastructure by a factor of 10 compared to what is required when dealing with slower freight trains.

2) A number of years ago, I contracted an Operations Research (applied mathematics) consultancy to determine the pragmatic requirement for reporting train position and speed in a fashion capable of supporting meet/pass planners.  This analysis showed the optimum frequency of reporting such data ranges from reports every 5 – 15 minutes, depending upon the level of traffic. This is not real -time data, but rather in-time data; the difference is critical when deploying wireless data infrastructure as well as the design of the back office systems that use the data. With in-time data, dispatchers can foresee traffic conflicts and dynamically re-plan train movements; a concept I refer to as Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) and introduced to the industry 6 years ago.

In addition to the use of wireless to report train position and speed, there is a variety of positioning data that are being provided for singular activities, including OS’s, AEI and wayside detection reports. Hence, there is an opportunity to merge these data into a single data base/server that can be used to service all requiring applications with improved timeliness and quality of data. Such capability would be the function of a positioning engine that is a type of Kalman filter that maintains a statistically rational tracking of trains based upon a continuously updated data base. I know of only one railroad that has built, reportedly, such a strategic component within their IT infrastructure.

Revving up a positioning engine requires a succession of steps; I can envision the following: 1. Construct a locomotive tracking platform by integrating AEI reports with recurring wireless data transmissions from the locomotives; 2. Incorporate a locomotive-to-train converter to form a train tracking platform; 3. Introduce train OS’s from CAD as well as the status of critical manual switches (e.g., dark territory operation) and layer on train routing logic. Voila! You have an IT server that is available for all purposes including the management of traffic, crew, track gangs, and locomotives, as well as PTC. This is an enterprise solution that, most interestingly, can be provided outboard and independently of the CAD – CTC infrastructure. This is a solution that can stand easily on its own merits without the organizational, technical, and functional barriers that are normally confronted when taking on changes to a railroad’s operations practices or its stoic IT infrastructure.

I am not suggesting that the above 3-step process to obtaining a positioning engine is particularly easy. But, it needs to be done now given that the PTC mandate has resulted in the railroads finally working together to develop a wireless strategy, albeit an overly complex and unnecessarily expensive one. Actually there are really two levels of positioning engines required. The first level is required by each railroad, and for a railroad not to do so affects only that particular railroad. The second level of positioning engine is for the industry.  What I refer to as industry intra-operability is a strategic platform that is required to improve the advancement of all railroads. It is the ability to know where assets are regardless of which railroad they are operating. The advantages can be significant, including fueling, maintenance, and traffic management. Industry intra-operability will addressed in a separate posting.

Lastly, positioning data is only as good as the reliability and accuracy of the reference points.  This means that the railroads require substantial GIS systems.  Fortunately, that seems to be the case for each railroad individually, but not necessarily from an industry standpoint.  Furthermore, the GIS platform within a railroad needs to be enterprise level in concert with the positioning engine. That is, the E-GIS platform needs to be common to all applications requiring such data, and the data collection and modifications requirements need to be specifically assigned to individual departments with no overlap. Simply stated, there can only be one source for any given data element … or … a version of the positioning gateway is required to blend multiple sources of the same data into one usable source. This is a critical design point for safety systems such as PTC.

The Mobile Node – A Missing Isssue in the Positive Train Control Debate

The Illusive Mobile Node

Is it politics or perspective that is causing the PTC debate to derail?

As discussed  in the Last Mile posting,  US railroads are still failing to take on the strategy of incorporating the advanced business applications that can be achieved with the wireless data path required to support Positive Train Control (PTC) so as to most effectively manage their resources.

Specifically, the voice radio and signaling infrastructures that are currently depended upon to provide train status data to the traffic control systems, are unable to deliver the timeliness and completeness as to both location and speed data for trains so as to permit the use of meet /pass planners that could optimize the railroads’ most dense and most critical operations.  Therefore, this primal infrastructure needs to be advanced, and to do so effectively requires a perspective that integrates the three principle technology platforms (communications, positioning, and intelligence) to form a strategic core technology infrastructure. In this post, I address intelligence, i.e., the processing power for applications, of such an infrastructure. The other two platforms will be addressed in following postings.

With the shift from the mainframe of the 60’s to that of client / server of today, intelligence has made the transition from being only centralized to that of being distributed with seamless flexibility between the two, at least for those industries whose distributed resources are fixed as to location. For these fixed node operations, the challenges for distributing intelligence tend to be less technical and more functional as how to optimally allocate the processing power across a mesh of private and commercial networks, internet, and back office systems.  But, what about railroads where the assets are mobile and, even worse, where those assets traverse across railroad boundaries? This convoluted concoction of mobility and interoperability adds new dimensions to distributed intelligence far beyond those of fixed node, thereby necessitating a mobile node perspective with philosophical, technical, and functional considerations garnished with industry politics.

From a philosophical standpoint, the mobile node should be viewed as an extension to the IT architecture, meaning that the discipline and expertise well established in the traditional wired-IT environment should be imposed upon mastering the wild west of wireless. In short, this means that railroads and suppliers alike need to coalesce wireless and IT expertise into a dedicated Mobile Computing organization in lieu of the parallel lines on an organization chart that are too often the case today.

As to a functional perspective, the deployment of mobile nodes offers the extraordinary opportunity to rethink business processes that can take advantage of unprecedented connectivity and the timeliness and accuracy of position and speed data that wireless data afford (think UPS or Fed Ex).  For some this may be extraordinarily uncomfortable when they are confronted with revisiting the functionality of their traditional back office systems, e.g., how would train dispatching be done with train speed and location data available every 5 minutes?

Unlike the fixed node, the mobile node is technically challenged by both the constraints of the communication medium and the physical environment in which it operates as well as the requirements of interoperability. As to communications, the mobile node must be able to strut its independence given that the wireless throughput is relatively limited and unreliable compared to a fixed node’s wired throughput. As to the physical environment, what could be worse than the cab of a locomotive or a maintenance-of-way vehicle? For this challenge I subscribe to the screwdriver-penetration test, a railroad’s version of Psycho’s shower scene applied to on-board equipment.

Given the extensive interchange of trains between railroads in North America and the EU, there is often the issue of  interoperability, i.e., the ability of foreign equipment to provide the desired functionality on a railroad’s property. There are only a few applications that have been recognized for this intra-industry pursuit. Unquestionably, the most important for this discussion is that of Positive Train Control (PTC) which has been mandated by the US Federal government for implementation across the major freight and passenger railroads before 2016.  With an unprecedented level of cooperation, it would seem to many, that the primary 4 Class I railroads in the U.S, via a joint effort referred to as the Interoperability Train Control (ITC) agreement, are working on all aspects of interoperability to meet the deadline.  The ITC efforts are being handled by 7 technical committees:  Architecture, PTC Application, Wayside Signal, Messaging, On-board Platform, Communications Steering, and Data Management.  The standards that come out of these committees are to be available by January 2011.

However, there are still 2 major points to consider. The first is that the effort does not have any purpose other than that of PTC. While many railroaders and suppliers will state the business benefits of PTC, they fail to recognize the foolishness of their own hype. Simply stated, it is the wireless path now required for the mandate PTC effort that will finally deliver business benefits not PTC itself; PTC is just one user of the wireless data infrastructure.  BUT, the ITC efforts are not providing a business perspective of the on-board platform that would deliver a true mobile node perspective that could handle not only PTC, but also  support business-value applications such as pacing, locomotive tracking, fuel consumption, in-train monitoring, etc.

There is also another reason that the ITC efforts are less than complete, certainly not altruistic, if not a bit misleading; it is the issue of industry politics. That is, each major railroad came to the ITC table with a very different technology agenda. There are solutions to address these differences, and the railroads more than ever are working in that direction. However, I believe the solution to develop a single technology platform is poorly evaluated as to both scope and costs, while other wireless spectrums are being very poorly utilized, i.e., Meteorcomm and narrowband 160-161 MHz … clearly a discussion for a forthcoming post.

As discussed in the Last Mile posting, the railroads are still failing to take on the strategy of incorporating the advanced business applications that can be achieved with the wireless data path required to support Positive Train Control (PTC) so as to most effectively manage their resources. Specifically, the voice radio and signaling infrastructures that are currently depended upon to provide train status data to the traffic control systems, are unable to deliver the timeliness and completeness as to both location and speed data for trains so as to permit the use of meet /pass planners that could optimize the railroads’ most dense and most critical operations. Therefore, this primal infrastructure needs to be advanced, and to do so effectively requires a perspective that integrates the three principle technology platforms (communications, positioning, and intelligence) to form a strategic core technology infrastructure. In this posting, I address intelligence, i.e., the processing power for applications, of such an infrastructure. The other two platforms will be addressed in following postings.

With the shift from the mainframe of the 60’s to that of client / server of today, intelligence has made the transition from being only centralized to that of being distributed with seamless flexibility between the two, at least for those industries whose distributed resources are fixed as to location. For these fixed node operations, the challenges for distributing intelligence tend to be less technical and more functional as how to optimally allocate the processing power across a mesh of private and commercial networks, internet, and back office systems. But, what about railroads where the assets are mobile and, even worse, where those assets traverse across railroad boundaries? This convoluted concoction of mobility and interoperability adds new dimensions to distributed intelligence far beyond those of fixed node, thereby necessitating a mobile node perspective with philosophical, technical, and functional considerations garnished with industry politics.

From a philosophical standpoint, the mobile node should be viewed as an extension to the IT architecture, meaning that the discipline and expertise well established in the traditional wired-IT environment should be imposed upon mastering the wild west of wireless. In short, this means that railroads and suppliers alike need to coalesce wireless and IT expertise into a dedicated Mobile Computing organization in lieu of the parallel lines on an organization chart that are too often the case today.

As to a functional perspective, the deployment of mobile nodes offers the extraordinary opportunity to rethink business processes that can take advantage of unprecedented connectivity and the timeliness and accuracy of position and speed data that wireless data afford (think UPS or Fed Ex). For some this may be extraordinarily uncomfortable when they are confronted with revisiting the functionality of their traditional back office systems, e.g., how would train dispatching be done with train speed and location data available every 5 minutes?

Unlike the fixed node, the mobile node is technically challenged by both the constraints of the communication medium and the physical environment in which it operates as well as the requirements of interoperability. As to communications, the mobile node must be able to strut its independence given that the wireless throughput is relatively limited and unreliable compared to a fixed node’s wired throughput. As to the physical environment, what could be worst than the cab of a locomotive or a maintenance-of-way vehicle? For this challenge I subscribe to the screwdriver-penetration test, a railroad’s version of Psycho’s shower scene relative to on-board equipment.

Given the extensive interchange of trains between railroads, there is often the issue of interoperability, i.e., the ability of foreign equipment to provide the desired functionality on a railroad’s property. There have been only a few applications that have been recognized for this intra-industry pursuit. Unquestionably, the most important for this discussion is that of Positive Train Control (PTC) which has been mandated by the Federal government for implementation across the major freight and passenger railroads before 2016. With an unprecedented level of cooperation, it would seem to many, that the primary 4 Class I railroads in the U.S, via a joint effort referred to as the Interoperability Train Control (ITC) agreement, are working on all aspects of interoperability to meet the deadline. The ITC efforts are being handled by 7 technical committees: Architecture, PTC Application, Wayside Signal, Messaging, On-board Platform, Communications Steering, and Data Management. The standards that come out of these committees are to be available by January, 2011.

Given the ITC efforts, there are still 2 major points to consider. The first primary point is that the effort does not have any purpose other than that of PTC. While many railroaders and suppliers will state the business benefits of PTC, they fail to recognize the foolishness of their own hype. Simply stated, it is the wireless path now required for the mandate PTC effort that will finally deliver business benefits; PTC is just one user of the wireless data infrastructure. BUT, the ITC efforts are not providing a business perspective of the on-board platform that would in effect deliver a true mobile node perspective that could handle not only PTC, but also support business-value applications such as pacing, locomotive tracking, fuel consumption, in-train monitoring, etc.

There is also another reason that the ITC efforts are less than complete, certainly not altruistic, if not a bit misleading; it is the issue of industry politics. That is, each major railroad came to the ITC table with a very different technology agenda. There are solutions to address these differences, and the railroads more than ever are working in that direction. However, I believe the solution to develop a single technology platform is poorly evaluated as to both scope and costs, while other wireless spectrums are being very poorly utilized, i.e., Meteorcomm and narrowband 160-161 MHz … clearly a discussion for a forthcoming posting.

The Last Mile – the 80/20 productivity gain the railroads are missing

As of two years ago, the advancement in railroad operations had stalled at the end of the wire, literally. While railroads have invested heavily in the backbone communication and signaling infrastructures that define the perimeter of their IT and traffic control architectures, the primary assets that need to be managed (trains, crews, locomotives, maintenance crews) operate beyond the reach of those tentacles.

Unfortunately, railroads continue to rely on track circuits and voice radio for managing trains and thereby the locomotives, train crews, and yard utilization. Accordingly, the back-office dispatching systems are so geared to provide a level of traffic management that can no longer service the railroads’ markets during peak periods. The net effect of such inefficiency is two-fold: 1. railroads have turned away (or lost) business during peak market periods, and 2. railroads are paying a severe price to obtain and maintain excessive resources, e.g., locomotives and crews.

Suddenly and unexpectedly in 2008, the Congressional mandate for Positive Train Control (PTC) in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 delivered the requirement for the railroads to advance wireless data networks, both individually and as an industry.

Suddenly, there was some hope by the few progressives in the industry that the PTC mandate would lead to a broad understanding of what the required wireless data infrastructure could do for rail operations.

Shortly thereafter, but not surprisingly, all such hopes were dashed as the railroad technicians sunk their teeth into this new opportunity to provide a new, most advanced, extremely tailored wireless data platform that could be envied by all and do all …but without any desire, recognition, or management directive to consider other than PTC.

Shamefully, this wasn’t the first mandate from the Feds that could have led to a revitalization of a railroad’s operations via wireless. The FCC had issued a Point & Order referred to as Narrowbanding that effectively requires the railroads to replace their extensive 160-161 MHz infrastructure consisting of 250,000 analog devices with digital equivalents by January 1, 2013. However, this requirement has been viewed  by the railroad technicians as a technology investment issue and not as an opportunity to advance operations.

Amazingly, after two extraordinary opportunities to advance railroad operations with an advanced wireless platform that required no justification other than a Federal mandate, there is still no real focus on the Last Mile as to optimizing the capacity and productivity.

The phrase Last Mile is not a new one for some industries where it has been  used to describe alternatives to deliver cable services in the 1990’s as well as to providing communication infrastructures in developing countries, and most recently to define new markets for advancing mobile services.  The phrase is also used to define the delivery of goods that is beyond the railroads’ physical infrastructure and that is provided by trucking firms. In this latter case, the intermodal industry has emerged as a seemingly seamless transportation offering the combination of rail, trucking, and maritime. Taking that approach to the last mile relative to a railroad managing its own resources is directly comparable, i.e., developing and merging the necessary technologies into a seamless technology platform that I refer to as the core technology infrastructure.

Simply described, the core technology infrastructure is the integration of communication, positioning, and intelligence technologies that supports the basis of a railroad’s operations. Today, that infrastructure is a ménage of voice radio and backbone networks as to communications, track circuits for positioning, and control points enslaved by CTC systems for intelligence. This infrastructure provides a level of block positioning data, but without train speed, that constrains the effectiveness of managing traffic to that of being reactive to conflicts in the meeting and passing of trains. With improved timeliness and accuracy in both train position and speed information, the railroads can achieve an advanced operating practice of  Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) that I introduced to the industry in 2005.

PTM is the ability to see the future state of a railroad’s operations so as to provide solutions to minimize, if not avoid, foreseen traffic conflicts. It does so by projecting the current status of trains by feeding both timely and accurate train position and speed data to sophisticated meet / pass planners aligned with a railroad’s operating objectives. For traffic management, the frequency of such data is dependent upon traffic density and the type of traffic control.  To be brief here, that means the reporting frequency of position and speed data ranging from 5 to 15 minutes in addition to AEI and CTC’s on-station (OS) reports. This is what I refer to as in-time data.

To obtain in-time data requires a strategic perspective of the core technology infrastructure, a perspective that needs to be both evolutionary and revolutionary. As to the former, the railroads should be able to leverage their current, massive communications infrastructure to obtain the level of in-time data required. The most obvious opportunity here is the conversion of the  current analog, voice-based VHF infrastructure to a digital, data-based one … justified by the rational understanding that by doing so the railroads could avoid the $1 billion investment in the 220 MHz platform for PTC. As to a revolutionary perspective, obtaining PTM will mean making significant changes in the traffic control processes that stem from the 1st qtr of the last century. Such changes are supported by integrating advanced communication, positioning, and intelligence technologies that have yet to successfully storm the innovation barricades of both the railroads’ and traditional suppliers’ engineering departments. A critical design point in developing a strategic core technology infrastructure is to not fall for the fallacy of  zero tolerance – 100% efficiency,  to not drive towards unrealistic, if even achievable, goals such as moving block dependent upon real-time data.

To do the Last Mile requires a strategic technology plan in sync with a strategic operations plan. It requires Strategic Railroading.

The Strategic Technologist

Why are you reading this posting?  Perhaps what caught your attention is the peculiarity of the title. After all, neither of the words strategic nor technologist are easy to find individually, yet alone together, in the North American rail industry. The fact that you came to a blog called Strategic Railroading is itself most appreciated .  But the Strategic Technologist is one additional leap of exploration.

Neither railroads nor suppliers traditional to the rail industry employ technologists, i.e., those individuals that address a pragmatic deployment of technologies based upon cost-effective analysis.  Accordingly, neither railroads nor suppliers have comprehensive strategies as to the deployment of advancing technologies aligned with progressive business processes (i.e. Strategic Railroading).  Instead, both rely on technicians who are chartered with keeping on with evolving generations of technologies without delivering a business perspective as to how advancing technologies can best be utilize to improve the railroads’ business processes.

Unquestionably, the most critical example of this dire situation until recently has been that of the two primary technology infrastructures that the railroads continue to depend upon for their operations: track circuits for signaled territory and voice radio in dark territory. These two technologies have their roots in the first and second quarters of the 20th century, respectively. As such, the dispatching systems dependent upon these ancestral technologies are geared only for reactive traffic control vs. the opportunities for proactive traffic management.  The difference between  the two is substantial when the dysfunctional train dispatching (to be kind) of the former is compared to the latter’s ability to re-plan train movements to avoid foreseeable traffic conflicts based upon timely knowledge of train speed and location knowledge that is not available via the current reliance on track circuits and voice radio.

The technicians are not solely at fault here in that there are no operation strategists pursuing the advance business opportunities across a railroad’s system that advancing technologies could support.  Operations management lacks the awareness, and heretofore the impetus, to pursue more effective means of running the railroad. The net result is that there is neither strategic business nor strategic technology plans within the railroads, yet alone the critical synergistic link between the two. Keep in mind, that each railroad will readily claim that they in fact do have a strategic technology plan. However, it is at best a plan to integrate wireless data-based applications into the IT infrastructure in a “real time” fashion.  As will be discussed in other posts, the phrase “real time” is a major indication that there really isn’t any true technology plan.  With the exception of moving block operations, which have been rightfully rejected by freight railroads, real time is a completely unnecessary goal for wireless systems … and a very expensive one if truly pursued.

Unlike any other time in the history of North American railroads, there are now several key market drivers that demand a change in the way of deploying technologies and, more important, in rethinking the primary business processes.  I am referring to the Congressional mandate to deploy PTC before 2016, and the FCC Refarming Point and Order that will require a $1 billion investment in the VHF  -161MHzinfrastructure between now and 2013.  The former requires the availability of a wireless data system for which the railroads technicians have decided to deploy a capital intensive 220 MHz network parallel to the 160 MHz infrastructure, thereby essentially doubling the capital investment . There is little justification for parallel networks in my opinion in that the refarmed 160 MHz could readily handle the current requirements as well as those projected for PTC.  The only rational reason, but inexcusable nonetheless, is that technicians made the decisions to avoid the complexity of a proficient 160 MHz platform and instead saw the opportunity to create a new network.  That is what technicians like to do and the railroads will pay heavily for this traditional, myopic perspective.

Enter the Strategic Technologist: a conceptualist that determines the demand for critical information flow and subsequently designs the technical architecture to service that demand in a cost-effective, holistic fashion across the railroad’s system. This blog will be covering a number of underlying issues associated with the role of the Strategic Technologist relative to Strategic Railroading.

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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.™
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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