During my 5 decades + of post-graduate experience in handling a wide variety of positions that have involved technical, functional, and mathematical challenges without any precedence, it seems that I have purposely sought out those unique engagements without any obvious solutions. I have done so based upon what I have proven to myself to be a truism: the more complex an engagement appears to be, the easier it is to resolve. Although this concept is counterintuitive for most folks I expect, and not as true when dealing with leading-edge technologies, the fact is that too many professional types tend to over-think what needs to be done when it comes to threshold technologies. I am referring to those basic technologies that provide the data to support the processes that are required to manage one’s company’s operation in a truly cost-effective fashion. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the more that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics) individuals are engaged with the subject at hand, the greater the risk that the solution will be over-thought … and therefore over-engineered … and therefore unnecessarily over-expensive as to both investment and maintenance. What is missing by the STEM professionals, in my opinion, are two primary principles of an MBA.
First, is the understated (and therefore underappreciated) principle in the application of statistics and realizing the rule of 80/20. That is, the variance in the coefficients of variables (if not the ability to identify all variables) that are required to make a mathematical / functional / technical analysis of (choose at topic) means that 100% of the objective is never achieved. Rather, one shoots for 80% of (chosen topic) which will require only 20% of the cost to purse an acceptable, achievable goal of (chosen topic).
The second principle of the MBA is to provide a Bottom line, Business perspective to what is being sought. This perspective suggests that STEM should be modified to be STEM-B. Below, I discuss Both the simplicity of complexity, the 80/20, as well as the Bottom line perspective. The distinction I am making here is the difference between STEM Technicians and STEM- B Technologists.
Complexity / Simplicity
As an example of the simplicity of complexity, I reflect on the early days of the U.S. space program. At one point, there was a significant effort on the part of space STEMs to develop a solution for astronauts to shave in a gravity-free environment so as to prevent the shaved whiskers from fouling the on-board electronic equipment. Several solutions would have been to use only Native Americans or female astronauts (assuming that smooth legs would not be a requirement). After significant research in vacuum-capture systems, the chosen solution at that time was to use a razor in concert with shaving cream that would capture the severed hair particles – how effective, how pragmatic.
In this vein relative to railroads, PTC is a prime example of how the technicians have clearly blown it. As addressed in earlier postings on this blog, these folks have totally over-engineered not only the functionality of PTC, e.g., the enforcement of intermittent signals (ISs), but also over-designed 2 of the 3 core technologies of PTC, i.e., communications and positioning (see posting on March 5, 2013 titled “The Goods, the Bads, & The Uglies” that can be found on the blog by selecting the category of “Strategic Core Infrastructure” on the home page). At least the third core technology of Information Processing was well thought out as to the use of 2of 3 processors to ensure the availability of the on-board PTC platform to avoid regulatory requirements to proceed at restricted speed should the PTC unit fail in route.
So! What is the simplicity of complexity? By this I mean that if one takes an 80/20 perspective of what can be accomplished by making good assumptions, then solutions can be realistically achieved. For example, no railroad is 100% safe, even though the FRA fatuously states that there should be ZERO tolerance for unsafe railroad operations. The truth is that a railroad’s operation has 0% chance of being 0% unsafe unless it runs zero trains. That doesn’t make any sense, of course, and such expectations of absolute safety results in overbearing regulations such as the PTC mandate (thanks to a knee jerk reaction by Congress to the horrific MetroLink – UP accident in 2008) that is clearly not cost-effective for U.S. railroads. When I designed the first overlay PTC system in the U.S., and subsequently in Egypt (as discussed in the most recent postings on this blog), I made a 80/20 evaluation of what could be achieved with the technologies at hand relative to the operating environment of most railroads across the globe. For example, it was clear that a vital system (that which generates the movement authorities for trains to advance) that integrated traffic control with enforcement, such as moving block, was not technically nor functionally achievable in a cost-effective fashion due to technologies, operating practices (including the handling of yard operations), given that the majority of train movements are unscheduled both within and between railroads (interchange). In the case of Egypt, the issues are even more complex given the use of “vital employees” that manually generate movement authorities. Hence, I designed Virtual CTC solution (VCTC) to address what could be done cost-effectively to prevent the majority of accidents in the U.S. as well as both the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) and the majority of small and medium railroads across the globe. This process required making assumptions as to what was really needed for safety – an analysis that subsequently proved to be right on. Do these solutions meet the FRA expectations for ZERO tolerance? – Absolutely not – BUT, then again, nothing can. However, VCTC is very cost-effective … and exactly what the Egyptian Railways and many other railroads across the globe need to make their railroads financially viable while providing unprecedented safety not achievable with conventional operating systems.
Being 80/20 in one’s thinking means having the mental and institutional ability to be creative, To be mentally creative means having the ability, again, to make assumptions that eliminate that 20% of the problem that can’t be achieved in any reasonable fashion, and then design a solution, followed by a subsequent review of the assumptions made to be sure that nothing critical was left out. As to institutional freedom, I am referring to the organization permitting its employees to pursue justifiable, cost-effective solutions that make financial sense. Unfortunately, it would be naïve to ignore the fact that most executive bonus programs are based on the near term, without a long-term strategic perspective, that may restrict such a process. A case in point here is the lack of an industry-business perspective by the US freight railroads that could deliver interchange data for minimizing the effect on scheduled operations. That is, a railroad dependent upon interchange is constrained to running to schedule if the other railroad is not running to schedule, and visa versa. This is an industry issue. (Does any railroad have the evaluation of interchange efficiency in its executive bonus program?) Interestingly, it is the PTC mandate that is forcing the railroads to develop an interoperable, industry-wide wireless data infrastructure that can deliver such industry wide applications for the benefit of all. Without that mandate, it is my opinion that the technical solutions of individual railroads would have prevented such a strategic perspective. This point introduces the second issue of addressing the bottom line.
The Bottom Line
So, how did the technicians manage to ignore the bottom line with the over-engineering of PTC to meet the PTC mandate? And, arguably more important, why is there no Industry Strategy on how an industry-wide wireless network, that will be delivered to meet the interoperability requirement of PTC, can benefit the railroads both individually and collectively (e.g., the ability to improve scheduled performance with the availability of timely interchange data of foreign trains … or … How is that foreign locomotive in the lead of the train on my property performing?)
On June 6, 2011 I made a posting “Six Wireless Decisions Your Wireless Management Shouldn’t Make” (which can be found on this blog by selecting the category of Strategic Railroading on the right side of the home page, going to the bottom of the postings that are provided and then clicking on Older Entries). This posting paraphrased an article in the November 2012 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) titled “The Six IT Decisions Your IT People Shouldn’t Make”. Simply stated, the HBR article makes the point, and my wireless version parrots, that operations management fails “to recognize that adopting systems poses a business – not just a technological- challenge. Consequently, they (a company’s senior management) don’t take responsibility for the organizational and business process changes the systems requires.” The result of this lack of involvement is that the CIO (or CWP – Chief Wireless Person), with a technology perspective exclusively, is constraining the advancement of the company’s business processes, and most likely the return on IT (or wireless) investment and, more importantly, the company’s bottom line.
In that prior posting I suggested the following 6 decisions that the CWP shouldn’t make as to wireless in sync with HBR’s article as to CIOs and IT.
- How much should we spend on wireless?
- Which business processes should receive our wireless dollars?
- Which wireless capabilities need to be company-wide (and industry-wide)?
- How good do our wireless services really need to be?
- What security and privacy risks will we accept?
- Whom do we blame if a wireless initiative fails?
To add my personal touch here, I list below some questions that the senior railroad executives may want to ask their Engineering and Operations management.
- What are the plans to use the wireless data for our internal purposes?
- What is the strategy for the industry to use the forthcoming wireless data network?
- What accuracy do we really need for train positioning and speed?
- Does CAD provide the necessary traffic management tools to perform proactive traffic management?
- What can be done to improve the reliability of interchange to increase scheduled operations?
- Does Operations know the condition of the foreign locomotive in our trains?
- How do we measure the efficiency of the dispatchers?
- Is Service Design aligned with what can be done with timely train position and speed data as to developing an achievable train schedule?
- Why oh why are railroads enforcing ISs for PTC?
The closing point is that the rail industry needs technologists, in sync with technicians, that can deliver solutions based on the bottom line, both for individual railroads as for the industry. The railroads are not on schedule here as well.
For those individuals interested in the previous posting on Virtual CTC (Next Generation of Operating Systems ), I am providing below an article of mine that was published in the August issue of Railway Age. A similar article is planned to be published in the October issue of International Railways Journal (IRJ).
As the result of the study that my consultancy completed in Egypt in December 2012 to advance the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), there is now what I refer to as the Next Generation of an integrated Traffic Control, Traffic Management, and Enforcement systems. That is, Virtual CTC (VCTC) uses advancing technologies such as wireless data and virtual positioning, in concert with a CTC-type back office, to deliver tremendous safety and efficiency capability at a mere fraction of the cost that would be required for conventional or advanced signaling such as ETCS and CBTC.
The video below places VCTC in perspective to the traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement systems across the globe and addresses how both railroads and suppliers may want to pursue its development and deployment.
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.
Based upon the study my team just completed in Egypt to evaluate the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), I have posted a video on youtube, and is provided below, as to the design for a new traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement system. This system is referred to as Virtual CTC + Enforcement. It offers small to medium railroads across the globe, both freight and passenger, a cost-effective and pragmatic solution to delivering both efficient and safe railroading with enforcement capability that exceeds PTC, ETCS, and ATC. VCTC does not require either the extensive capital investment or extensive on-going maintenance of conventional or advanced traffic control systems.
Check it out!
Given my now–completed engagement in Egypt to design a new traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement system, titled Virtual CTC + Enforcement, for the majority of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR), I have an even increased appreciation of 2 primary GOODs of railroad operations in the U.S. that do not exist in Egypt and many other countries across the globe. First, U.S. railroads are privately-owned in a capitalistic society that promotes the investment in those operations based upon the bottom financial line, simply stated as optimizing the return on investment. Second, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) provides the regulatory oversight without which inscrutable railroad operators have and could tradeoff the bottom safety line for the financial one. This blend of regulated safety and fiduciary responsibility has well serviced the railroads and the public alike since the Staggers Act of 1980 that deregulated the railroad market. As such, I dare say that nearly every decision by the railroads is a financial one, including those that deal with safety issues alone and not operations. Arguably, however, there here have been several exceptions as is the case of BNSF’s pursuit of PTC.
For most railroads, PTC as an overlay system, was never seriously considered to be a pursuit given that the costs of deploying PTC far, far exceed the projected safety benefits. The first PTC system, CSX’s CBTM for which I was the architect, was pursued because its engineer was at fault in the 1996 Silver Spring, MD accident in which there were 11 fatalities. Especially given the accident’s location within the DC Beltway, CSX feared that Feds would force some type of driver-enforcement system, and the only system being tested at that time was a pathetically over-designed concept referred to as Precision Train Control. This PTC was not an overlay, enforcement-only concept. This PTC was an overly ambitious and, at the time, technically-unachievable moving block concept. Hence, CSX’s decision was a defensive one to develop a pragmatic approach, and that I did with CBTM providing the foundation for the overlay PTC systems being pursued to meet the Federal mandate. Subsequent to CSX’s efforts, BNSF expanded on CBTM’s scope of dark territory to include signaled territory, and it did so because “it was the right thing to do!” according to one BNSF top executive. There did not seem to be any immediate financial justification for BNSF’s efforts . . . except for a possible hidden agenda to move to one-man crews at some point. Nonetheless, BNSF had seemingly made a too-rare decision to invest in safety for safety sake without the immediate financial justification.
The other railroads were clearly not following the leads of CSX and BNSF. The business case was clearly not there to make such a financial investment. However, those individuals and organizations that wanted PTC at any cost promoted analyses and statements about the business benefits of improved asset management (e.g., track time, capacity, locomotives, crews) that PTC could reportedly provide so as to falsely justify their position. These individuals and organizations were without the willingness, perhaps intelligence, to understand the difference between traffic control and enforcement. Simply explained, traffic control generates movement authorities and therefore is the means of achieving asset management effectiveness. PTC only uses the parameters of the authorities generated to provide enforcement. With the simplest of understanding and rational thinking, one will realize that it is the ability of a locomotive to reports its position AND speed that supports more effective generation of movement authorities, which determines the management of railroad’s assets. To provide locomotive position and speed data simply requires a wireless data path, which happens to be a requirement of PTC as well. But, a railroad does not need PTC to get the wireless data path, as readily demonstrated recently by several Class Is that are obtaining those alleged PTC business benefits without PTC. Nonetheless, after very credible reports from both private and government entities that belie the existence of PTC business benefits, there are still lingering comments that surface occasionally claiming the business benefits of PTC. For example, it has only been in the last year that the FRA finally removed such fatuous statements from its Website.
The net of the above is that BNSF initiated and continued its pursuit of PTC for altruistic reasons, it seems, while CSX did so to prevent a mandate of an overly expensive, if even achievable, enforcement solution. But that truly was it for the industry until the end of 2008 even though were occasional meetings of AAR technical committees with purported PTC interests.
Even with the regulatory processes in the U.S. for primary industries such as the railroads, the Congress can bypass the regulators and create laws without consideration of the bottom line of the corporations affected. Such is the case with the Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) that was a knee-jerk reaction in less than 2 months following the horrific Metrolink / UP collision in September of that year that resulted in 25 fatalities. This Act mandated the implementation of PTC across major segments of freight and passenger operations.
So! What do the various parties do when 1. They (the Feds) want something at any cost, a cost that they don’t have to pay … or … 2. They (the RRs) are being forced to make very substantial investments in systems that are not cost justified, but are mandated to do so for the sake of zero tolerance for unsafe operations. Simply stated, “What price safety?” … and “Who pays the tab?” This is where it gets ugly.
When so confronted with Congressional mandates, a company has the choice to pay the price, pull up stakes, fight the action through the courts, …. and / or ….. to delay, lie, misdirect, fake it, and/or use lobbyists to influence the Congress to amend such mandates in some fashion. In the case of the PTC mandate of RSIA, those railroads other than BNSF, and possibly CSX, have clearly demonstrated an amazing amount misdirection, faking it, if not just outright lying, to obtain at least delays in the PTC mandate. The high mark of this activity to date was the NTSB conference on PTC, February 27, 2013. I did not attend the conference, but I have reviewed the presentations of the various speakers, and provide below my perspective on both the credible and irresponsible, if not mischievous, points that were made.
Having been involved with PTC from the beginning, even before the FRA RSAC-PTC process a decade or so ago, I know most of the presenting individuals very well and could “hear” their oratory as I reviewed the decks. Hence, I was not surprised by most of the points made, but yet saddened and angered at what the railroaders find necessary to do to attempt to avoid the unjustifiable expense of PTC. Simply stated, they seemed obligated for their company’s sake (if not their job) to purposely mislead, misrepresent, and even lie about critical points that they believed would helpful in delaying the implementation of PTC and its tremendous capital outlay. At the same time, I was surprised and gladdened by some of the reversals in falsehoods that had been made by railroaders following the mandate. Below, I summarize and separate the uglies and the reversals into 4 categories of PTC Functionality, and the primary technologies that are involved with PTC and other primary applications associated with a railroad’s operations: Communications, Intelligence Processing, and Positioning.
- One presenter, at least, noted that PTC is much more complicated than anyone expected. However, its not PTC that is complicated, but rather it is a combination of Interoperabitity and the over-engineered communication, positioning, and intelligence processing solutions that ITC has been developing unchecked by senior management as to costs per necessary objectives (as discussed further below).
- Again, as discussed above, PTC has nothing to do with asset management and the associated business benefits (other than preventing occasional disruptions due to accidents).
- The various forms of “vital” have been used in confusing ways across the industry in addressing PTC. In the early days of RSAC-PTC I introduced the concept of functional vitality to separate the purpose of PTC from that of traffic control systems, e.g., signaling, dark territory. To be short, PTC is not functionally vital in that it does not generate authorities. Nor does the PTC BOS need to be a vital, fail-safe system, with I refer to as hardware vitality. There is an argument, however, for making a fail-safe on-board system so as to minimize the occurrences of traffic congestion as a train limps to the next yard due to regulated speed restrictions due to non-working PTC systems.
- The comparison of PTC to European ERTMS / ETCS is totally inappropriate and purposely misleading. ERTMS is an integrated traffic control/ traffic management/ and enforcement system designed for high speed / high density traffic. PTC is an overlay system, meaning that it acts independently of the traffic control / management systems already in place. Hence, the complexity, costs, and timeliness of implementing ERTMS, which is functionally vital, provides NO points of comparison for overlay, non-functional vital PTC.
- A PTC-reliability study performed by ARINC was mentioned as a point of concern. Really! ARINC has a tremendous potential conflict of interest with the railroads and is clearly not in a position to be declared objective.
- Two years ago I was the Chairman of the first World PTC Congress. During that meeting I challenged the attendees, including FRA, suppliers, and Class I railroads to explain why it was necessary, or just important, to monitor and enforce intermediate signals. No one has ever stepped up to that question other than retired FRA employees who stated it clearly wasn’t necessary. Of course, it isn’t necessary since PTC provides a braking curve to the end of the authority. Nonetheless, the railroads have added this significant complexity, and associated cost of additional WIUs, to meet this unnecessary requirement. Originally, the first estimate for WIUs following the mandate was 75,000. It’s now down to 35,000, and I’m pushing for 20,000 at the most.
- Early on in the RSAC-PTC process it was agreed that grade crossings should not be an enforcement objective. The reason was two-fold. First, it’s the railroad property and therefore they should not have to pay for the necessary infrastructure. Second, and arguably most important, the pure physics of bringing a freight train to a stop would mean an excessive amount of gate down time, thereby possibly increasing the risks of vehicles running around the gates.
- Contrary to what was noted by several presenters, it is clear that there was no true analysis of the data requirements for PTC for the railroads to make an actual evaluation of the need for 220, especially over that of 160. This is admitted to in the filings by PTC-220 with the FCC, and as identified (and not contested by PTC-220) in my written statements to the FCC regarding the same filing. Both my statements and those of PTC-220 in its filing for more 220 spectrum are available upon request to me. When last checked, the FCC had rejected PTC-220’s request. On a positive note, the presentation by NS regarding PTC-220 was refreshingly honest compared to those statements and filings under the previous UP presidency of that entity. The individual noted that there is no expected need for additional 220 spectrum for most of the railroad operations.
- As to why 160 was not considered by the railroads for PTC has little to nothing to do with the amount of spectrum available. Rather it has to do with the way in which the railroads proceeded to meet a FCC requirement to “narrowband” the frequency. To be short, they pursued conventional channel assignments instead of using “trunking” which is critical for effective usage of the spectrum in metropolitan areas.
- It should be noted that UP / NS purchased the 220 spectrum the year before the PTC mandate – before the MetroLink/UP accident. Why they purchased the spectrum is unclear, but given their resistance to voluntarily pursuing PTC, it is doubtful that they did it for PTC. It was after the mandate that BNSF and CSX were “persuaded” to forego their own communication solutions for PTC, each of which was much less robust, yet adequate, then the required wireless claims stated without proof by PTC-220. Subsequently, PTC-220 purchased Meteorcomm from BNSF to produce the locomotive radios even though Meteorcomm had neither the proven technical nor available manufacturing capabilities to provide the radios.
- The Back Office Server (BOS) was suggested to be a portion of the critical path to meet the deadline. In my opinion there are 3 possibilities that this could be, with only one that makes any sense at this point. First, the functionality of the BOS is very, very straightforward and has already been achieved by BNSF with some minor changes remaining due to changes in the operating rules to address interoperability, as agreed to by the railroads during the conference. Second, the concept of vitality, as to failing safe, is clearly a red hearing. An overlay system can hardly fail other than safe in that it doesn’t generate authorities and instead only targets based upon the authorities generated. Even more misleading, one presenter likened the vitality of the BOS to the vitality of the European ERTMS. This is a purposeful misdirection. The vitality of ERTMS is that of the generation of authorities and the integration of the enforcement processes. PTC is an overlay only and the functional vitality of generating authorities does not exist. Only the third reason has any merit. That is, linking the BOS with the individual Traffic Control systems in place for each railroad could be difficult. This is not due to technical reasons, but due to social/political conflicts that may exist between any given railroad and the suppliers involved, most importantly Ansaldo, formerly Union Switch & Signal. While Wabtec’s and Ansaldo’s HQs are only miles apart in Pittsburgh, their mindsets and willingness to cooperate between themselves and the railroads involved could span oceans, if you will.
- PTC is locomotive-centric, meaning that all processing of data for enforcement takes place within the on-board computer. Normally, this would not need to be stated, but the fact that the conference included a presentation on ARES suggests that someone thought there was some value in understanding the pursuit and the ultimate rejection of ARES. To be clear, ARES was a clever traffic control and traffic management concept that integrated some PTC-like enforcement capability in the back office systems for signaled territory. However, it really has nothing to do with locomotive-centric, overlay PTC systems that are designed for both dark and signaled operations. CBTM established the threshold for PTC, and the Singularly Disillusioned individual (SD) that has been inappropriately promoting both the supposed vitality and business benefits of PTC based upon his ARES experiences has actually done some harm in advancing PTC in a credible fashion, as exemplified by the horrendous FRA-funded report on PTC benefits performed by ZetaTech several years ago.
- I didn’t note any significant comments regarding the issues of positioning, other than those of SD in the ARES presentation. Again, his comments are way out of fashion as to his focus on DGPS, as well as the fact that it was in my designing of CBTM that I introduced the monitoring of switch position in dark territory for “routing” trains, and which subsequently became relevant for the 4th objective of PTC of preventing movement through misaligned switches.
- From my previous evaluation of ITC activities for a client, it became clear that the ITC technicians were way over-designing the accuracy of the positioning platform – I mean way, way overdesigning. The major effect of this is excessive cost for the on-board platform that could be in the range of $10,000 to $20,000 per locomotive, hence raising the cost of nation-wide PTC by several $100 millions
I would like to think that the NTSB recognizes that a number of presentations made at the conference to support an extended implementation period were highly prejudiced and even purposely misleading in some cases. Fortunately, PTC is beyond the need to evaluate the feasibility of its functional capabilities. PTC does work. The primary constraints that are being presented by the railroads are a technical nature, as noted above. Hence, if NTSB requires an objective analysis of PTC implementation issues, it requires a Blue-Ribbon Technical Committee, independent of the FRA, the railroads, and the likely suppliers, that can make such evaluations. The railroads will likely object to such evaluations. But, cannot any extension in time for the mandate be made conditional on such evaluations?
Outside of North America
For those railroads outside of North America that may be considering some type of enforcement system, e.g., V-CTC + Enforcement in Egypt, the above discussion as to the cost / benefit analysis of PTC does not likely apply. For example, the V-CTC + Enforcement system that I designed will prevent accidents due to mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards. In fact, my presentation of the final system design of V-CTC + Enforcement to Egypt’s MOT / ENR officials in December, 2012 was delayed several weeks due to two accidents, one each regarding the interlocking operator and crossing guard, that resulted in 5 and 50 fatalities respectively. V-CTC + Enforcement would have prevented those accidents; PTC as designed for the U.S. would not. Accordingly, Egypt’s Prime Minister directed MOT / ENR the following day to proceed with testing V-CTC + Enforcement.
I played a decent amount of basketball in my high school years. However, being 6’3” was not enough by itself to compensate for my lousy shooting. And, I wasn’t a good shot because I was unwilling to practice enouigh to build that “muscle memory” of the physics associated with putting the ball in the hoop. Therefore, I spent my court time mastering the interception of passes between the opposing team players by anticipating their moves. I was really good at “reading” their intentions in the passing of the ball. My skill, it seems, was a combination of perception and the ability to fake where my attention was in the other team’s handling of the ball. My strategy was if I could intercept their passes, then I could pass the ball to my team members who could make the shots. The point here is that there are those individuals that grab the ball, and there are those that can make the points once they have the ball. This is one ideal “team” perspective in my opinion given so very few individuals can do both. Unfortunately, in the U.S. railroads today, those who have the responsibility for obtaining the ball also have the responsibility for taking the shots – and they really suck at shooting. I am referring to the railroads’ technicians and their free-hand at designing and installing technologies without responsible upper management oversight. Simply stated: I think there is a great deal of faking going on in railroad management, whether it be intentional or just the nature of the organization.
Is there any doubt that there are times that each of us fakes it personally and professionally . . . but not necessarily for the wrong reasons? That is, we present viewpoints and take on tasks that are beyond our actual knowledge and skill set with the expectation (based upon past experiences) that we will succeed … and with the hope that our audience won’t be able to contest us either due to their lack of on-point knowledge or their lack of intestinal fortitude to take on the “authority”. Unfortunately, however, in the railroads I see faking-it to be a two way street between the technical and operational managers that is resulting in a horrific waste of capital and, in the case of wireless, the waste of valuable RF spectrum. That is, the technicians fake that they have done their due diligence in promoting that there technical solutions are absolutely the most cost-effective . . . and the operators feign (or worse don’t even participate) that they have done their due diligence in challenging and understanding what they are offered by the technicians. While I am sure that there are some excellent examples where it is clear the technicians and the operators have worked together to deliver cost-effective technical solutions, there are too many examples where they have not. Arguably, the most egregious is that of the ITC efforts to address the interoperability challenges of PTC. There are 3 primary examples.
- I have already exposed in this blog as well my articles in Railway Age, and my submissions to the FCC, that the grab for more and more 220 MHz by the Class Is is an intentional scam (IMHO). This is faking-it taken to an unprecedented level for the industry because it is not a single railroad that is the perpetrator, but rather a class(1)action, if you will.
- Having spoken recently with a supplier of NXDN, a digital wireless protocol, I am of the opinion that the availability of the significant increase in channels by narrowbanding VHF has afforded the railroad technicians the opportunity to once again forego their responsibility of using at least the 160 MHz band in a good-citizen, yet cost-effective fashion.
- As to positioning accuracy for PTC, the technicians are striving for levels of accuracy that are far, very far, exceed that which is really necessary due to their inability to understand what is really required, and rather to ensure that they will never be at fault regardless of the cost.
Fortunately, there are several railroads that don’t buy into these fatuous technology activities and recognize that there are solutions that are much more cost-effective. It would seem that these railroads have a team perspective of obtaining the ball and making the shot. But unfortunately for too many railroads, there is a lack of upper-management understanding and support for doing the right thing for the right reason. That is, for too many railroads the exploits of technologies by technicians goes unchallenged by the management teams that have the responsibility for their railroad’s bottom line, with or without consideration of what makes sense for a country with constrained RF capacity.
THE bottom line is that the technicians are in fact faking it as to providing technology-based solutions that are grounded in responsible economics. They are doing so because, IMHO, 1. they believe that it is their responsibility to provide the best (most complex) technology regardless of the cost and regardless of whether or not such complexity is required, and 2, railroad management has failed to get involved in understanding the business perspective of technology decisions. So! Who is at fault? In my opinion, it is the RRs’ senior management failure in developing a business strategy in sync with a technology strategy that has set up the situation. Could the focus on the current year’s bonus plan have anything to do with this? Hmmmm!
So! I ask you: When you fake it, are you doing so for the right reasons? Are you avoiding the critical issues important to your organization so as to “kiss up” to your management or to your annual bonus, whether you work for a railroad or a supplier? . . . or . . . Are you realistic as to what can be achieved and willing to speak up? . . . or . . . Do you really care one way or the other? As an independent consultant I don’t fake it with my clients. They will get both a short-term tactical and a long-term strategic perspective whether they want it or not. I will grab them the ball, but they have to make the shot.
It is reasonable to expect that most of the visitors to this blog are well-experienced railroaders for technically-savvy, established railroads, but not likely that knowledgeable of either traffic control systems or enforcement methodologies (prevention of human errors in the handling of movement authorities) that may exist elsewhere. Personally, until 3 years ago, my experience was almost exclusively with traditional signaling systems as well as non-signaled traffic control as used across 50% of the U.S. trackage – what is generically referred to as “dark territory”. With 40+ years of experience, including being the architect for the first overlay PTC system that provided the foundation for the PTC systems being deployed in the U.S. to meet a Federal mandate, my level of railroad basics had not been truly tested it turns out. It seems that I knew too much technically, but yet too little as to basic railroading. That is, I had a firm grip on understanding the pragmatic deployment of technologies to advance technologies for financially-successful, heavy density freight railroads. But, I really had never had to get to the basics of what safe railroading is when it comes to those railroads that have neither the internal resources (financial and technical) nor the support of suppliers who only deal with modern railroads thereby promoting only traditional signaling or advance systems such as ETCS. How foolish, if not arrogant – I confess, on my part. But, again, that all changed 3 years ago when I became the Project Leader for a study funded by the U.S. Trade Development Agency (TDA) to study the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR).
ENR is the 2nd oldest railroad on our planet, the once-shining, now tarnished, star of the Middle East. I say tarnished for reasons primarily due to the raping of the Egyptian economy by the now-defunct Mubarek regime over the last several decades. ENR has deteriorated to a pathetic operation which is both highly inefficient and horrendously unsafe due to the reliance on human involvement in the generation and handling of movement authorities. Specifically, 2 points make the case. The traffic control systems across 82% of the trackage, Staff (token) and TYER (token-less), are block-by-block authority systems that stem from the middle of the 19th century. Such inefficient traffic control systems have contributed substantially to the inability of ENR to handle freight operations that is critical for advancing Egypt’s economy. More tragically, the Egyptian people have been subjected to an amazing number of horrific train accidents resulting in fatalities. Specifically, within the last 2 months alone, there were two accidents that resulted in 55 fatalities due to errors by a mechanical interlocking operator and a level crossing guard.
Our study to address the safety and efficiency of ENR began 3 years ago, but was greatly hampered, if not threatened, by the politics and questionable ethics by key individuals that existed prior to Egypt’s revolution. Following the revolution, the project was assigned to ENR, and the professional railroaders at both MOT and ENR provided the means for the study to progress. The study is now complete, and the Prime Minister has directed ENR to immediately move forward with the study’s recommendation to implement our innovative traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement approach that is based upon proven concepts that until now have not been integrated to meet the unique requirements of ENR, and most likely many other railroads across Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. I have labeled this approach as Virtual CTC (V-CTC) + Enforcement. This approach required myself and my team members to challenge our understanding of the basics of safe and efficient railroading. Simply stated, those basics fall into two categories. First, there is the point of functional vitality (i.e., how are authorities generated) across this most antiquated railroad – and how does one minimize the capital investment to complement or replace those processes. Second, to what extent and by what means can enforcement be provided to prevent human errors in the handling of the movement authorities, again both generation and adherence?
The primary purpose of a traffic control system is to prevent overlapping authorities, i.e., to authorize only one train to occupy a portion of track for a given portion of time. However, as is the case in the U.S. with Employees in Charge (EICs) for work gangs, there can exist a nesting of authorities. That is, a train can have an authority for a segment of track (multiple blocks) within which there is a second level of authority that must be obtained at some point. In the case of ENR, this was a critical consideration in that it deploys hundreds and thousands of mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards, respectively, that have the responsibility to provide a nested authority for a train to advance through their individual portion of control. In fact, the two accidents that I mentioned above where the result of the failure of these “vital employees” (see a previous posting on this blog with that title) to perform their responsibilities.
To provide enforcement means being able to obtain the parameters (time / distance / speed) of the movement authorities that are generated, including the nested authorities. We all understand how that works in signaled territory, and some of us understand how that works in dark territory. But very few of us have had to deal with the nested authority process. Without going into depth here, our solution for ENR presented a very pragmatic solution that minimizes the use of wayside infrastructure. This is important not only to the direct capital investment requirement and ongoing maintenance, but also due to the consideration of extreme weather and theft issues in Egypt that readily compromise the safety of any approach so dependent.
The bottom line to the above discussion is that dealing with railroads that are without the financial or technical resources, for whatever reason, to advance their operations, there are solutions that they can deploy that are not offered by major suppliers that sell major systems for major railroad operations, whether freight and/or passenger. However, to develop such solutions means getting to the basics of railroad operations as to the generation of authorities and the means to provide enforcement. Our solution for ENR prevents accidents due to errors by dispatchers and train drivers, but also those errors by vital employees such as EICs, mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards. Such systems, to my knowledge, do not exist elsewhere – that is prior to what we have designed for ENR.
If you wish to explore the above points further, then please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 904 386 3082 in the U.S. My team of seasoned railroaders can address functional, technical (including wireless), financial (business case), and mathematics-based (OR) traffic density from both a tactical and strategic standpoint.
The concept of 6 degrees of separation was initially introduced in a play written by John Guare in the early part of the 20th century declaring that each of us is only six steps of introduction from any person in the world. In current terms, this concept is readily acceptable given the advancement in communications and travel that has shrunk the world as to providing such connectivity. In fact, with the predominance of social networks available via the world wide conduit of the internet, one could argue that the six degrees of separation is now substantially less, if not just one. Arguably, the most dramatic example is that of the Arab Spring that has brought the citizens of suppressed countries, including their expatriates, to the point of uniting against their respective governmental tyrants. One would like to think that our individual connectivity has no boundaries at this point as long as the paths of internet communications can be provided to the masses via wireless. However, as well demonstrated by the recent U.S. Presidential election, this same advancement in connectivity also provides the ability for those individuals that don’t have a rational understanding of facts to present their self-serving prejudices to misdirect those that solely place their faith in the written word, as to what can be achieved. To that point, only but the most uninformed or self-serving individuals would be quickly reminded by the Republican campaign for the recent U.S. President election which overwhelmingly (compared to that of Democrat’s campaign), consisted of a constant stream of a substantially misrepresentation of facts to present a phenomenally irrational, non-compromising right wing perspective that serviced those most-selfish individuals that have benefitted from the benefits of a capitalistic society, but without the recognition of the masses that have made their accomplishments achievable. Fortunately, for the benefit of the majority of the U.S. populace, President Obama was re-elected. With that stated, onward to railroads.
Playing on this concept of how technologies, most specifically wireless communications linked with Internet, have brought the world closer today, it also true the degree of train separation can also benefit from the introduction of technologies, again wireless data, and the use of advanced traffic management systems that can provide a substantial increase in traffic density for any given corridor by simply knowing the position AND speed of trains. With the availability of both position AND speed data, that doesn’t exist for the majority of railroads across the globe, a railroad’s operations can project and prevent conflicts that may occur even within fixed-block operations as determined by traditional electronic signaling operations that depend upon traditional wayside technologies that provide block-size positioning at best. I refer to this capability as Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) as is described in greater detail in various other postings on this blog.
The deployment of PTM is quite inexpensive both absolutely and especially relative to its value in that it can be provided as an overlay to a railroad’s choice of traffic control, whether it be signaled or non-signaled, WITHOUT replacing the dispatching platform. This is true because PTM is only a management decision tool and not an execution platform such as CTC or Track Warrant. As a decision tool, PTM can dramatically complement, if not replace in many cases, the skill set of the dispatcher who is a manager of the execution platform. This means that PTM is not functionally vital, i.e., it does not generate authorities that provides for the integrity of train movements. The ultimate deployment of PTM is when it is tightly integrated with traffic control thereby becoming some level of moving block – a vital system. But only a few high speed / high density railroads can benefit from a moving block capability. In fact, in the U.S. there are a number of operations-savy individuals that will note that moving block for the most dense freight traffic corridors would provide little benefit until the yard operations are optimized concurrently. So! As an overlay to traffic control, short of making a transition to moving block, what is holding back the deployment of PTM across the majority of globe? I believe the primary reasons differ between public and private railroads.
PUBLIC: Outside of the Americas, the predominance of rail operations are owned / controlled by the governments of the countries in which they operate. Again, in general, these are passenger operations without a clear responsibility for addressing financial bottom line, i.e., providing cost effective solutions that have to pass the threshold business test as to making a profit, or else it is out of business. In these environments it seems that the suppliers often rule the roost in designing the traffic control solutions that aren’t necessarily cost-justified. Technicians thrive on promoting systems in this environment; they believe that they are justified in delivering solutions without restrictions as to costs. However, for those countries that are confronted with growing their economies internally, as well as integrating with the world economy, they are being presented with technologies that they simply cannot be justified.
PRIVATE: In the Americas, the freight railroads are competing with road, barge, and pipeline transport and therefore have to maintain a for-profit operation to stay in business … or they are out of business. Indeed, in the U.S. there have been tens if not hundreds of railroad bankruptcies in the last century. The Penn Central bankruptcy in the 70s (which the largest bankruptcy up to that time for all industries and for which I was the lead financial analyst for the Trustee Staff, is the ultimate example. This railroad lost its understanding of what it was, and eventually went under. That railroad went into a downward spiral as it reduced maintenance expenditures . . . which resulted in reduced traffic speed . . . which resulted in the loss of revenue . . . which resulted in further reduction in maintenance expenditures … and the downward spiral continued to the point of bankruptcy. Conrail was the Phoenix rising from the ashes of the Penn Central. OK, back to the issue of separation.
The separation between trains, a.k.a. headway, is THE key issue in determining the type of traffic control that should be in place, whether it be freight or passenger operations. Those European suppliers that service the high speed, high density operations in place across that continent have developed sophisticated systems that provide for both safe and efficient operations. BUT, what about those countries in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere that need cost-effective solutions to bring basic rail infrastructure to grow their GNP, both internally and relative to the world market? They cannot afford the likes of traditional signaling, yet alone ETCS 1,2,3. These railroads need cost-effective solutions ; they need traffic control solutions generically referred to as dark territory that are used by railroads in the Americas that have a clear vision to the bottom line. They also need enforcement systems to prevent accidents due to human errors. I speak with experience on this point given my assignment as Project Leader to address the safety and efficiency of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) that still uses token and token-less traffic control across 82% of its operations. With detail to be provide in the next posting on this blog, my team of independent consultants (we don’t represent suppliers and we don’t accept commissions) have designed a traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement system that greatly improves both the safety and efficiency of ENR’s operation at a mere fraction of the cost to deploy ETCS. This is a proven system as to the individual components that we have integrated. We have done so recognizing the true nature of ENR as to what they are and will be in the foreseeable future along with the realization of the capital investment that they can support. The approach I have titled as Virtual CTC (V-CTC) + Enforcement, provides CTC functionality with the ability to prevent accidents due to drivers AS WELL as mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards, as well as the loss of train integrity. For example, two horrific accidents in Egypt in November, 2012 resulted in 54 fatalities that could have been prevented with V-CTC + Enforcement due to errors by mechanical interlocking operators and level crossing guards. Both of these accidents would not have occurred in the U.S., but in Egypt with their antiquated traffic control systems dependent upon “vital employees” (see the previous posting on this blog), there were human errors for which there was no enforcement system in place to prevent. But, through the efforts of my team in performing our study there, we recognized and modified the enforcement concept of PTC to handle. Specifically, we have designed an approach that monitors the traffic control activities of these vital employees to ensure that they have performed in providing valid movement authorities. Most importantly, Virtual CTC + Enforcement minimizes the capital requirements to operate the railroad both safely and efficiently, versus slamming in signaling infrastructure and/or ETCS that would be 30 to 50 times more expensive by my rough estimate.
I can’t over emphasized the need for pragmatic, cost-effective solutions for traffic control, traffic management, and enforcement that traditional suppliers have refused to address for the majority of railroad operations across the globe. Shame on them. Enough said. The next posting here will present V-CTC + Enforcement for those railroads and suppliers that are looking for solutions that support the majority of railroads across the globe that don’t provide high speed / high density operation – both passenger and freight. Please contact me at email@example.com if you which to discuss your particular interests. My team of seasoned railroad professionals can address the functional, technical, financial, and mathematical throughput analysis of considering V-CTC + Enforcement from both a tactical and strategic perspective relative to expanding the safety and efficiency of a railroad’s operation, especially when integrating freight and passenger operations.
The bottom line here is that I warn railroads from being fooled by the written and stated words of suppliers that have solutions that are not appropriate for their operations. There may be pragmatic, cost effective solutions of which they may not be aware.
With the introduction of overlay PTC just over a decade ago, the concept of vitality needed to be expanded at that point beyond the mantra of signaling engineers as to a vital component or system being one that fails in a safe manner, i.e., failure without introducing any additional risk. In addition to this design vitality, it was necessary to introduce a concept of functional vitality to prove that PTC was and remains not vital. That is, a functionally vital entity is one that generates the movement authorities for trains, thereby providing for the integrity of train movements. For signal engineers the two concepts are inseparable, and in their viewpoint, anything associated with traffic control must by vital. Such fatuous rationalization can be quite unfortunate for the deployment of advancing technologies in railroads, including PTC. Two current examples here are ITC’s efforts in designing the wireless and positioning platforms for PTC that are way beyond what is required for a non-vital system, if even a vital one.
In anticipation of such design tangents by railroad technicians ( as demonstrated in the past by UP with it Precision Train Control project that died from overdesign), I introduced the functionally vital perspective a decade ago to demonstrate that overlay PTC is not vital and therefore not subject to the design and regulatory complexities associated with vital systems. Stated otherwise, PTC’s ability to enhance the safety of rail operations is substantially less critical than that of the traffic control systems that provide for the integrity of train movements. PTC only addresses human errors whereas traffic control systems are absolute.
Being the architect of the first overlay PTC system, I was continuously challenged during the early years by labor, FRA, suppliers, and even my counterparts on other railroads, to explain why PTC is not vital. The forum for these discussions was primarily that of the Rail Safety Advisory Committee (RSAC) for PTC that was charged with defining the core objectives of PTC. Understandably, RSAC-PTC was primarily manned by signal engineers who live and breathe vitality with their natural inclination being that everything is vital. Again, for them PTC had to be vital, I assume, because it addresses safety, and it is related to vital traffic control systems. At the same time, signal engineers when asked during the courses I teach on PTC and railroad operations “What is vital in dark territory?”, will respond that there is nothing vital since there is no wayside equipment. The solution for addressing both of these ill-structured mind-sets of signal engineers as to PTC and dark territory was to provide the functional definition of vitality that really goes to the core of running a safe railroad, i.e., the generation of authorities.
In parallel with the functional vitality effort was the extraordinary task of convincing the masses that PTC did not deliver those business benefits that continue to be so widely and wildly proclaimed by FRA and suppliers as to increasing traffic density and the efficiency of the key operating assets, e.g., crews, locomotives, and even maintenance crews. I quote the FRA’s website “In addition to providing a greater level of safety and security, PTC systems also enable a railroad to run scheduled operations and provide improved running time, greater running time reliability, higher asset utilization, and greater track capacity.” Here is the simple, and one would think very obvious, logic as to why overlay PTC can’t provide such business benefits. To increase traffic density means that the generation of movement authorities need to be done more efficiently … and since PTC does not generate movement authorities (nor deliver them as the FRA website proclaims – that is the purpose of digital authorities – not PTC), then it cannot provide those benefits. Actually, if not properly designed, PTC can actually decrease both the traffic density and safety by making unnecessary enforcements. What the FRA and others who flaunt PTC business benefits refuse to understand is that it is the wireless data path required by PTC that also permits train tracking status data to be delivered to back office management systems. As demonstrated by NS and BNSF at least, a railroad doesn’t need PTC to obtain the stated business benefits; a railroad only needs a wireless data platform, whether it be cellular, satellite, and/or private. In any event, the bottom line remains, i.e., PTC is not vital in any sense.
OK, at this point you may be thinking about VPTC (where V means vital) which is one title given to the PTC systems being pursued by the freight and commuter railroads. Clearly such a title suggests that PTC is vital, but it isn’t. VPTC means that the platforms upon which those PTC systems are deployed are design vital so as to reduce the failure of the PTC system, but PTC is still not functionally vital. The purpose of VPTC is to provide a pragmatic economical solution to regulatory issues that requires a restricted speed for a train should its PTC platform fail. In heavy density corridors, the application of restricted speed could result in significant business costs.
With the distinction between design and functional vitality now established above, I introduce a new vitality phrase: “Vital Employee”. Simply stated, a vital employee is one that generates a movement authority. For U.S. railroads, the primary example is the Employee-In-Charge (EIC) that provides the authority to a train to move through a work zone, a work zone that is encapsulated (nested) within an authority generated by a traffic control system. Handling the enforcement of the nested EIC authority was a major design issue that I had to provide for the first overlay PTC system … and is now used by the PTC systems being deployed by the freight railroads. Again this was done in a non-vital way by not affecting the underlying Method of Operations, thereby avoiding regulatory complexities.
The vital employee perspective has proven to be particularly challenging in my assignment as Project Leader for a consulting effort in Egypt to advance both the safety and efficiency of the majority of the Egyptian National Railways (ENR) operations that use token block and TYER, a.k.a. British Absolute Block, traffic control systems. In the case of ENR, their operations have mechanical interlockings that are handled by operators independent of the central movement office. Instead of a centralized dispatcher, ENR uses block/interlocking operators to generate block-by-block authorities thereby compromising the efficiency and safety of train movements compared to that which railroads around the world achieve with dark and signaled operations. For this engagement, a “virtual” CTC (V-CTC) system is being designed that will provide for multiple block authorities subjected to nested, manual interlocking authorities. This solution provides for enforcement for the authorities generated by both V-CTC as well as the interlocking operator.
As a closing point, I wish to remind all that the Book of Rules provides the underlying threshold of vitality for all rail systems. In my 40+ years in the industry, I find that too many tend to ignore this point – just as signal engineers tend to ignore dark territory.