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Archive for the ‘Teddy Bears’ Category

Teddy Bears Revisited

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

The TBs that I have covered so far include the following:
• No Time For Strategy (November 2010);
• CAD Delivers Traffic Management (October 2010);
• Train Dispatching is Too Difficult for That Math Stuff (August 2010);
• Digital Authorities are Vital (July, 2010);
• PTC is Vital (June 2010);
• Operating a Railroad Safely Requires Signaling (June 2010);
• There’s Nothing Vital in Dark Territory (May 2010);
• PTC Delivers Business Benefits (May 2010);
• We Run a Scheduled Railroad (May 2010).

There are other TBs that have yet to be covered in this blog including:
• Real time data is the Real Thing for structuring technology solutions;
• The lack of reliable interchange by other railroads is a real problem for our railroad.
• The railroad environment is unique and therefore requires unique technology solutions. Hence the railroads’ technicians must do the design;
• Only traditional suppliers can possibly understand railroad operations;
• It’s all about the main line – yards operations are secondary;
• As regulators, we can only accept “zero-tolerance” for operational risk;
• The Service Design folks can’t deal with all of the exceptions that occur;
• Don’t question, yet alone criticize; and lastly
• Just a couple more years and it will be somebody else’s problem.

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

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

I should note that the ENR engagement was paid for by the U.S. Trade Development Agency (USTDA). SO! SHOULD THERE BE COUNTRIES OUT THERE THAT MAY WISH TO HAVE A SIMILAR STUDY MADE OF THEIR OPERATIONS, THEN LET ME KNOW AND PERHAPS USTDA WILL FUND SUCH A STUDY.

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

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.   :-D

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.

Teddy Bear – Train Dispatching is too difficult for that math stuff

Railroads & Math

I can’t quote exactly, but a railroad executive’s statement several years ago went something like:

“ Yeah, those math guys keep pushing those computerized traffic management tools, but they just don’t realize that mainline operations are just too complex with too many exceptions to make them useful.”

Wow!  What a jaw dropper. I was actually on pause for a moment as how to respond as several thoughts flashed through my mind starting with:

“So, I guess that high school algebra stuff wasn’t good for you.”

… to …

“ If it’s that complex, then how in the world is a dispatcher able to make the appropriate traffic management decisions?”

… to …

“Well if you ran your railroad in anywhere near a scheduled manner, there wouldn’t be the steady onslaught of crises.”

Fortunately, my IBM sales training some 30  years prior kicked in, and I took the CSI Miami’s Lt. Caine’s stance of tilting my head while removing (symbolically) my sunglasses, and  I responded with the fail safe :

“Why do you say that?”

All that I heard for the next 10 minutes or so were examples of train movement crises that had been handled “satisfactorily” by experienced dispatchers.

Again, a series of comments went through my mind during the executive’s tyrant starting with: “How do you know they were satisfactory solutions?” … to … ‘Did the dispatcher consider options as to alternate routings given yard or crew constraints?” … to … “So, what did the dispatchers learn as to how to prevent similar situations in the future?. Again, the IBM-conditioned response:

“Really?  How interesting?”

I had to get out of there; my sales training only took me to level 2, and this executive was pushing all the boundaries of cognitive rationalization.

Looking back, I can now understand where I was being too critical in evaluating this executive’s perspective of the railroad’s operations.  Simply stated: He didn’t understand what he didn’t understand.  He had been raised on traditional railroading based upon technologies that have changed little since their introduction in the early parts of the last century, i.e., track circuits and wireless voice. And, unfortunately the subsequent introduction of CAD platforms were limited to provide basic block status, from which dispatchers have been forced  to make decisions on untimely and overly-gross data. By default, this sophistic process had become the state-of-the-art traffic management methodology.

A study of dispatcher operations performed in Sweden several years back revealed (as in “a firm grip of the obvious) that dispatchers attempt to find workable solutions instead of ideal solutions. That means, in part, that dispatchers restrict their decision making process as to handling a very, very few variables to get out of a mess.  That is, they have learned through their experience to consider only a very few variables that provide the quickest solutions, but not necessarily the most cost-effective ones from the railroad’s standpoint; dispatchers are the heroes that master the inadequacies of antiquated practices based upon antiquated technologies.

In the last several years, two U.S. Class I’s have taken a more or less aggressive position that things have to change.  I say more or less, because one railroad bought into the concept of Proactive Traffic Management just way too much  They brought in a supplier who is so idealistic as to the movement of high speed passenger trains without the pragmatic, 80/20 perspective of what can be done with freight trains. In short, they blew it. Perhaps they are coming around, I don’t know. Reportedly, the other Class I has taken a more realistic perspective of what can be done with in-time data as to train status as to position and speed, if not just OS reports. I’m not going to give away all of the secrets here since I am a consultant that strives to make a living on dealing with the 80/20. But, permit me to just say that there are really important variables, that are much more critical than those considered by dispatchers traditionally, that can lead too much better analysis as to handling the dynamics of freight movements.

There is a next step, I can assure you, as how to merge higher-speed passenger trains into freight operation.  That’s a major perspective that sets up the importance of future posts on Strategic Railroading.

Okay, so let’s test your algebra. Consider the following problem.

Train A leaves Chicago at 11:00 A.M heading East at 30 mph (instantaneous acceleration assumed) on Track 1. At  9:00 AM  Train B leaves Cleveland heading West at 25 mph.on Track 2 (again, instantaneous acceleration).  These are parallel tracks with the distance between Cleveland and Chicago being 350 miles.  The question is where will the trains pass each other, assuming no hours-of-limits for the crews … or fuel limitations …or locomotive breakdowns … or wayside detector problems … or  other disruption issues?

ANSWER:  The trains meet at 200 miles West of Cleveland (150 miles East of Chicago) at 5:00 PM Eastern (clue).   For the equations contact me at  ron@strategicrailroading.com.

Lastly, now take this discussion to the next level of dealing with interchange between railroads, and quickly one realizes that dispatching is one freaking mess. That is unless we use timely train status, both position and speed, regardless of the interconnecting railroad over which it is operating, fed into mathematical planners.  While several railroads are beginning to realize this on their individual basis, there is clearly no industry perspective as addressed in the previous posting to this blog: Operability’s Dimensions.

Teddy Bear – “Digital Authorities are Vital”

I thought I had covered all of the important Teddy Bears in my prior posts as to the issue of vitality in railroad operations, but I forgot about one.  Several weeks ago at a PTC conference where I was the luncheon speaker, I addressed a number of topics. Arguably, the most important two points I discussed were:

  1. PTC does not deliver business benefits; and
  2. The fervent pursuit of PTC by the railroads to meet the mandate requirement is actually preventing the pursuit of opportunities to advance railroad operations. The reason for the latter is explained by the fact that most railroads lack both the Strategic Railroading perspective and the necessary resources, Technologists, to develop and deploy such a perspective.

At the conclusion of the presentation, the audience was asked if they had questions or comments. The first question was as to whether or not I thought Digital Authorities are vital. Indeed, there are many that believe them to be … with the sequential logic being that the wireless communication system required would have to be vital as well. In fact, the digital authorities are no more vital than the aspects on the signal post or the authorities that are provided via voice radio in non-signaled territory. All of these are only the display of the results of the vital process that was in effect to generate the authority.

With that said, it doesn’t mean that the transmission of authorities need not be accurate and reliable. For voice authorities, those attributes are provided by the crew member repeating the authority back to the dispatcher, and then starting over if there is any disagreement.  For DA’s, the accuracy and reliability factors are provided by a mathematical algorithm that performs error detection and correction on bits. And for signals, the issue is whether or not the light source is operable.  In all cases, should the transmission fail, then the crew knows what to do.  They revert to the threshold level of vitality referred to as the Book of Operating Rules.

The bottom line is that DA’s are not vital.
Therefore neither the transmission process nor the equipment need to be either.

Teddy Bear – “PTC is Vital”

“PTC is Vital.”

It was a slow process, but perseverance has paid off.  This Teddy Bear as to PTC being vital has only the faintest shade of presence. Most individuals that have anything to do with PTC now understand that PTC is NOT vital. But, just in case, here’s the story.

It was in the earliest meetings of the PTC- Railroad Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) process a decade or so ago that there was a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding as to what PTC was and what it did.  Indeed, the first primary task for the RSAC members, that included FRA, rail management, labor representatives, and suppliers, was to define the “core objectives” of PTC.  Within several RSAC sessions, the core objectives were determined to be 3-fold:

i.e.,

keep trains from hitting trains, keep trains from over-speeding, and keep trains from endangering work gangs.

An additional objective of protecting against grade crossings was introduced but readily dropped due to the physics of train movements and the ownership of the property. That is, to stop a freight train in time to prevent an accident involving a grade crossing situation, e.g., failure of gate to lower, would require such a long time for the gate to be lowered that the public would be more likely to run around the gates.  Additionally, the railroads in general own the property, and it is the public’s responsibility to watch out for trains – not the other way around.

Lastly, a fourth core objective has been added with the PTC mandate, i.e. prevent a train from moving through a misaligned switch. Once initial three core objectives of PTC were established, the next challenge for RSAC was to obtain a status of PTC efforts across the industry.It was at this time that I had the first of a number of opportunities to present Communications Based Traffic Management (CBTM), the PTC effort for which I was the architect at CSX.

CBTM was the first overlay approach to be developed, and as such it established the underlying basis for the current PTC pursuits by the freight railroads to meet the mandate. It also was the first overlay PTC project that had to confront the point of vitality. My first presentation to the RSAC members stating that CBTM was not vital began a long education process to get past various perspectives of vitality that existed at that time, as follows: First, key members of the FRA believed everything was vital in the overly-zealous spirit of zero tolerance for risk. Second, Labor thought by not being vital meant that the vitalities (lives) of the crew members were not being protected, as in “Does PTC apply the brakes or not?” Lastly, traditional signaling personnel, whether railroads or suppliers, view vitality as the state of failing safely, as in track circuits, relays, and control point logic. Hence, their logic proceeds that anything associated with that infrastructure needs to be vital as well thereby requiring extensive engineering, verification & validation (V&V), and duplication of hardware.

My challenge was to describe vitality in a fashion that would be acceptable to all.  The solution was to introduce an operational / functional perspective in lieu of the regulatory, technical, or humanistic ones. Simply stated, I defined vitality as the means by which movement authorities are generated so as to maintain the integrity of train movements. Hence, with such a definition, it follows that PTC is not vital since it has nothing to do with the generation, or even transmission, of movement authorities. (BTW, it is for this reason that PTC can not improve traffic density as discussed in another Teddy Bear Posting: PTC Business Benefits.) As the result of this effort, one issue of my quarterly journal, Full Spectrum, was so dedicated and titled Vital’s Vanity. As a closing point, it is appropriate to introduce here what is so often overlooked by people when they talk about vitality.  That is, there is a threshold of vitality that exists whether the territory is signaled, non-signaled, and does or does not have PTC or other enforcement systems. I am referring to the Book of Rules.

Teddy Bear – Operating a railroad safely requires signaling

“Operating a railroad safely requires signaling.”

Major suppliers sell major signaling systems to major railroads for major bucks. But what about those small freight railroads, even those with some passenger service? Do they really require the traffic control systems that are offered to them; the ones that involve extensive investment in wayside infrastructure, communications, and back office systems?  Additionally, what about those railroads that are being planned for difficult terrain subject to extreme weather, a lack of power, theft of equipment, and a lack of trained maintenance personnel? Do they need to confront these hardships on top of extensive investment and on-going maintenance costs to provide for a safe railroad?

While signaling does provide for safe operations, that is not its purpose.  Signaling is used to provide capacity. It is possible to operate a railroad very safely without signaling, as well evidenced in North America. Specifically, nearly half of the freight trackage in N.A. operates as non-signaled territory (albeit only 20% of the traffic) meaning that there are no track circuits, no wayside or cab signals, and no code lines as required in Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) systems. The only technology requirement is that of some form of wireless communications that can be either commercial (satellite, cellular) or private network sufficient to provide for voice communications.  That’s it for the infrastructure.

As to the vitality (i.e., the integrity of train movement), as noted in the post “There’s nothing vital in dark territory.”, the computerized conflict checking process is the simplest of a traffic control process that doesn’t permit two trains to be in the same portion of track at the same time. In a way, this is not unlike the most ancient traffic control system based upon track occupancy referred to as token block. The key difference is that dark territory is programmed whereas token block’ vitality can be readily compromised by lack of discipline with the manual efforts required; indeed this is the case in some countries where it is still in use.

The only issue with dark territory is the time required for the iterative, manual process of the dispatcher transmitting the movement authorities to the train crew followed by the rolling-up of the authorities once the train crew has reported the train’s progress.  With such a simple process, a decent size freight or passenger railroad can operate safely. Additionally, there are even ways to tweak dark territory operation to improve capacity even further, e.g., digital transmission of authorities, automatic roll-ups, embedded signals (without CTC), and the ability to throw switches from the locomotive.  Lastly, with the combination of dark territory and Positive Train Crew (PTC), the railroad is assured of a safe operation both as to dispatcher errors and train crew errors respectively.

Also, Dark territory is really, really inexpensive. However, don’t expect those major suppliers or consultants to share its existence with small to medium railroads. First of all, those supplier don’t have a dark territory deliverable or mindset, and second, there is nothing for them to sell as to infrastructure and complex back office systems.

The team of railroad professionals at Maendeleo Rail is well experienced with dark territory operations as well as PTC. We can readily address the alternatives as to processes and wireless technologies, as well as determine the level of throughput that can be delivered for freight, passenger, or mixed traffic. Since we’re independent of any suppliers, and instead look to partner with railroad operators, we provide low cost, highly efficient solutions.

Teddy Bear – There’s nothing Vital in Dark Territory?

“There’s nothing vital in dark territory.”

My Railroad Immersion Course has been used by railroads and suppliers alike to obtain a new perspective of railroad operations based upon advancing the traditional core technologies of communications, positioning, and intelligence, i.e., wireless voice, track circuits, and Computer Aided Dispatching (CAD), respectively. When giving the course to traditional traffic control suppliers, I address the difference between signaled and non-signaled operations (a.k.a., dark territory). Consistently, there is a point in the course where it makes a transition from a one-way lecture to a very interactive discussion. Specifically, it is when I ask the question: “So! What’s vital in dark territory?” Without fail the response is “There’s nothing vital in dark territory.” And, with as much detente that my personality permits, I respond “Really?”

From their perspective there is an understandable reason why traffic control suppliers would respond as such in that dark territory operation is one in which they have little to no experience in that there is no wayside infrastructure required, and hence there is nothing for them to sell. Additionally, the term vitality to these folks has a very product-oriented perspective of failing safely, i.e., to not place the railroad in the position of additional risk upon a failure in the signaling infrastructure. Therefore, their logic would be that since there is no product along the wayside, then there is no vitality. Voila!

What traffic control suppliers don’t consider is that vitality has also a functional perspective of insuring the integrity of train movements … which more specifically means that the movement authorities are generated in a fashion that provides for safe train movements; that indeed is the underlying requirement of signaling infrastructure after all. Therefore, to answer the question of what is vital in dark territory means identifying the source of movement authority generation. This is where the discussion really takes off.

Usually the second answer offered by the class is “The dispatcher is vital.” Wrong!. Just as in signaled territory, the dispatcher does not generate the authority and therefore is not vital. He does indeed set up the authority generation process, as well as deliver the authority via voice radio. But, he does not generate the authority. In the old days, authority generation in non-signaled territory was provided by the train sheet, which is literally a piece of paper, upon which the dispatcher managed the allocation of track distance and time. The dispatcher abided by what the train sheet permitted him to do or not do as to the allocation of track. Today, the movement authority generation is a computerized program, a.k.a., conflict checker, that emulates the train sheet. The underlying logic of either the track sheet or the conflict checker cannot be simpler. That is, a specific portion of track can only be allocated to one train at a time. That’s it (with some exceptions that are not important here). That’s vitality in dark territory. Should the dispatcher wish to override this vitality in some fashion, then s/he has now become vital. But wait, there’s more.

Once everyone is satisfied with that understanding, I move onto Automatic Block operation (ABS) which is the use of signals within dark territory operation, what I refer to as dark / lighted operation. In ABS, the signals function the same as they do in CTC territory, but the dispatcher is not provided with the aspects. Hence, it is dark to the dispatcher, but lighted to the train crew.  Now the question to the class is two-fold. First, “Is ABS signaled operation or dark operation?”  Second, “What is vital in ABS operation?” Those individuals who have been following the discussion up to that point usually respond quite well to these two questions. However, for hardcore signal engineers it is difficult to realize that the overall operation is dark (officially so) in that the initial movement authority to get the train into ABS was provided by the conflict checker. However, once in ABS, the train is subjected to a second level of authority from the signal infrastructure. Hence, there are two levels of vitality.   But wait, there’s more.

Once everyone is satisfied as to ABS, I now introduce the concept of work zones where maintenance crews have the authority for a portion of track for a given period of time. The question to the class then is “What’s vital in a work zone?” Hopefully, by now they are able to respond that the Employee in Charge (EIC) of the work zone adds an additional level of authority to the train that has the movement authority generated by the traffic control system to move through the area. That is, the train crew must request permission by the EIC to enter the work zone when that zone is in effect. Hence, the EIC is vital within the work zone. But wait, there’s more.

After this discussion, the class is now thinking about vitality from a functional standpoint. This leads to two more questions for their consideration … and which leads to forthcoming Teddy Bear Posts regarding the vitality of PTC and the vitality of transmitting authorities in non-signaled operations. By the way,check out a brochure for the Railroad Immersion Course.

Teddy Bears – Scheduled Railroads

“We run a scheduled railroad”

Last week I was reading a Rex Stout Nero Wolfe Mystery, The League of Frightened Men, published in 1935. Known for his verbal bashings, the title character offers the following in a conversation with a suspect in a murder.

“It occurs to me that no publication either before or since the invention of printing, no theological treatise and no political or scientific creed, has ever been as narrowly dogmatic or as offensively arbitrary in its prejudices as a railway timetable…. You know that idea could be developed into a first-rate little article.  Six hundred to seven hundred words, about The Tyranny of the Wheel, you could call it , with a colored margin of trains …”


Hmmm!   I like the suggested title and perhaps I can turn that into a future Full Spectrum. But the truth is that  ¾ of a century later, the freight railroad schedules are anything but schedules. One of my favorite quotes is from a discussion with a Class I Service Design executive several years ago when I questioned him about how scheduled his railroad was. He stated:  “Well! We’re not totally unscheduled.”  That’s seems about right given that another knowledgeable individual stated recently that only 30% or so of a railroad’s operations are truly scheduled.  But then again, what is a scheduled railroad?

For the traditional operations manager, a schedule seems to be the lineup that was set up within the last 24 hours with continuous changes as deemed necessary.  That is not a schedule as in how an airline runs with specific crews, specific aircraft, and even specific gates locked into a specific time table.  Indeed, there are some reasons why a railroad has difficulties in maintaining a schedule that has been developed by Service Design, e.g., a labor action at a major seaport.  But there are so many reasons that are truly manageable, and therefore not justified excuses, for going off schedule. For example, there are major shippers who determine when the trains would run. The operating executives will use that as an excuse as to why the schedule must be flexible. What they don’t ask is what does the railroad need to do for that shipper to get a real schedule? E.g., more reliable service, contractual agreements with potential penalties for both parties, etc. One of the major explanations from railroad management of why their  railroad must have a flexible schedule is that the railroads with which they interchange do not run to schedule.  This mutual abuse is always the other railroad’s fault, it seems.

But what is the problem for not maintaining a true schedule.  Again, I quote an ex-executive for a Class I when I asked him if he ran a scheduled railroad.   “ Hell yeah, we run a scheduled railroad. And, almost every day I am able to save a few crew starts by cutting short trains.”  Then I asked: “But what happens when the locomotives don’t show up in Chicago?” Without hesitation he proudly proclaimed. “ No problem, we have plenty of locomotives up there.”   The example here is that operating executives can’t stand what they believe are the inefficiencies of short trains.  What they don’t understand is that unstructured inefficiencies that they create by chaotic management of the lineup that has been configured by Service Design are greater than the structured inefficiencies that were built into the schedule.  The latter is what airlines do with their schedules. It has only been in the last few years that major airlines have learned to compliment monthly scheduling with daily adjustments. By doing so, they risk losing customers that get angered by canceled flights.  They understand their business and they know that their overall on-time performance is actually quite good. That’s the trade-off that they can make … that they deserve.  Railroads are no way near that level of customer reliability.

Teddy Bears – popular but erroneous notions in rail

Industry management comfortably clings to a number of convenient, but ill-justified, statements and beliefs that greatly affect the current efficiency of operations. These Teddy Bears are also restricting the opportunities to advance operations via the deployment of advancing technologies and associated business processes. Nonetheless, railroads, suppliers, and regulators alike embrace them partially due to a combination of traditional practices and a lack of understanding of the technical & financial issues. Most importantly, however, it is the lack of executive management directives along with the proper resources that prevents the development of pragmatic, achievable strategic technology plans in sync with strategic business plans for the railroads, both individually and collectively.

I’m creating a new category of post dedicated specifically to Teddy Bears.  Interspersed with my regular posts on strategic railroading, these posts will be dedicated to exposing “Teddy Bears” in the railroad industry. Hopefully, discussion on the topic will be the beginning of the end for these ill-conceived fallacies.

Stand by for the first “Teddy Bear” post, coming soon.

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

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

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