Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Managing the lineup

Written by  Ron Lindsey, Contributing Editor
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Managing the lineup Bruce Kelly
Strategic business plans aligned with a strategic technology plan can provide more-effective interchange data and traffic control processes.

Several years ago, a Class I operations vice president engaged my services to investigate the extraordinary amount of crew deadheading that the railroad was experiencing, thereby resulting in a shortage of available crews. He had previously engaged a prestigious consulting firm for the same reasons, but had fired them within several months because no valid results had been delivered. It was clear to him that the crew management department didn’t have its act together, and he wanted it straightened out.

Within several weeks of beginning the engagement, I presented my initial findings to the VP: In actuality, he as head of operations, and not crew management, was the problem. In fact, crew management was being quite effective in reducing the negative consequences of how operations was running the railroad. It was all about managing the train lineup used by the dispatcher to assign track time. However, the dispatchers were without the proper data, decision making tools, and management directives to manage train movements in a balanced, cost-effective fashion.

Operating a freight railroad efficiently is based upon three primary types of activities. First, the service design department is charged with constructing a network schedule of train movements and the blocking of cars to pursue its view of “optimal” efficiency of the railroad based upon corporate and marketing objectives. Operations is then responsible for executing that schedule and car blocking by setting up the train lineups. Last, the dispatchers are charged with managing the lineups and making adjustments as conflicts and disruptions occur. However, these mishaps occur frequently, thereby greatly compromising service design’s efforts. That is, the dispatcher too often is in a reactive, “crisis” mode given the lack of timely, accurate train position and speed as well as the mathematical tools to minimize the consequences of such disruptions.

Rather than achieving the efficiency structured by service design, this railroad and many others are operating at substantially less than optimum in that they are limited by the skills of the dispatcher and the subjective criteria that operations management exercises—not running short trains, pushing through “hot” trains, increasing traffic velocity to maximize executive bonuses, etc.

There are two areas of inefficiency that are beyond the consideration of operations at this point. These areas are not capable of being handled efficiently in crisis mode. First, there is the overall efficiency of all key operating resources within the railroad (not just track time). Second, there is the effect of interchange with other railroads.

Operating resources

Traditionally, a freight railroad’s operations department focuses primarily on track time utilization by dynamically adjusting train lineups and then filling in the other key resources that are required upon lineup initiation, such as train crews. Hence, without operating to a true schedule, a railroad is without the means to achieve a balanced, cost-effective use of the total set of the additional key operating resources: locomotives, fuel, maintenance crews, and yard operations.

An example of what can be achieved is to consider the passenger airline industry, where each major carrier operates with a true, integrated schedule of all primary operating resources. I use Delta Airlines as an example. Each month, Delta develops a detailed, integrated schedule for each plane type (if not the specific plane), gate, route, and crew member to which each respective resource department commits so as to achieve what is required to meet Delta’s business plan. This schedule is supported by a sophisticated IT architecture that feeds timely information to each resource management system as events occur with the same singular source of critical operating data: the status of each plane relative to staying on schedule.

Of course, disruptions occur, including mechanical failures and weather, but such occurrences are addressed to the extent possible with a commitment of excess or “slack” resources to address such challenges. For example, airlines have crew extra boards. The bottom line here is that this use of planned slack resources is less costly than the inefficient use of resources required for reactive, crisis management as exemplified by the crew management study I performed.

In the study, there were numerous issues as to how operations was directly and indirectly affecting the performance of its schedule—performance that was estimated by the railroad’s service design department to be 30% on schedule. Consider these examples:

First: Neither CTC nor dark territory operations provide the dispatcher with timely, accurate position and speed data (as in, did the train come to a stop?). Nor is there an effective means for the dispatcher to comprehensively incorporate other major variables such as the availability of locomotives, crew outlawing, and yard availability in dense corridors. To a great extent, the experience of the dispatcher with a specific territory, as well as the discouraging complexity of considering such variables, determines the efficiency of a railroad’s major operating assets. Given the PTC mandate, there will be an industry-wide wireless data infrastructure and an onboard platform that can provide that train speed/location data—the singular source of critical, underlying data that should be feeding all resource management systems.

Therefore, the majority of railroads that have yet to implement a wireless data platform will be in a position to deploy advanced traffic management systems that use mathematics-based planners to predict traffic conflicts and provide solutions to the dispatcher to minimize if not avoid the consequences of those conflicts. As described in previous articles in Railway Age, this capability is referred to as Proactive Traffic Management (PTM). Most important, PTM can be obtained outboard of and without changing the traffic control system. One Class I in the U.S. has already made a transition to PTM, without PTC.

Second: Operations would note frequently that others were to blame for why the railroad could not maintain an effective schedule. Perhaps the most telling was its explanation that several major customers were dictating to the railroad when the trains would run. Their rationale was that these shippers had control of certain portions of the lineups, and hence it wasn’t the fault of operations that it couldn’t maintain a true schedule. However, the customer was forced to set its schedule of trains because the railroad had consistently failed in maintaining its own schedule. Hence, this action by the shipper was one of self-defense in order to maintain its own operating schedule.

Third: Lineup initiation was a faulty process in that the railroad’s yardmasters were so overloaded with activities that they would set up trains on the lineup in the beginning of the shift based upon what they hoped to achieve. However, without the discipline and direction of operations management, some trains were not actually initiated due to yard issues. Hence, crew and locomotive management were assigning resources that were not used for these “ghost” trains, which was their term for such faulty lineup practices.


While the three above examples are internal to the railroad’s operations, a fourth reason for the inability of the railroad to run to schedule is due to mutually dependent external reasons. Specifically, given the high level of interconnection between freight railroads in the U.S., any one individual railroad is not able to run to a service design perspective if the other railroads with which it is interconnecting are not running to schedule.

How does an individual railroad deal with this Catch 22? It can’t. Rather, an industry perspective of scheduled operation is required. And, in my opinion, that won’t happen until 1) the executive bonus incentives are so structured, and 2) there is a strategic industry business plan in sync with a industry-based technology plan (what I refer to as Strategic Railroading). However, neither of these two points is achievable at present, in my opinion, given the traditional railroading mindset that exists. Operations management has yet to understand what timely train status speed/location data can do to improve the efficiency of operations. Again, both internal and external challenges to operating to schedule require simple information that can be obtained without PTC and any significant amount of capital investment.

I emphasize the following points:

• Railroads require a business strategy in sync with a technology strategy based upon the availability of wireless data to provide time train speed/position data. For most railroads, this will require a restructuring of IT architecture.

• Railroads need to make the changes in operating processes and the design of executive bonuses that can bring about a substantial increase in schedule performance.

• The industry needs a strategic business plan aligned with a strategic technology plan that provides for effective interchange data and processes.

• Railroads, both individually and collectively, need to employ technologists, not just technicians, who can provide cost-effective technology solutions.

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