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Posts Tagged ‘Strategic Core Technology’

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.

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 ron@strategicrailroading.com, if you wish to discuss further.

___________

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.

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.

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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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