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Rail-izing Positioning

Having lived in New Orleans (NOLA) for nearly a decade, I adopted the “positioning” methodology used by locals for locating a bar/restaurant/whatever in that crescent shape street infrastructure that romances the curve of the Mississippi. With such a fan-shape set of cross streets, one could not really use the North / South & East/West terminology that makes sense in cities with a rectangular street infrastructure. Rather, the folks in NOLA refer to a bar/restaurant/whatever as being Uptown or Downtown & Lake side (Pontchartrain) or River side (Mississippi) of the particular street. And, for many it seems, this is easier to remember and explain when jumping into a cab during a night of New Orleans’ revelry.

 

In the railroads, the positioning technology for tracking trains for a century or so has been to define the “block” of the track infrastructure occupied by the train without any accuracy of where in the block the train resides or at what speed it is traveling. And, unlike the case for NOLA folks, this positioning methodology doesn’t make sense anymore as railroads look for more capacity out of their current infrastructure. The railroad’s block perspective is due to the use of track circuits in conventional signaling operations for determining block occupancy. And even worse, roughly 1/3 of U.S. freight trackage does not even have track circuits for positioning – what is referred to as “Dark Territory” where the trains only “appear” to the dispatcher in spatial chunks of 20-40 miles when the train engineers  seek additional movement authorities.

 

Now, thanks to the U.S. Federal mandate of PTC, the railroads are required to implement a wireless data infrastructure. In my opinion this is the primary value of the mandate since PTC is far from being cost justifiable on safety benefits. Rather, PTC is a Godsend for railroads, whether they recognize it or not, because the mandate has forced the majority of railroads in the U.S. to make the transition to the digital age of wireless data that most Class I’s had been resisting due to the lack of a strategic technology plan aligned with a strategic operating plan, i.e., strategic railroading. But, what has yet to be railized by freight railroads is that the “virtual age” is upon them. Specifically, the use of virtual positioning technologies supported by the availability of wireless data can greatly reduce both capital and maintenance cost of railroad operations while significantly increasing the capacity.

 

The PTC mandate has forced the railroads to develop an accurate on-board platform that exceeds that of GPS alone.  The BAD news is that this component has been designed by technicians instead of technologists (who provide a bottom line perspective of the use of technologies) to far exceed the requirements for PTC. BUT, the good news is that this component provides the basis to make the transition from CTC to Virtual CTC (VCTC), both along the main line and in interlockings.

 

As presented in my previous posting on this blog, Railroads and the Virtual Age, VCTC means replacing physical block occupancy technologies, e.g., track circuits & axle counters, with virtual technologies that include an expansion of GPS with additional positioning technologies, e.g., tachometer, accelerometers, gyroscopes, GLONAS, etc., that are integrated via a Kalman filter (check Wikipedia) to achieve amazing, reliable accuracy even when GPS is not available in a tunnel, for example.

 

While a natural for mainline, VCTC’s capability with the addition of moderately accurate End-of-Train (EOT) positioning means that interlockings can use virtual technologies as well. After all, what is the real difference between mainline and interlockings? Answer: there really is not any difference that the proper use of technologies can’t resolve if technologists are involved.

 

BOTTOM LINE: The pursuit of VCTC, both along the mainline and in interlockings, offers freight railroads the opportunity to dump CTC. This is a fantastic opportunity for railroads as to both costs and efficiency if they can get their heads out of conventional operations. However, this is not good news for traditional CTC suppliers that benefit from the revenue of capital-intensive CTC infrastructure and the on-going extensive maintenance.

 

Welcome to the virtual age, you all. Even the NOLA folks have adjusted to virtual positioning (e.g., Google Maps), as we all have. But, they continue to use the uptown/downtown & lake side/river side description that is part of the charm of New Orleans. However, railroads don’t operate on charm. They operate on the bottom line, and VCTC along the mainline and in the interlockings is the future.

What Price Safety ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wireless for Railroads

Ron Lindsey was recently commissioned to write a white paper titled ” Wireless for Railroads”.

The paper addresses the extraordinary opportunities railroads have, both individually and collectively as an industry, to advance their operations via the use of advanced wireless technologies, as well as to improve the efficiency of their spectrum usage. This perspective is expanded to consider the relationship of the freight rail industry with passenger rail, other transportation modes, and the intersection with public safety. This is a STRATEGIC PERSPECTIVE based upon identifying both the DEMAND for and SUPPLY of wireless technologies which provides the basis for structuring an approach for MOVING FORWARD.

The white paper will soon be available for download. But, to request an exclusive advance copy email Ron Lindsey at comarch@aol.com

 

 

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.

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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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