Posts Tagged ‘Strategic Railroading’

Shaken! Not Stirred

About 20 years ago there was a cartoon in The New Yorker, a monthly periodical best known, arguably, by non- New York City residents for its cartoons.  This cartoon showed two wealthy gentlemen (in the style of the Monopoly game millionaire) lounging in the bar car of a passenger train with their martinis. (I think of them as Reginald and Wilfred).  Reginald states:  “This is a lousy martini. (pause) This is a Hell of a way to run a railroad”.

Being a martini enthusiast (only gin of course),  I can appreciate the nuance of making such an evaluation.

Back then, this now-shallow perspective was in actuality one credible way to evaluate passenger and freight rail operations in that it was “take or leave it” from the railroads’ perspective of running their railroads. That is, railroads provided the service that they wanted to provide given their monopolistic position as to transport.  However, beginning with the availability of the interstate roads during the Eisenhower administration, followed by the passing of the Staggers Act in 1980 that deregulated the freight railroads as to the price that they could charge for services, there was a gradual, but sustained shift to the customer’s perspective. That is, with these two major game changes of the interstate road infrastructure and the Staggers Act, entered competition not only between rail and truck transport, but also competition between railroads.

In the last several decades, both passenger but primarily freight railroads have taken on a different perspective; a perspective on what technologies can deliver to make a railroad’s operation both more safe and efficient. I must state first of all, that US railroads, both passenger and freight, are extraordinarily safe, especially when compared to operations across the globe. (See previous posting “ What Price Safety” for some additional insight on this point.  But, I need to go back to the martini point.)

There are martinis, and there are martinis. James Bond’s infamous standard of “Shaken, not stirred” makes the point. But first, I should note that based upon an independent analysis of literature regarding James Bond’s life style, it has been determined that he was quite a drinker with his consumption of an average of 45 martinis within a given week. OK, so that is 6 +martinis a night which makes him somewhat suspect as to his objective credibility as quoted by Dorothy Parker of Algonquin Round Table fame:  “ I like to have a martini, Two at the very most, After Three I’m under the table, after four I’m under the host.” So!  6+ martinis in an evening is clearly past the line.

The point of shaken, not stirred, can be applied to railroad operations, me thinks.  The difference between the two versions of martini preparations is that if a martin is shaken, then the ice can “bruise” the gin, where as stirred is like “Whatever, don’t mess with my gin.” Therefore, the parallel to railroads, you may ask, is that railroads have only been stirring their operational processes for the last several decades, at least, by simply upgrading their primary core technologies, i.e. communications, positioning, and IT, most noticeably with the shift from analog to digital, and the integration of distributed decision making platforms with the back-office infrastructure. But, railroads have not truly shaken up their business processes, a.k.a. process reengineering (dynamic work order is a good example), to take advantage of how the operation can change with advancements in technologies. Arguably, the most critical example is that of the management of train movements as to the underlying means of functional vitality (how movement authorities are generated) and the efficiency that an be achieved with more timely and accurate positioning of trains to advance from crisis-based fixed block operation to that of proactive, flexible block.

In this light, the passing of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 that mandates PTC deployment across most of the freight and transit rail operations in the U.S. has been both a blessing and a curse. That is, the PTC mandate is forcing the railroads to deploy an industry-based wireless data platform with mobile IT platforms on locomotives. That’s super. But, the over-engineering of PTC and the lack of technology strategy across the industry, has dampened the progressive advancement of business processes that can use these technologies.  Simply state, there is no business strategy in sync with a technology strategy, a.k.a. Strategic Railroading, in most of the railroads, yet alone with an industry perspective for freight operations.

So! Do you want to shake things up in your railroad – or your client railroads if you are a supplier? Or do you just want to stir the same old stuff, the same old processes, albeit with upgraded technologies? If you want to shake things up, then consider what can be done with virtual positioning and wireless data technologies.  For one example, click on the VCTC category on the right side on the home page of this blog and review the postings.

Finally, permit me to add my personal notes on gin. With my 46 years of legally enjoying gin across the globe, I offer my following evaluation of several:

  • Bombay Sapphire: a classic, a standard, not insulting to anyone.
  • Hendricks: Just too much rose – only good for 1 a month
  • Blue Coat: made in the U.S and excellent, but then again keep it down to several week if you drink your martinis dry.
  • Gibson: my favorite when in France – can’t find it in the U.S.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I wrote this posting while drinking wine only. Wine is for thinking and writing … and Martinis are for neither.

What Price Safety ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



When I joined IBM in 1970 as a Marketing Representative to sell computers, I was presented with a 10 inch plaque for my desk that simply stated “THINK”.  I still have that plaque on my desk.  Since that time of the commercial introduction of computers, corporate America has been proceeding through 3 stages of THINK as to their business environment. As addressed below, the U.S. freight rail industry has kept pace with the first two stages of Digital and Process Reengineering to a respectable extent, but the railroads have yet to fully embrace the 3rd stage, Connectivity, which is extremely critical for railroads to manage their primary reliance on mobile resources, both individually and collectively as an industry.

1: Digital

With the marketing of computers in the 70s, IBM realized that its first primary challenge was to educate its clients’ executives as to the opportunity to use computers to replace the straightforward processes that were handled by clerks, e.g., payroll, inventory update, accounts receivables / payables, etc.  These sequential processes of updating data bases were readily handled by the predominance of magnetic tape-based, sequential record data bases. THINK back then was how to make the business case for top-level management to lease these intimidating physical electronic monsters (purchase was not an option at that time with IBM).


To take on this challenge of converting manual (analog) processes to digital ones, IBM was hiring two basic types of disciplines, i.e., MBA’s and teachers. The former (which I was) were used to provide the business case, e.g., the discounted present value of advancing a business process, and the latter were used to present the business case.  With the phenomenal amount of Sales School training that IBM provided to its marketing personnel at that time, these two disciplines were blended to provide an unprecedented marketing force. We didn’t have PowerPoint, of course, but we were well trained on paper “flip chart” presentations that permitted us to efficiently make our “bullet” presentations to client executives.


As a side point, IBM’s Marketing Representatives were also trained on basic marketing/sales concepts such as

  • Shut up once you asked a question of the client so as to permit that individual to reach his / her own conclusion based upon what you had presented;
  • Once the executive agreed to the sale, you introduced no additional thoughts;
  • It takes 10 cold calls to close 1 deal;
  • Do not disparage a competitor directly. However, one could state demonstrated truisms, e.g., “Burrough’s computers perform 1/3 slower on your accounts receivables as demonstrated by the benchmark test that we performed with your data.” If you violated this principle, then it was very likely that you were soon on the street.
  • One never had alcohol at lunch  – unless the customer insisted, at which point you didn’t go back to your office or to that of your clients;  and
  • One dressed based upon the dress code of the customer – as long as it was a dark suit and a white shirt.

While IBM set the high water mark for ethical behavior in the Data Processing industry (the phrase for Information Technology back then), if not elsewhere, there was no question as to the benefit of such behavior including a most important advantage that an IBM business card would get you pass the secretary of almost any executive. Those were the good ole days, in that marketing was above board. Again, an IBMer would be fired immediately if s/he violated IBM’s sense of business ethics; ethics that were and are still unmatched in the US business (and political) environment in my opinion.

At this point in time, THINK was more about hardware than it was about software. Within a decade or so, the perspective of THINK advanced to Stage 2 with the transition from sequential tape processing to that of dynamic, direct access to data via affordable disk drives and the associated advancement in software.

2: Process Reengineering

For the last several decades, the concept of THINK has been all about functional understanding of what a business process is attempting to achieve. Some readers may recall the rush to Process Reengineering in the 90s. Simply explained, process reengineering meant reTHINKing how processes were handled as to workflows given the use of computer processing and wired telecommunications that integrated otherwise disparate entities in a company. This was a holistic perspective of the company and, in selected cases, an industry. However, the ability to reengineer processes was most often directly related to the ability to use wired communications between the sub-entities for the purpose of distributed, but integrated processing. However, for industries that are primarily about managing mobile resources, e.g., railroads, process reengineering was greatly limited in that a wired path can’t be attached to a locomotive. As a side point, IBM had developed an extraordinary concept of Business System Processing (BSP), a.k.a. Information System Processing (ISP) that proceeded process reengineering by 2 decades to optimize data storage. I have a posting on BSP that can be found by clicking on the category of Strategic Railroad on the right side of the home page and paging down to It Takes an Industry: Process, April 14, 2012.

3: Connectivity

With the ubiquitous availability of wireless data networks now, whether commercial or private, the 3rd state of THINK now also includes who “THEY” are that are involved in the functionality. This is an issue of connectivity, with a minor in functionality. For railroads this means tightly integrating the management of its trains, crews, locomotives, and maintenance with the back office systems based upon a very simple principle: “Where are my trains (I mean really where are trains other than just a block), AND at what speed are they traveling. This is all about running a truly-scheduled operation. The ultimate, but largely unachievable, example of this is moving block. But, short of that is the role of Proactive Traffic Management (PTM) that minimizes the consequences of traffic conflicts in dense corridors, and that can support “flexible block” operations versus the inefficiency of fixed block operations with traditional CTC operations. I have a posting on PTM that can be found by clicking on the category Strategic Railroading on the right side of the home page, and paging down to Degrees of Separation, December 26, 2012.


With the mandate of PTC, the freight rail industry has been forced to develop an industry-wide wireless network, which is clearly the true value of the PTC mandate given that our freight railroads are already extraordinarily safe. For those individuals that are still confused about the business benefits of PTC, please, please understand that PTC does not deliver business benefits. It is the availability of a wireless data network required for PTC implementation that can provide those benefits – as evidence by NS and BNSF, at least, that are achieving those fatuously proclaimed PTC benefits by some misguided individuals without the implementation of PTC.

An article of mine is scheduled to be published in the forthcoming C&S issue of Railway Age, and it will describe the pursuit of this stage, not just from an individual railroad standpoint, but also as what can be done to increase the efficiency of the U.S. freight rail industry. The underlying principle here is that a railroad is limited to its ability to run to schedule if the railroads with which it interconnects are not running to schedule, and visa versa.  In my opinion this Catch 22 can best be resolved by 2 means. First, railroads require PTM (with a glazing of flexible block), and Second, the annual bonuses of railroad executive must include a performance measurement as to Industry Efficiency. However, it is unlikely that the pursuit of industry efficiency will happen until there is a true Strategic Industry Railroading perspective that involves all of the Class Is.  So! Who will provide that industry strategy?  Hmmmmmm! It appears that there is a role for an independent consultant. Please call: (904) 386 3082.

Next Generation Operating Systems

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.

Teddy Bears Revisited

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.


Lastly, I encourage you to suggest other TBs for my consideration of a possible posting.

Degrees of Separation

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 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.

It Takes an Industry: Education

This is the 2nd of 3 postings that address Industry INTRAoperability (I/I), i.e. the development of systems that support the business interest of the entire rail industry, versus the advances in technologies and systems made by each individual railroad for its singular purposes.  I/I is not the same as Railroad INTERoperability, as is required to deploy Positive Train Control (PTC) as a safety enhancement to the traffic control systems that provide for the integrity of movement operations. Rather, I/I addresses the business perspective of the advantages to the industry by the improved management of key resources subject to the interchange of trains between railroads. The assets that I am referring include the full array: track time, train crews, yards, locomotives, rolling stock, and shipments of high value and/or involving security issues.

Yes! I did state track time, train crews, and yards even those assets don’t cross borders. The reason for doing so is that the use of those assets increases in efficiency as the degree of scheduled operations increases . . . And, the ability of an individual railroad to run to scheduled operations is partially dependent upon the schedule reliability of the railroads with which it interconnects . . . And, since most railroads have yet to demonstrate their ability to run to schedule to a significant extent, contrary to their claims, then a valuable opportunity of pursuing I/I is that of providing timely data of train movements, both position and speed, across all interconnecting railroads so as line-ups can be adjusted in a timely fashion.  Unfortunately, even with such data, a number of roads are incapable of using it to any great extent given their lack of Proactive Traffic Management techniques that I introduced 6 years or so ago in my quarterly publication, Full Spectrum. However, it is encouraging that at least NS and BNSF have made such advancements via the deployment of pragmatic wireless solutions that can report the speed and position of their own trains on their respective properties.

As to the locomotives, rolling stock, and shipments that do cross railroad borders I identified a number of I/I applications in the FRA-funded study I performed in 2008: A Demand and Supply Analysis of the Opportunities for Wireless Technologies in Passenger and Freight Rail Operations, ( As the result of that study, I decided shortly thereafter to take the same approach that IBM used in the 60s and 70s to bring about major changes in the traditional business processes of a full range of industries with the introduction of main frame computers. That is, IBM established major executive education facilities and curriculums across the U.S. to expose their prospective clients’ top management teams to what could be done with computers. As noted in the previous posting, the initial efforts focused on replacing manual data handling processes, e.g., payroll, accounts receivables / payables, with computerized data processing. However, with the introduction of affordable disk storage and the integration of telecommunications with computers, the curriculums expanded in scope by identifying how to change the traditional business processes given the opportunities to rethink the flow of information within and between enterprises (The process of structuring a strategic information flow architecture will be discussed in the next posting: It Takes an Industry: Process).

So, following IBM’s lead I put together an Strategic Railroading Symposium for top railroad executives that would be sponsored by the supplier community overall to remove even the perception of bias. The symposium schedule (presented below) that I put together consisted of 2 tracks, Operations & Engineering, with two categories of topics each, that addressed I/I opportunities as well as other possible applications that I believed at that time would be valuable exposure for railroad top management. Actually, this effort was progressing well with the expression of key suppliers to participate . . . that is until the ramifications of the just-ordered PTC mandate took effect. At that point, rail’s management teams withdrew into their caves rejecting the consideration of anything other than the challenges of implementing PTC. The suppliers, hence, backed away from the opportunity given their inability to market even their current products and services, yet alone the challenges and risks of developing a long-term strategic perspective.

As you will see in the agenda below, several of those applications have had sporadic initiations across the industry in the last several years.

Traffic Management
Delivering Proactive Traffic Management NOW without new CAD
The pragmatic application of meet/pass planning tools
Effective management of the line-up
The challenges and opportunities of effective interchange
The challenges to increasing scheduled operations
Reconciling the perspectives of Service Design vs. Operations
Integration of yard status with main line dispatching
Minimizing conflict between high speed passenger and freight trains
Resource Management
Optimizing crew management relative to the lineup
Balancing locomotive fleets across the industry
Industry tracking of key rolling stock and shipment status
A new look at work order reporting in light of TSA requirements
Maintaining chain-of-custody for critical shipments
Opportunities for improved yard management
Track & Wayside
Unattended, locomotive-borne track inspection
Enhanced safety for on-track workers without authorities
Enhanced safety for workers within work zones
Monitoring the position and health of critical maintenance equipment
Rolling Stock
Locomotive tracking & diagnostics across the industry
Performance-based locomotive maintenance
Industry-based locomotive maintenance
In-train monitoring systems of equipment and shipments

When rail management surfaces from the PTC abyss, then perhaps there will be an opportunity to reconsider some version of the Strategic Railroading Symposium.

High … or Higher … Speed Passenger Rail

The U.S. freight railroads are caught up in their own hype at this point.  They like to state how scheduled they are, when in fact they aren’t. Now, with the threat … err opportunity . . .  to integrate high speed passenger rail into those fine schedules so as to receive a bunch of Federal funds, they may have to fess up as to the true lack of scheduling. Well, maybe not. Perhaps the Feds will buy into the idea that if the railroads add more infrastructure, arguably sidings being the most popular, the freight railroads will be able to squeeze in those high speed passenger trains between the freight slugs. Really? Not a chance.  There may be an opportunity for Higher speed passenger rail, but clearly not High Speed Rail as enjoyed across a good portion of the globe outside of North America. The basic truth is that the only way to achieve High speed passenger rail is with so-dedicated track, save the 1-5 A.M window.

What is being missed by the Feds and several of the Class I’s is what can be done by investing in positioning technologies and mathematical tools, in lieu of additional trackage, to improve the effective capacity of the railroads’ current infrastructure instead of just the raw capacity. What is missing by several of Class I’s is how to complement (not replace) their current dispatching platforms (a.k.a. CAD) with execution platforms infused with mathematical planners fed by both timely train position and speed data via simplistic wireless data systems, whether commercial or private. (And don’t forget those OS reports). These are the type of data that are being fatuously promoted as a subsequent capability of PTC, when in fact it has nothing to do with PTC. It can be done NOW with or without PTC. This is really simple stuff, but railroad technicians are not expected, capable, or interested in focusing on the functionality and the business case of advancing technologies. Rather, their interest, their responsibility, is to deliver the ultimate systems whether they are required or not in the name of PTC interoperability. So be it!

I think the following quote of a quote in a recent on-line posting by John Boyd of the Journal of Commerce regarding the criteria for Federal funds being provided to freight railroads to incorporate high speed rail, is quite revealing.

Szabo (FRA Administrator) now says the agreements must include quantifiable service outcomes based onmutually agreed upon analysis / modeling that includes trip times, train frequencies and schedule reliability to the extent it is under a party’s control.

There are a number of key points being promoted in this quote, but arguably the most important is that of the last 4 words, i.e., “ under a party’s control.” Simply stated, the Class I’s don’t have control over a significant part of their “schedules”. But what they won’t admit to themselves, it seems, is that the need to dynamically schedule the lineup continuously is their own fault as to mutually-abusive railroad interchange, as well as specific customers, e.g., mines, that determine when the trains will run. The railroads don’t seem to understand that their lack of credible customer service is at fault here; the shippers are simply protecting themselves.

For more in-depth understanding of the above, you may want to consider obtaining the next issue of my quarterly publication, Full Spectrum, Volume 55, titled Buerre Manié which addresses the above in further detail along with other things you may want to consider.

Please contact me via the contact form or directly at, if you wish to discuss further.


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.™
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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