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Posts Tagged ‘Strategic Railroading’

Teddy Bear – Operating a railroad safely requires signaling

“Operating a railroad safely requires signaling.”

Major suppliers sell major signaling systems to major railroads for major bucks. But what about those small freight railroads, even those with some passenger service? Do they really require the traffic control systems that are offered to them; the ones that involve extensive investment in wayside infrastructure, communications, and back office systems?  Additionally, what about those railroads that are being planned for difficult terrain subject to extreme weather, a lack of power, theft of equipment, and a lack of trained maintenance personnel? Do they need to confront these hardships on top of extensive investment and on-going maintenance costs to provide for a safe railroad?

While signaling does provide for safe operations, that is not its purpose.  Signaling is used to provide capacity. It is possible to operate a railroad very safely without signaling, as well evidenced in North America. Specifically, nearly half of the freight trackage in N.A. operates as non-signaled territory (albeit only 20% of the traffic) meaning that there are no track circuits, no wayside or cab signals, and no code lines as required in Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) systems. The only technology requirement is that of some form of wireless communications that can be either commercial (satellite, cellular) or private network sufficient to provide for voice communications.  That’s it for the infrastructure.

As to the vitality (i.e., the integrity of train movement), as noted in the post “There’s nothing vital in dark territory.”, the computerized conflict checking process is the simplest of a traffic control process that doesn’t permit two trains to be in the same portion of track at the same time. In a way, this is not unlike the most ancient traffic control system based upon track occupancy referred to as token block. The key difference is that dark territory is programmed whereas token block’ vitality can be readily compromised by lack of discipline with the manual efforts required; indeed this is the case in some countries where it is still in use.

The only issue with dark territory is the time required for the iterative, manual process of the dispatcher transmitting the movement authorities to the train crew followed by the rolling-up of the authorities once the train crew has reported the train’s progress.  With such a simple process, a decent size freight or passenger railroad can operate safely. Additionally, there are even ways to tweak dark territory operation to improve capacity even further, e.g., digital transmission of authorities, automatic roll-ups, embedded signals (without CTC), and the ability to throw switches from the locomotive.  Lastly, with the combination of dark territory and Positive Train Crew (PTC), the railroad is assured of a safe operation both as to dispatcher errors and train crew errors respectively.

Also, Dark territory is really, really inexpensive. However, don’t expect those major suppliers or consultants to share its existence with small to medium railroads. First of all, those supplier don’t have a dark territory deliverable or mindset, and second, there is nothing for them to sell as to infrastructure and complex back office systems.

The team of railroad professionals at Maendeleo Rail is well experienced with dark territory operations as well as PTC. We can readily address the alternatives as to processes and wireless technologies, as well as determine the level of throughput that can be delivered for freight, passenger, or mixed traffic. Since we’re independent of any suppliers, and instead look to partner with railroad operators, we provide low cost, highly efficient solutions.

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.

The Strategic Technologist

Why are you reading this posting?  Perhaps what caught your attention is the peculiarity of the title. After all, neither of the words strategic nor technologist are easy to find individually, yet alone together, in the North American rail industry. The fact that you came to a blog called Strategic Railroading is itself most appreciated .  But the Strategic Technologist is one additional leap of exploration.

Neither railroads nor suppliers traditional to the rail industry employ technologists, i.e., those individuals that address a pragmatic deployment of technologies based upon cost-effective analysis.  Accordingly, neither railroads nor suppliers have comprehensive strategies as to the deployment of advancing technologies aligned with progressive business processes (i.e. Strategic Railroading).  Instead, both rely on technicians who are chartered with keeping on with evolving generations of technologies without delivering a business perspective as to how advancing technologies can best be utilize to improve the railroads’ business processes.

Unquestionably, the most critical example of this dire situation until recently has been that of the two primary technology infrastructures that the railroads continue to depend upon for their operations: track circuits for signaled territory and voice radio in dark territory. These two technologies have their roots in the first and second quarters of the 20th century, respectively. As such, the dispatching systems dependent upon these ancestral technologies are geared only for reactive traffic control vs. the opportunities for proactive traffic management.  The difference between  the two is substantial when the dysfunctional train dispatching (to be kind) of the former is compared to the latter’s ability to re-plan train movements to avoid foreseeable traffic conflicts based upon timely knowledge of train speed and location knowledge that is not available via the current reliance on track circuits and voice radio.

The technicians are not solely at fault here in that there are no operation strategists pursuing the advance business opportunities across a railroad’s system that advancing technologies could support.  Operations management lacks the awareness, and heretofore the impetus, to pursue more effective means of running the railroad. The net result is that there is neither strategic business nor strategic technology plans within the railroads, yet alone the critical synergistic link between the two. Keep in mind, that each railroad will readily claim that they in fact do have a strategic technology plan. However, it is at best a plan to integrate wireless data-based applications into the IT infrastructure in a “real time” fashion.  As will be discussed in other posts, the phrase “real time” is a major indication that there really isn’t any true technology plan.  With the exception of moving block operations, which have been rightfully rejected by freight railroads, real time is a completely unnecessary goal for wireless systems … and a very expensive one if truly pursued.

Unlike any other time in the history of North American railroads, there are now several key market drivers that demand a change in the way of deploying technologies and, more important, in rethinking the primary business processes.  I am referring to the Congressional mandate to deploy PTC before 2016, and the FCC Refarming Point and Order that will require a $1 billion investment in the VHF  -161MHzinfrastructure between now and 2013.  The former requires the availability of a wireless data system for which the railroads technicians have decided to deploy a capital intensive 220 MHz network parallel to the 160 MHz infrastructure, thereby essentially doubling the capital investment . There is little justification for parallel networks in my opinion in that the refarmed 160 MHz could readily handle the current requirements as well as those projected for PTC.  The only rational reason, but inexcusable nonetheless, is that technicians made the decisions to avoid the complexity of a proficient 160 MHz platform and instead saw the opportunity to create a new network.  That is what technicians like to do and the railroads will pay heavily for this traditional, myopic perspective.

Enter the Strategic Technologist: a conceptualist that determines the demand for critical information flow and subsequently designs the technical architecture to service that demand in a cost-effective, holistic fashion across the railroad’s system. This blog will be covering a number of underlying issues associated with the role of the Strategic Technologist relative to Strategic Railroading.

Introduction to Strategic Railroading

Strategic Railroading™

Since their introduction nearly a century ago, the deeply-rooted operating practices of railroads have normally been adequate in servicing the traffic requirements of the railroads. But, in times of heavy demand, those practices are not sufficient to provide the necessary capacity.

The traditional means to meet high demands is to increase the raw capacity via significant capital investments in infrastructure, rolling stock, and locomotives. Improving the effective capacity, i.e. the boundary placed upon the raw capacity by the operating practices, has not been a consideration. However, with the substantial advancements in technologies in the past decade, railroads can now increase their effective capacity in selected corridors without investment in raw capacity. But, it takes an operations strategy in sync with a technology strategy.

It takes Strategic Railroading.

The phrase Strategic Railroading may seem a bit oxymoronic. After all, the rail industry is a very traditional one with its primary operation practices and processes having not changed since the 1st qtr. of the last century. This is so because the set of the 3 core operational technologies, the core technology infrastructure if you will, has not changed, i.e.,

  1. Positioning: track circuits
  2. Communications: voice & signals
  3. Intelligence: dispatchers using non-intelligent Computer Assisted Dispatching platforms (CAD)

Indeed, a railroad’s operational practices and processes based upon these technologies are well established as are the associated business practices and processes including customer service, fueling, maintenance, and the interchange of trains between railroads.

The railroads have yet to make the quantum transition from traditional technologies and operations to those advance capabilities afforded by having timely resource data
being used by advanced planning and execution tools. Additionally, the railroads
have yet to look beyond their own borders to take an industry perspective that benefits all. To make such transitions will require technologists and a reality that wireless data infrastructure, with or without the pursuit of PTC, provides the means to make such advancements. At this point without such understanding, the railroads are destined to spend extraordinary amounts of capital on raw infrastructure, including parallel wireless platforms, while realizing only a small portion of the business benefits that could be achieved via Strategic Railroading.

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

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