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Posts Tagged ‘Positive Train Control’

The Vital Employee

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.

Don’t Drink the Kool Aid

The elixir of fatuous rationalization being served up by PTC-220,LLC to gain more spectrum in the name of PTC has been poisoning the efforts of both freight and passenger operations to cost-effectively meet the mandated implementation of PTC before 2016.

Point 1: In May 20011, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the U.S. released WT Docket No 11-7, with Public Notice, regarding the “Spectrum Needs for the Implementation of the PTC Provisions of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008”. Subsequently, in addition to my written response, a number of submissions were made by various parties, most notably several passenger operations and PTC-220, LLC (the entity owned by BNSF, CSX, NS, and UP that owns and manages the 220 MHz spectrum to be used for the implementation of PTC).  The FCC’s Docket was the result of the request by PTC-220 to obtain additional spectrum in the same band reportedly to service both the freight and passenger rail requirements of the PTC mandate.

Point 2: At the end of 2010, the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) released several RFQ’s for studies to be performed relative to PTC and CBTC. The primary study was to evaluate the issues associated with implementing PTC on commuter and regional rail systems. As I will be explaining in a posting I will be making shortly, this effort by the FTA is a very pathetic example of how a Federal agency can spend a fair amount of money and achieve nearly nothing of interest to the intended recipients. The proposal was poorly written as to both objectives and understanding of the subject,  along with a process for evaluating and awarding the contract that was clearly inappropriate and unfair. (Yes! My team’s proposal was not selected. But, I will explain the madness of the process in the forthcoming posting). The point for now is that in preparing the proposal, my team discussed the wireless issues with a number of passenger operators and gained some understanding in a very short period of time as to the concerns that they have as to the use of 220 for PTC.

To be addressed in greater detail in the forthcoming issue of my quarterly journal, Full Spectrum, titled Wireless Gone Awry, I will highlight below a number of points as well as statements  that PTC-220 made in their submission to the FCC’s Public Hearing, that are critical to understand in consideration of providing more 220 to PTC-220.

  • First of all, I am not saying that PTC-220 is incorrect in requesting more spectrum if they really need it.  However, by their own admission, they really don’t know what they need in that they have not done any credible data modeling relative to PTC. They are spectrum hungry and may even be looking at this spectrum as a “for profit” operation for dealing with the passenger operators.

 

  • In their submission, PTC-220 likened PTC to advanced traffic control / management systems and the need for complex wireless networks to service the latter. I find such a comparison either to be shamelessly naïve or quite devious.

 

  • The passenger operators have been led to believe by PTC-220, reportedly, that they must obtain 220 specifically for their own property to be compatible with the freight railroads. Hence, from some of the submissions by passenger operations, it appears that they were pressured, or unfairly influenced, to support PTC-220’s position. The requirement to use 220 only is clearly incorrect and could be very costly for those operators that will be extremely pressed to find the public funds to implement PTC.

 

  • PTC-220 states that they had engaged TTCI (which is operated by the AAR and hardly free of conflict of interest), to perform data modeling nearly 6 months prior to the submission, and yet there were no results that they could include in the submission. Really? I have team members that could handle that analysis quite quickly.

 

  • The onboard PTC platform, a.k.a. TMC, incorporates a Mobile Access Router (MAR) that supports the use of alternative wireless paths, including 220, WiFi, and cellular.

 

  • The rail industry is poorly utilizing a fair amount of spectrum, including conventional 160 MHz instead of trunked operation, 44 MHz now owned by PTC-220 and which was the choice of BNSF for PTC, and 900 MHz that was given to the railroads 2 decades ago to do ATCS.  ATCS was never implemented and the railroads have used the spectrum for business purposes instead of giving the spectrum back (BTW, using 900 for code line is a business decision and not a safety one).

 

In summary as to the above, PTC-220 should be required to define their requirements clearly and with the proper level of legitimate data analysis done by an independent entity.  As a point of further consideration, there is also a need to break down that requirement as to the type of traffic control involved as well as traffic density.  For example, deploying PTC across dark territory has a substantially different wireless requirement than deploying PTC across signaled territory with either medium or heavy traffic volumes. In short, there is a need to identify various PTC “wireless corridors” as to throughput and coverage requirements, and to model them individually.

In addition to my initial submission, I made a subsequent submission commenting on the falsehoods and misrepresentation that were made in some of the other submissions, most notably PTC-220.  Additionally, 2 weeks ago I made a presentation to the FCC to provide them with a modicum of rail domain knowledge that would assist them in understanding the true requirements of wireless for PTC.

Both of my submissions as well as the presentation to the FCC were on a fee basis for a client, Skybridge Foundation.  SBF placed no restrictions on what I wrote / presented, and did not interfere with the objectivity of my material. Both of those submissions and a PDF of my presentation are of public record and can be obtained via the FCC’s website or by emailing a request to me at comarch@aol.com. Additionally, those individuals that seek to further understand wireless corridors are encouraged to contact me on that topic as well.

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.

Teddy Bear – “PTC is Vital”

“PTC is Vital.”

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

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

i.e.,

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

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

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

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

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

The Mobile Node – A Missing Isssue in the Positive Train Control Debate

The Illusive Mobile Node

Is it politics or perspective that is causing the PTC debate to derail?

As discussed  in the Last Mile posting,  US railroads are still failing to take on the strategy of incorporating the advanced business applications that can be achieved with the wireless data path required to support Positive Train Control (PTC) so as to most effectively manage their resources.

Specifically, the voice radio and signaling infrastructures that are currently depended upon to provide train status data to the traffic control systems, are unable to deliver the timeliness and completeness as to both location and speed data for trains so as to permit the use of meet /pass planners that could optimize the railroads’ most dense and most critical operations.  Therefore, this primal infrastructure needs to be advanced, and to do so effectively requires a perspective that integrates the three principle technology platforms (communications, positioning, and intelligence) to form a strategic core technology infrastructure. In this post, I address intelligence, i.e., the processing power for applications, of such an infrastructure. The other two platforms will be addressed in following postings.

With the shift from the mainframe of the 60’s to that of client / server of today, intelligence has made the transition from being only centralized to that of being distributed with seamless flexibility between the two, at least for those industries whose distributed resources are fixed as to location. For these fixed node operations, the challenges for distributing intelligence tend to be less technical and more functional as how to optimally allocate the processing power across a mesh of private and commercial networks, internet, and back office systems.  But, what about railroads where the assets are mobile and, even worse, where those assets traverse across railroad boundaries? This convoluted concoction of mobility and interoperability adds new dimensions to distributed intelligence far beyond those of fixed node, thereby necessitating a mobile node perspective with philosophical, technical, and functional considerations garnished with industry politics.

From a philosophical standpoint, the mobile node should be viewed as an extension to the IT architecture, meaning that the discipline and expertise well established in the traditional wired-IT environment should be imposed upon mastering the wild west of wireless. In short, this means that railroads and suppliers alike need to coalesce wireless and IT expertise into a dedicated Mobile Computing organization in lieu of the parallel lines on an organization chart that are too often the case today.

As to a functional perspective, the deployment of mobile nodes offers the extraordinary opportunity to rethink business processes that can take advantage of unprecedented connectivity and the timeliness and accuracy of position and speed data that wireless data afford (think UPS or Fed Ex).  For some this may be extraordinarily uncomfortable when they are confronted with revisiting the functionality of their traditional back office systems, e.g., how would train dispatching be done with train speed and location data available every 5 minutes?

Unlike the fixed node, the mobile node is technically challenged by both the constraints of the communication medium and the physical environment in which it operates as well as the requirements of interoperability. As to communications, the mobile node must be able to strut its independence given that the wireless throughput is relatively limited and unreliable compared to a fixed node’s wired throughput. As to the physical environment, what could be worse than the cab of a locomotive or a maintenance-of-way vehicle? For this challenge I subscribe to the screwdriver-penetration test, a railroad’s version of Psycho’s shower scene applied to on-board equipment.

Given the extensive interchange of trains between railroads in North America and the EU, there is often the issue of  interoperability, i.e., the ability of foreign equipment to provide the desired functionality on a railroad’s property. There are only a few applications that have been recognized for this intra-industry pursuit. Unquestionably, the most important for this discussion is that of Positive Train Control (PTC) which has been mandated by the US Federal government for implementation across the major freight and passenger railroads before 2016.  With an unprecedented level of cooperation, it would seem to many, that the primary 4 Class I railroads in the U.S, via a joint effort referred to as the Interoperability Train Control (ITC) agreement, are working on all aspects of interoperability to meet the deadline.  The ITC efforts are being handled by 7 technical committees:  Architecture, PTC Application, Wayside Signal, Messaging, On-board Platform, Communications Steering, and Data Management.  The standards that come out of these committees are to be available by January 2011.

However, there are still 2 major points to consider. The first is that the effort does not have any purpose other than that of PTC. While many railroaders and suppliers will state the business benefits of PTC, they fail to recognize the foolishness of their own hype. Simply stated, it is the wireless path now required for the mandate PTC effort that will finally deliver business benefits not PTC itself; PTC is just one user of the wireless data infrastructure.  BUT, the ITC efforts are not providing a business perspective of the on-board platform that would deliver a true mobile node perspective that could handle not only PTC, but also  support business-value applications such as pacing, locomotive tracking, fuel consumption, in-train monitoring, etc.

There is also another reason that the ITC efforts are less than complete, certainly not altruistic, if not a bit misleading; it is the issue of industry politics. That is, each major railroad came to the ITC table with a very different technology agenda. There are solutions to address these differences, and the railroads more than ever are working in that direction. However, I believe the solution to develop a single technology platform is poorly evaluated as to both scope and costs, while other wireless spectrums are being very poorly utilized, i.e., Meteorcomm and narrowband 160-161 MHz … clearly a discussion for a forthcoming post.

As discussed in the Last Mile posting, the railroads are still failing to take on the strategy of incorporating the advanced business applications that can be achieved with the wireless data path required to support Positive Train Control (PTC) so as to most effectively manage their resources. Specifically, the voice radio and signaling infrastructures that are currently depended upon to provide train status data to the traffic control systems, are unable to deliver the timeliness and completeness as to both location and speed data for trains so as to permit the use of meet /pass planners that could optimize the railroads’ most dense and most critical operations. Therefore, this primal infrastructure needs to be advanced, and to do so effectively requires a perspective that integrates the three principle technology platforms (communications, positioning, and intelligence) to form a strategic core technology infrastructure. In this posting, I address intelligence, i.e., the processing power for applications, of such an infrastructure. The other two platforms will be addressed in following postings.

With the shift from the mainframe of the 60’s to that of client / server of today, intelligence has made the transition from being only centralized to that of being distributed with seamless flexibility between the two, at least for those industries whose distributed resources are fixed as to location. For these fixed node operations, the challenges for distributing intelligence tend to be less technical and more functional as how to optimally allocate the processing power across a mesh of private and commercial networks, internet, and back office systems. But, what about railroads where the assets are mobile and, even worse, where those assets traverse across railroad boundaries? This convoluted concoction of mobility and interoperability adds new dimensions to distributed intelligence far beyond those of fixed node, thereby necessitating a mobile node perspective with philosophical, technical, and functional considerations garnished with industry politics.

From a philosophical standpoint, the mobile node should be viewed as an extension to the IT architecture, meaning that the discipline and expertise well established in the traditional wired-IT environment should be imposed upon mastering the wild west of wireless. In short, this means that railroads and suppliers alike need to coalesce wireless and IT expertise into a dedicated Mobile Computing organization in lieu of the parallel lines on an organization chart that are too often the case today.

As to a functional perspective, the deployment of mobile nodes offers the extraordinary opportunity to rethink business processes that can take advantage of unprecedented connectivity and the timeliness and accuracy of position and speed data that wireless data afford (think UPS or Fed Ex). For some this may be extraordinarily uncomfortable when they are confronted with revisiting the functionality of their traditional back office systems, e.g., how would train dispatching be done with train speed and location data available every 5 minutes?

Unlike the fixed node, the mobile node is technically challenged by both the constraints of the communication medium and the physical environment in which it operates as well as the requirements of interoperability. As to communications, the mobile node must be able to strut its independence given that the wireless throughput is relatively limited and unreliable compared to a fixed node’s wired throughput. As to the physical environment, what could be worst than the cab of a locomotive or a maintenance-of-way vehicle? For this challenge I subscribe to the screwdriver-penetration test, a railroad’s version of Psycho’s shower scene relative to on-board equipment.

Given the extensive interchange of trains between railroads, there is often the issue of interoperability, i.e., the ability of foreign equipment to provide the desired functionality on a railroad’s property. There have been only a few applications that have been recognized for this intra-industry pursuit. Unquestionably, the most important for this discussion is that of Positive Train Control (PTC) which has been mandated by the Federal government for implementation across the major freight and passenger railroads before 2016. With an unprecedented level of cooperation, it would seem to many, that the primary 4 Class I railroads in the U.S, via a joint effort referred to as the Interoperability Train Control (ITC) agreement, are working on all aspects of interoperability to meet the deadline. The ITC efforts are being handled by 7 technical committees: Architecture, PTC Application, Wayside Signal, Messaging, On-board Platform, Communications Steering, and Data Management. The standards that come out of these committees are to be available by January, 2011.

Given the ITC efforts, there are still 2 major points to consider. The first primary point is that the effort does not have any purpose other than that of PTC. While many railroaders and suppliers will state the business benefits of PTC, they fail to recognize the foolishness of their own hype. Simply stated, it is the wireless path now required for the mandate PTC effort that will finally deliver business benefits; PTC is just one user of the wireless data infrastructure. BUT, the ITC efforts are not providing a business perspective of the on-board platform that would in effect deliver a true mobile node perspective that could handle not only PTC, but also support business-value applications such as pacing, locomotive tracking, fuel consumption, in-train monitoring, etc.

There is also another reason that the ITC efforts are less than complete, certainly not altruistic, if not a bit misleading; it is the issue of industry politics. That is, each major railroad came to the ITC table with a very different technology agenda. There are solutions to address these differences, and the railroads more than ever are working in that direction. However, I believe the solution to develop a single technology platform is poorly evaluated as to both scope and costs, while other wireless spectrums are being very poorly utilized, i.e., Meteorcomm and narrowband 160-161 MHz … clearly a discussion for a forthcoming posting.

The Last Mile – the 80/20 productivity gain the railroads are missing

As of two years ago, the advancement in railroad operations had stalled at the end of the wire, literally. While railroads have invested heavily in the backbone communication and signaling infrastructures that define the perimeter of their IT and traffic control architectures, the primary assets that need to be managed (trains, crews, locomotives, maintenance crews) operate beyond the reach of those tentacles.

Unfortunately, railroads continue to rely on track circuits and voice radio for managing trains and thereby the locomotives, train crews, and yard utilization. Accordingly, the back-office dispatching systems are so geared to provide a level of traffic management that can no longer service the railroads’ markets during peak periods. The net effect of such inefficiency is two-fold: 1. railroads have turned away (or lost) business during peak market periods, and 2. railroads are paying a severe price to obtain and maintain excessive resources, e.g., locomotives and crews.

Suddenly and unexpectedly in 2008, the Congressional mandate for Positive Train Control (PTC) in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 delivered the requirement for the railroads to advance wireless data networks, both individually and as an industry.

Suddenly, there was some hope by the few progressives in the industry that the PTC mandate would lead to a broad understanding of what the required wireless data infrastructure could do for rail operations.

Shortly thereafter, but not surprisingly, all such hopes were dashed as the railroad technicians sunk their teeth into this new opportunity to provide a new, most advanced, extremely tailored wireless data platform that could be envied by all and do all …but without any desire, recognition, or management directive to consider other than PTC.

Shamefully, this wasn’t the first mandate from the Feds that could have led to a revitalization of a railroad’s operations via wireless. The FCC had issued a Point & Order referred to as Narrowbanding that effectively requires the railroads to replace their extensive 160-161 MHz infrastructure consisting of 250,000 analog devices with digital equivalents by January 1, 2013. However, this requirement has been viewed  by the railroad technicians as a technology investment issue and not as an opportunity to advance operations.

Amazingly, after two extraordinary opportunities to advance railroad operations with an advanced wireless platform that required no justification other than a Federal mandate, there is still no real focus on the Last Mile as to optimizing the capacity and productivity.

The phrase Last Mile is not a new one for some industries where it has been  used to describe alternatives to deliver cable services in the 1990’s as well as to providing communication infrastructures in developing countries, and most recently to define new markets for advancing mobile services.  The phrase is also used to define the delivery of goods that is beyond the railroads’ physical infrastructure and that is provided by trucking firms. In this latter case, the intermodal industry has emerged as a seemingly seamless transportation offering the combination of rail, trucking, and maritime. Taking that approach to the last mile relative to a railroad managing its own resources is directly comparable, i.e., developing and merging the necessary technologies into a seamless technology platform that I refer to as the core technology infrastructure.

Simply described, the core technology infrastructure is the integration of communication, positioning, and intelligence technologies that supports the basis of a railroad’s operations. Today, that infrastructure is a ménage of voice radio and backbone networks as to communications, track circuits for positioning, and control points enslaved by CTC systems for intelligence. This infrastructure provides a level of block positioning data, but without train speed, that constrains the effectiveness of managing traffic to that of being reactive to conflicts in the meeting and passing of trains. With improved timeliness and accuracy in both train position and speed information, the railroads can achieve an advanced operating practice of  Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) that I introduced to the industry in 2005.

PTM is the ability to see the future state of a railroad’s operations so as to provide solutions to minimize, if not avoid, foreseen traffic conflicts. It does so by projecting the current status of trains by feeding both timely and accurate train position and speed data to sophisticated meet / pass planners aligned with a railroad’s operating objectives. For traffic management, the frequency of such data is dependent upon traffic density and the type of traffic control.  To be brief here, that means the reporting frequency of position and speed data ranging from 5 to 15 minutes in addition to AEI and CTC’s on-station (OS) reports. This is what I refer to as in-time data.

To obtain in-time data requires a strategic perspective of the core technology infrastructure, a perspective that needs to be both evolutionary and revolutionary. As to the former, the railroads should be able to leverage their current, massive communications infrastructure to obtain the level of in-time data required. The most obvious opportunity here is the conversion of the  current analog, voice-based VHF infrastructure to a digital, data-based one … justified by the rational understanding that by doing so the railroads could avoid the $1 billion investment in the 220 MHz platform for PTC. As to a revolutionary perspective, obtaining PTM will mean making significant changes in the traffic control processes that stem from the 1st qtr of the last century. Such changes are supported by integrating advanced communication, positioning, and intelligence technologies that have yet to successfully storm the innovation barricades of both the railroads’ and traditional suppliers’ engineering departments. A critical design point in developing a strategic core technology infrastructure is to not fall for the fallacy of  zero tolerance – 100% efficiency,  to not drive towards unrealistic, if even achievable, goals such as moving block dependent upon real-time data.

To do the Last Mile requires a strategic technology plan in sync with a strategic operations plan. It requires Strategic Railroading.

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

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

Full Spectrum subscriptions are available by contacting Ron via email. If you are concerned with staying abreast of the newest advances in rail technology or operations strategy, it is highly recommended you subscribe in order to maintain your competitive advantage.

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