Posts Tagged ‘Business’

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

Railroads & Math

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

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

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

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

… to …

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

… to …

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

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

“Why do you say that?”

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

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

“Really?  How interesting?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operability’s Dimensions

Capitalizing on RR Industry Intra-Operability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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