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Look to the Skies

About 11 years ago I presented at a NTSB conference regarding PTC. Having been the architect for the first overlay PTC system that provided the initial design (architecture and dark territory operations) for what is being installed to meet the Federal mandate, I focused on what PTC IS and what it ISN’T. That was most important at that point since there was a great deal of confusion and misinformation regarding PTC that was circulating throughout the industry, including railroad management, suppliers, FRA, and NTSB. Specifically, I addressed two major points: 1. PTC is NOT vital, and 2. PTC itself DOES NOT deliver business benefits other than eliminating movement disruptions due to accidents. The underlying logic for both points is that PTC does not generate movement authorities.

In the audience there was a VP Operations for a Class I. True to my nature, I decided to state during my presentation that Class Is were failing miserably to run to schedule given their “crisis management” mindset. I then mentioned that major passenger airlines have figured it out, and that railroads would do well to bring in that discipline by hiring such executives. After the conference, the VP took me aside to discuss investigating the heavy level of crew deadheading that his railroad was experiencing. I took that assignment and within a week I recognized the prime issue noting to the VP that he was actually the underlying source of the problem. In short, the yardmasters were generating “ghost trains” on the lineup and crew and locomotive management were operating accordingly. The bottom line: there was no actual schedule to begin with (regardless of Service Design efforts), and to the extent that there was a lineup, it was readily violated, e.g., not running short trains. As a side note, during my engagement it was amazing to me the range of fatuous excuses by the railroad’s management team as to why they couldn’t run to schedule. All except one, the arrival of ships in ports, were the fault of management.

So, imagine my surprise when I read that Amtrak had brought in the retired CEO of Delta, and subsequently a number of ex-Delta executives. Somebody looked to the skies and saw the light of running to schedule; an executive mindset that has not existed in the rail industry until Mr. Hunter Harrison was brought into manage CSX. Sadly, Mr. Harrison has now past on and hopefully there is still a mindset to pursue such a difficult course, as per my previous posting: Paradigm Shifts.

Of course, there are a number of challenges to operating to schedule, other than bringing in an executive team from the airlines. Most importantly, Delta had to commit heavily to the following.

1. Delta had developed an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA) that eliminated unnecessary data generation, storage, processing, and distribution;

2. Delta reconfigured its resource management systems to work with the EITA in a true “real time” operation.

However, fortunately for Delta, it does not schedule interchange with airlines other than codeshare operations.

The benefits of such an operation are clearly evident including the following:

1. High level of customer satisfaction;
2. Tremendous reduction in ”slack resources” to handle disruptions;
3. Nearly optimal efficiency of operations
4. Happy crews;
5. Loyal personnel and customers.

So, what needs to be done by the railroads if they want to reap the awards of scheduled operations? As with Delta, they need to individually invest in EITA and reconfigure their major resource management systems to operate in “in-time” operations, if not real time. That means that they need to strategically think how to use PTC’s platform to provide timely train location and speed information. I expect that several Class Is are already there, but only as to SILO based IT architecture. However, unlike Delta, they need to develop an industry perspective of an EITA. This won’t happen until industry politics breaks down, and the railroads build a collective mindset. As I have mentioned in previous posts, this could occur most quickly, I would like to think, if Class I executives’ bonuses where largely based on the efficiency of interchange. Lastly, I do encourage the use of passenger airline executives that have the true discipline of scheduled operations and thereby drive the railroad to make the necessary changes as to EITA and proactive, in-time resource management systems.

As a closing note, my consultancy Strategic Rail, llc (SR) developed the first and only generic EITA in the industry for Kazakhstan’s railroad that they used to move to their specific IT design. Developing an EITA requires a major commitment by management, granted, but our generic design is an excellent beginning.

Paradigm Shifts

Throughout my 2½ decades of independent consulting, including performing market studies and developing technology strategies for suppliers and railroads, I have had the opportunity to speak with a variety of senior railroad operation managers. During those discussions I would often ask the individual if his/her railroad ran to schedule. The response was consistently the same: “Yes, but … (some fatuous excuse, e.g., reducing crew starts given short trains)”. To some extent these responses can be seen as understandable given the data handling constraints of century-old operating technologies and associated practices as well as the evolving, inefficient silo-based IT architecture since the 1970’s. Additionally, there is little to no enterprise perspective of the consequences of one department’s action relative to other departments, e.g., excessive locomotives to cover shortages due to lack of actual schedule. However, the challenges to even approaching truly-scheduled operations are not just technical, functional, and organizational. Arguably, the most difficult challenge is that of modifying the management practices that have existed for decades. Therefore, advancing the efficiency and safety of U.S. freight railroads requires making shifts in both the technology paradigms as well as that of management.

Technology Paradigms
My article, Enterprise Perspective, in Railway Age’s April, 2017 issue addressed the paradigm shifts in the 4 core technologies that can greatly advance both the safety and the efficiency of railroads: 1) wireless voice to wireless data; 2) physical to virtual positioning; 3) mobile IT processing, e.g., locomotive borne, in addition to back-office; and the shift to an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA) from conventional silo-based IT architecture. The example provided in the article as to advancing the first three technologies was the design of what I titled as Virtual CTC (VCTC) that my consultancy, Strategic Rail, LLC (SR) performed for the railroads of Egypt and Kazakhstan. Simply stated, by using virtual positioning, wireless data, and locomotive-borne IT processing, VCTC eliminates the extensive use of wayside infrastructure, e.g., track circuits, control points, and signals, and hence the avoidance of the substantial capital and maintenance expenditures. Additionally, VCTC can provide for both fixed and virtual block operation that can increase the throughput for a plethora railroads across the globe that unjustifiably have been financially and operationally held hostage to the fixed-block operation of conventional CTC.

While designing VCTC was an extraordinary experience for SR, deploying it would be even greater so, of course. Such is the case with 4Tel, an Australian supplier whose Managing Director, Derel Wust, presented its Virtual Block Traffic Control System at the Next Generation Train Control conference in Philadelphia on October 20, 2017. This system is deployed in revenue service on 1,400 miles of the NSW Country Regional Network railroad in Australia.

Mr. Wust’s presentation also included an Artificial Intelligence (AI) perspective for future operations that can eventually lead to the on-board platform driving the use of proactive resource management systems elsewhere, e.g., wayside, back-office, and mobile platforms. Such a perspective requires the 4th core technology, EITA, which eliminates the duplication in the generation, storage, processing, and distribution of critical data to optimize efficient and safe operations. The passenger airlines have demonstrated the value of EITA for truly scheduled operations for years.

Lastly, as to the 4 core technologies’ paradigm shifts, I quote Mr. Wust that the future of railroads is about Smart Trains & Dumb Tracks. As AI technology matures, this paradigm shift will see available dollars invested into AI-based, on-board locomotive systems and away from signaled track systems as a more effective way to move trains safely, economically and efficiently.

Management Paradigm
Until this past March I had little expectation that the conventional “crisis management” practices of Class Is would be challenged by any railroad to pursue actual scheduled operations. It was then that Hunter Harrison became the CEO of CSX to implement a major management paradigm shift to Precision Scheduled Railroad (PSR) based upon his past experiences at CN and CP. With out any detailed knowledge of PSR, but by using my perspective of truly-schedule operations that I have been promoting throughout my consulting career, I see 3 levels of truly-scheduled operations: 1) Internal; 2) Industry; and 3) Enterprise of which the first and possibly the third are being addressed by CSX.

Internally, I expect that CSX is attempting to optimize the schedule of its trains that stay within its own network. Those trains service the majority of its shippers, and hence arriving at a balance of increasing satisfactory customer service while decreasing dwell time and increasing average speed cannot be accomplished quickly. Arguably, to do so is more of an art than a science at this early stage of PSR. Additionally, there are major constraints to how effective PSR can be that are not within the control of CSX, as follows.

Industry-wise, the leading question is “How can a railroad run to schedule if the railroads with which it interconnects are not operating to schedule?” What would seem to be a very obvious observation, the point is rarely mentioned regarding scheduled operations in general, and PSR specifically. In fact, individuals from other railroads that are make disparaging comments about PSR, especially in its infancy, don’t realize that they are likely part of the problem given their lack of truly-scheduled operations. As to an industry perspective of truly-scheduled operations, the requirement for EITA is critical as well to ensure the efficient exchange of data as to what each railroad is doing relative to interchange. Actually, EITA and supporting technologies are relatively simple, but impossible to achieve until the primary railroads buy into truly-scheduled operations. This is an industry politics issue that perhaps could be best addressed, I believe, if all railroad top executives were paid bonuses based upon the efficiency of interchange.

From an enterprise perspective, running to schedule requires that the management of the primary operating resources are in sync with the actual train lineup, i.e., the schedules are in place for each primary asset, e.g., track time, locomotives, crews, yard tracks, and rolling stock. This means, for example, that there are no excessive pools of locomotives, and that crews are properly aligned with minimum deadheading. This also means that trains may run short based upon customer service performance. Granted, excess resources (referred to as “slack resources” in mathematical terms) are required when exceptions occur, e.g., derailments or weather. BUT, the slack resources required to handle exceptions in truly-scheduled operations are substantially less than those that are required for crisis management. To do so requires that management must consider the cost of excessive slack resources, e.g., locomotives @ $2.5 million each, excessive crew rest and deadheading, the cost of poor customer service, etc. These are costs that are not now being considered, I believe, by conventional railroad management, and thereby greatly affect the Operating Ratio of railroads. It is this point where a paradigm shift in rail management can really pay off, partially by delivering an EITA and the associated changes in the major resource management systems.

In closing, to effectively make the paradigm shifts in technologies and management require a unique discipline that is unlikely to be found in the U.S. freight railroads. I refer to strategic technologists as opposed to the current technicians that are not held accountable to the railroad’s bottom line for what they deploy. Strategic technologists are required to advance the railroad’s operating and market strategies in sync with a technology strategy. That syncing is not the case today for the Class Is individually, and certainly not as an industry.

FTA: WHO or WHAT One Knows?

In 2011 the Federal Trade Administration (FTA) released a RFP to perform a study: Positive Train Control for Commuter and Regional Rail Systems. The stated objective of the RFP was to “evaluate the safety and reliability of PTC technology in commuter rail and regional rail operating environment, and to recommend the best practices in the implementation of PTC systems”. Without question, this proposed study had great potential benefit for commuter and regional rail operators. As such, the final report of the study was to be provided by June 30, 2013. After several years of seeing nothing from FTA, I confronted a FTA official as to the status of the report. I received no meaningful response (basically I was brushed off) , and I let ago of following this study as a fatuous effort by FTC that hopefully didn’t result in anyone being paid the $900k budgeted for the study.

Forward to July 2017 when the Final Report was released 4 years late: Technical and Safety Evaluation of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority PTC Deployment Project. Unfortunately, the study and the resulting Final Report was a total sham as demonstrated by the contents of the report as explained below.

To understand my issues with the study, I need to state first that I headed a team of well-experienced railroad consultants that responded to the RFP, and we were not selected. Not being selected is not the issue here IF indeed had a credible consultancy been selected. However, that is clearly NOT the case as I explain below. To be blunt, it appears to me that the selection of the University of Southern California (USC) team of professors was done by whom they knew, and NOT by what they knew. The proof of my position is readily noticeable in the report submitted by USC. I address 3 areas to make this point: PURPOSE, TIMING, & CREDENTIALS.

PURPOSE: It was clear to my team that the primary purpose of the study was to explore the issues of implementing PTC from a commuter and regional rail perspective, AND to present that information in a timely fashion that would be valuable to those operations. We knew that a primary issue would be the operating rules of these agencies were not being considered by the freight railroads via the Interoperability Train Control (ITC) committee. In fact, that has indeed been proven to be the case. In short, this means that the PTC handling of operating rules being deployed by freight railroads is not truly aligned with the requirements of the commuter railroads specifically. For example, consider the recent accidents within passenger terminals were the train accelerated resulting in fatalities. PTC if properly designed for commuters could readily have prevented this situation, but that was not done so by the freight railroad’s Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committee given its freight-only perspective. USC did not have the credentials, yet alone the insight to recognise this critical point.

Simply stated as to PURPOSE, the report is critically constrained for commuters in that it didn’t address critical PTC issues that are specifically oriented to such operations.

TIMING: The July 2017 report provided by USC was 4 years late, and hence is at best a “reactive” analysis versus a “proactive” analysis that could have been valuable to passenger operations. In short, this report is meaningless as to providing assistance to other agencies: the horse was already out of the barn, if you will.

Simply stated as to TIMING, the report was totally useless as to assisting the other passenger operations with their activities.

CREDENTIALS:
One has to read no further than the study’s ASTRACT to realize the lack of credentials of the USC team of professors without any notable railroad domain expertise. I quote: “Positive Train Control (PTC), often referred to as Communication Based Train Control (CBTC) …”. This statement is totally wrong and naïve as well; I don’t know how this major point got past the USC team of authors, as well as FTA. That is,

• PTC is a NON-VITAL, overlay enforcement system to prevent train accidents due to human errors.
• CBTC is a VITAL traffic control, management, and enforcement system

For my purposes here, VITAL is best defined as the means by which movement authorities are generated, i.e., the integrity of train movements, whether that be wayside equipment, office software, or an individual. PTC does not generate movement authorities and hence is not vital.

Simply stated as to CREDENTIALS, USC clearly did not understand PTC as well as lacking the ability to work with the PTC community as they stated in their report; they were shunned. They are outsiders without credible domain knowledge, thereby resulting in a useless analysis that provided no real value.

In conclusion, FTA awarded a project to USC that was not warranted at best, and that suggests irresponsible, if not unethical, practices by FTA as to the use of U.S. funds.

Given that there appears to be no current FTA Administrator, I submitted yesterday my letter of complaint (noting the above points) to the Associate Administers of Administration, Program Management, and Research, Demonstration and Innovation. I requested the courtesy of a response from these individual to explain how this study was awarded, apparently not monitored as to delivery (again, 4 years late), and yet accepted starting with the amazingly naïve, false equivalency of PTC to CBTC. So! Will one or more of them respond to my letter, and then proceed to have the report corrected? Or, will it be brushed under the rug and ignored since it is valueless?

Teddy Bears Revisited: Practical Technology Solutions

It is time for me to revisit my Teddy Bears” (TBs) postings on this blog in 2010. TBs are those perspectives / beliefs stated by railroaders, suppliers, and regulators to rationalize they are doing the right thing in their respective roles. However, when viewed objectively by individuals without any financial or organizational conflict, e.g., independent consultants, there are some significantly different viewpoints (alternative facts for those Trump supporters). But, these alternative facts are objective, actual facts.

Following this first TB revisited posting below regarding Practical Technology Solutions, I will be making additional postings as to Railroads: Individually vs. Industry, Suppliers: U.S. vs. International, The Customer Perspective, Pragmatic Scheduled Operations, The Regulators, Rail Operations; Domestic vs. International, Railroad Mathematics, Rail IT Architecture, PTC: What IT Is & What It Isn’t, and others that I may think of as time passes. I welcome your TB suggestions for my consideration.

PRACTICAL TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS
Being good at technology engineering does not necessarily make for being a good engineer when the bottom line is considered. There are several such examples in the rail industry that is still evolving from century-old technologies, e.g., track circuits, across much of the globe including the U.S. Arguably, the most telling and pathetic example is what the Interoperable Train Control (ITC) committee did in their development of an interoperable PTC system to address the Federal mandate of 2008. Below, I identify 4 primary issues in which ITC really failed each as to the lack of practical engineering in advancing PTC.

• The ITC designed an on-board positioning component to provide an accuracy of 18cm with 10-9 accuracy. Really! 7 inches with a risk of failure that will not occur in my lifetime? I assume this was based upon some vital track circuit / control specification developed over the ages. PTC is not vital in that it does not generate movement authorities and therefore does warrant such accuracy. In my rough estimation, this specification, if deployed, would raise the price of the component from $15,000 to $40,000 in my opinion – an unnecessary capital investment of $500 million plus ongoing maintenance for 20,000+ locomotives across the industry. I do understand that at least some of the Class Is have rejected such an over-engineered component, even though their collective technicians designed such.

• The monitoring of Intermittent Signals (ISs) were at least initially included in the specification. I don’t know where that stands now. However, with one estimate of 35,000 ISs across the industry at one point at perhaps at a price of $25,000 per installation, this would amount to another additional investment of $875 million plus ongoing maintenance with no added PTC or CTC value in that the Control Points are being monitored by PTC.

• A 220 MHz wireless data network is being installed without having performed any practical data modeling on what is really required for PTC, and without consideration of other technologies, including the 160 MHz network already in place. This was clearly a political move by NS and UP that had purchased the spectrum prior to and without knowledge of the PTC mandate. This amounts to a minimum $1 Billion unnecessary capital investment plus ongoing maintenance.

• Lastly, ITC did not involve the transits & commuter railroads in developing the interoperable operating rules. Hence, PTC as it stands could not prevent the recent in-terminal accidents where the passenger trains accelerated resulting in fatalities. Fortunately, this is a relatively simple fix via the use of GPS-fencing. The loss of life is already too much, and will only increase until PTC functionality is so expanded to consider the operating rules of transits & commuter railroads.

There are 4 primary technologies that should be addressed in a practical fashion as to their individual paradigm shifts within the last 2 decades that can advance both the safety and efficiency of railroads, as follows:

Communications
The U.S. railroads have been forced to install wireless data networks given the PTC mandate. Without that mandate, only a few railroads would have moved forward on their own with any urgency due to the lack of strategic wireless planning, both individually and collectively as an industry. Simply stated, knowing where the trains really are within a block (rather CTC or Dark Territory) AND the train’s speed is an absolute requirement for optimal “proactive traffic management” for medium to high density corridors, versus the crisis management that exists today given the lack of truly-scheduled operations. And, only wireless data networks can provide the necessary data for those traffic corridors. However, as noted above, the 220 MHz decision for PTC was poorly decided/forced for political purposes rather than functional / technical / economic reasons.

From a long term, strategic perspective, what are the railroads doing to take the most advantage of this wireless data infrastructure now that they have it, both individually and collectively as an industry? I expect little at this point.

Positioning
For the last century, track circuits have provided the necessary positioning information as to track occupancy/vacancy for train movement integrity for most of the railroad operations across the globe. Interestingly, 1/3 of the U.S. freight trackage, referred to as Dark Territory, does not use track circuits but rather communications between the train crew and dispatcher that uses a train sheet (now computerized- referred to as “conflict checker”) to manually determine occupancy / vacancy of track allocations. Now, with virtual positioning, e.g., enhanced GPS, those track circuits can be eliminated for the majority of railroads with the availability of wireless data and “vital” back-office traffic control software (which is akin to the conflict checkers used for Dark Territory) . It was with this practical engineering point in mind that my consultancy designed Virtual CTC (VCTC) for the railroads of both Egypt and Kazakhstan. There is at least one U.S. supplier that can deliver a VCTC-type system currently. But, don’t look to traditional CTC suppliers, in Europe especially, to provide such systems in that there would be a substantial loss in their revenues given the avoidance of wayside infrastructure required for CTC & ETCS-L2, as well as the on-going maintenance.

Traditional CTC engineers will argue that there will be the loss of broken rail detection / protection with the elimination of the track circuit. However, consider the following points. First, there are other technologies that can provide for such detection / protection, most notably the advancing fiber optics based systems as offered by at least Frauscher (www.frauscher.com). Second, many railroads across the globe do not consider broken rail detection / protection to be a necessary requirement for their railroad. Third, in the U.S., 1/3 of the freight trackage is Dark Territory and without track circuits. Hmmmmm!, FRA hypocrisy at work.

IT Processing
Since the 1970s, the IT processing platforms have advanced from mainframe to client/server to the cloud. But, what is still missing is that of the Mobile Node, i.e., the locomotive-borne IT platform. PTC has now established that for safety reasons, but with only limited expansion in to business applications, e.g., locomotive engineer performance. My development of the first overlay PTC was designed as a mobile node to address the shortcoming of BNSF’s ARES system back in the 80’s that provide limited PTC functionality via the back-office system. ARES’s design was highly susceptible to wireless data issues as to reliability and throughput. But then again, BNSF was constrained by on-board technology at that point. We are now past that with PTC, but where is the strategic perspective to take advantage of that mobile node as to customer service, dynamic work order, car monitoring, train diagnostics, track diagnostics, schedule performance, etc.?

IT Architecture
All railroads operating since the 70’s unquestionably have a Silo based IT Architecture (SITA), i.e., systems developed on an individual department by department basis without effective data interaction between the department’s systems. Certainly, SITA was justified with the introduction of the main frame computers at that point. However, SITA results in the duplication of data collection, storage, processing, and distribution of critical operating and administration data. This duplication results in both inefficient and unsafe operations. What is needed instead is an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA) for the railroads, both individually and collectively as an industry.

My consultancy developed the first known design of a generic railroad EITA. This was done for Kazakhstan’s railroad, KTZ, that eliminates the tremendous duplication in the handling of data classes by disparate systems. EITA is Based upon a Single Source of Truth (SSOT) concept of designating singular data processes for generation of critical data. The classic approach to designing an EITA is referred to as Business System Planning (BSP) as first introduced by IBM in the late 60s (management consultancies have their own versions, but the basics are the same). The BSP process is very logical, but intensive, and it requires a firm commitment by upper management to participate because it takes on the individual departments’ IT fiefdoms. For further insight on EITA, I suggest my August 21, 2016 posting “The Market for EITA” on this blog in the “Railroad Business” category of postings on the right side of the Homepage.

For the U.S. freight railroads, it is critical that the EITA be extended to an industry level given the substantial amount of interchange between railroads. Simply stated, individual Class Is cannot run to schedule if the connecting railroads are not operating to schedule. To do so requires an efficient and timely exchange of operating status. That interchange of data does not effectively exist today due to both technical reasons as well the lack of truly scheduled operations by the individual Class Is.

So! Considering the ITC situations noted above, should the railroads continue to rely on their engineers for technology advancement given the lack of a bottom line perspective? Clearly, the answer is NO!  Also, the solution is not to look to many of the traditional suppliers because advance solutions can lead to reduced revenue due to lower capital investment and reduced on-going maintenance.

The answer to truly advance the safety and efficiency of railroad operations is to employ Strategic Technologists that can blend economics (business cases) with technology advancements to address specific advanced operations in a practical fashion. Such individuals are not employed now by railroads to my knowledge. Interestingly, the Class Is hired hordes of MBAs with the passing of the Staggers Act in 1980 to deal with the deregulation of freight railroad marketing. But now, it is well passed the time to bring in MBAs to address the practical tactical and strategic deployment of advancing technologies. For further insight, I suggest reading the article “Six IT decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make”, Harvard Business Review, November 2002, and substitute “Wireless” for “IT”.

In closing, I offer a suite of courses regarding Railroad Immersion (rational railroading basics), PTC, Advanced Traffic Control & Management, and Enterprise IT Architecture that address the spectrum of points noted above. These courses have been used by railroads and suppliers alike, both in the U.S. and internationally. A PDF brochure is available upon request. I am best reached at comarch@aol.com for comments and questions.

Freight Railroad Management Paradigm Shift

As a Strategic Technologist (syncing a business strategy with a technology strategy), I have focused for the last 2+ decades on the opportunities for railroads to advance both the safety and efficiency of their operations given paradigm changes in the core technologies that are required to improve both the safety and efficiency of freight railroads. Specifically, I refer to communications, positioning, information processing, and IT architecture. However, I have done so with relatively little expectation in my professional career that I could influence the conventional railroad operations practices of “crisis management” that prevent scheduled freight operations. Little had I expected that U.S. freight railroads would progressively pursue scheduled operations within their individual boundaries, yet alone as an industry given the high level of interconnection, e.g., how does a railroad run to schedule if the interconnecting railroads are not operating to schedule? One of my favorite telling comments that I consistently make is that Operations executive bonuses should be substantially, if not primarily, based upon interconnection efficiency. Expectedly, that comment has not been well received, but such financial motivation could greatly improve the efficiency of railroads, both individually and collectively as an industry. One notable exception has been that of Norfolk Southern (NS) with its advance traffic control and management systems. But, as far as I can tell, the remaining Class Is have yet to make significant changes given their conventional management mindset that it is all about running long trains and/or reducing crew starts, but at the price of inefficient use of primary resources, e.g., locomotives and crews. BUT now, there is now a potential of a paradigm shift in rail management that can be hopefully synced with core technology paradigm shifts. This is a paradigm transition from “crisis-based” management to “pragmatic” scheduled operations.

SCHEDULED OPERATIONS
Scheduled operation is seemingly a simple concept to understand, i.e., there’s a lineup of train movements. But, that lineup is quickly corrupted with the poor handling of supporting resources, e.g., track time, locomotives, crews, maintenance, derailments, customer pressure, and of course the lack of reliability in the interchange with foreign trains. Consider the following example.

About 6 years ago I was engaged by the VP Operations of a Class I to determine why there was excessive crew deadheading and rest. Within 3 days the primary reasons were clear. Arguably, the most obvious was that Yard Masters were initiating trains on the line-up without any follow through to ensure that many of trains would actually run. The phrase used by Crew & Locomotive Management was that there were “ghost trains” that they had to continually challenge before assigning their respective resources. However, the amazing finding was that Operations stated that they couldn’t run to schedule because several of their major shippers scheduling their trains.. What Operations fail to accept is that those shippers were doing so because they couldn’t rely on the railroad to meet their requirements. For Operations, this was their excuse as to why they couldn’t run to schedule. But the truth is that the railroad’s failure to maintain schedule had forced the shippers to make such demands. Simply stated, Operations was at fault.

With the exception of the interchange issue noted above, passenger airlines are confronted with the same resource management issues as freight railroads, and yet they operate quite well to schedule, weather permitting. So! What permits the airlines to operate to schedule versus U.S. freight railroads? I will address that point below, but first it is fair for you to question what the big deal is about operating to schedule? The answer to that question is quite simple as to concept, but not achievable without the proper management mindset and supporting technologies.

Running to schedule means that the management of the primary operating resources are in sync with the train lineup. That means from a railroad perspective that the schedules are in place for each primary asset, e.g., track time, locomotives, crews, yard tracks, and rolling stock. This means, for example, that 1) there are no excessive pools of locomotives, 2) crews are properly aligned with minimum deadheading, etc. This also means that trains may run short based upon customer service performance. Granted excess resources (referred to as “slack resources” in mathematical terms) are required when exceptions occur, e.g., derailments or weather. BUT, the slack resources required to handle exceptions in scheduled operations are substantially less than those that are required for crisis management. This means that responsible management must consider the cost of excessive slack resources, e.g., locomotives @ $2.5 million each, excessive crew rest and deadheading, the cost of poor customer service, etc. These are costs that are not now being considered, I believe, by conventional railroad management; these are costs that greatly affect the Operating Ratio of railroads. It is this point where a paradigm shift in rail management can really pay off. VOILA! Enter Mr. Hunter Harrison with a “top down”, integrated management perspective instead of a fragmented rail department by department perspective of conventional freight rail operations predominate in the U.S. freight railroads.

RAIL MANAGEMENT PARADIGM SHIFT
In March 2017, Mr. Hunter Harrison became the CEO of CSX. To the limited extent that I have tracked his career and operational philosophy at CN and CP, this is an individual with an unprecedented perseverance that can revolutionize CSX’s operations to pursue pragmatic scheduled operations. However, to do so involves 2 primary perspectives, i.e., 1) within an individual railroad’s boundaries, and 2) addressing the industry perspective of scheduled operations given the extensive interconnection with foreign roads that are not themselves operating to schedule.

INDIVIDUAL RAILROAD
Mr. Harrison is expected to drive CSX to execute an operations perspective as he did with CP and CN relative to CSX’s market not subject to interchange. However, to do so CSX will need to make some technology changes, most importantly Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA), as described in a previous posting on my blog, “The Market for EITA”, Simply stated, EITA minimizes the duplication in the generation, storage, processing, and distribution of data for the railroad’s operating systems. It is EITA that major passenger airlines have deployed to operate most efficiently as to scheduled operations.

U.S. FREIGHT RAIL INDUSTRY
As to an industry perspective of scheduled operations, the EITA perspective is greatly important as well to ensure the efficient exchange of data as to what each railroad is doing relative to interchange. Actually, EITA and supporting technologies are relatively simple, but unquestionably quite difficult to achieve until the primary railroads buy into scheduled operations as will undoubtedly be demonstrated by Mr. Harrison within CSX’s boundaries. This is a railroad politics issue.

BOTTOM LINE
With the appointment of Mr. Harrison as CSX’s CEO, I have never been more encouraged as to the possibility of U.S. freight railroads moving towards scheduled operations, both individually and as an industry. The technologies are available to do so, but the conventional operations’ mindset will have to make a major paradigm shift for several Class Is.

If you are interested in the above perspective, you can check out my article in the April, 2017 issue of Railway Age, titled “Enterprise Perspective” (pages 53-54). Also we can discuss further by contacting me at comarch@aol.com or 904 386 3082.

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.   😀

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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