Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Moving beyond the traditional

Written by  Ron Lindsey, Contributing Editor

Looking to really boost productivity? Wireless is the way to go.

Two decades ago my counterpart in the C&S department of a Class I, the Chief Engineer Signals, noted that communications was the future of signals. While I didn’t appreciate his prophetic statement back then, I understand it now. Communications, specifically wireless data, is the technology that will support the ability of railroads to advance the productivity of their operations beyond that of traditional signaling. However, to do so will require a change in the mindset of traditional suppliers and their clients as to the difference between traffic control and traffic management.

Having taught a Railroad Immersion Course to suppliers, both traditional and those looking to enter the industry, I note a consistent difference in their perspective of increasing their clients’ productivity. Some traditional suppliers have demonstrated little interest in promoting productivity, whereas those new to the industry are looking to bring their experience from other markets to do just that. This difference in viewpoint becomes clear when the topic is about the difference between traffic control and traffic management. Traditional suppliers know the ins and outs of traffic control and risk analysis, and they have an understanding of the term “vitality.” But, they don’t associate with the importance of traffic management. For them traffic control and traffic management are the same thing.

The first question I ask after defining vitality from a functional standpoint, meaning the generation of movement authorities, is “What’s vital in non-signaled territory?” For a signaling engineer, the answer is “Nothing is vital,” meaning that from an engineering perspective of providing vital, fail-safe hardware, there is no vitality in that there is no equipment in non-signaled territory. However, from a functional standpoint as to what generates the authority for the train to move forward, the answer is a relatively simple computerized train sheet that permits only one train to be assigned to a block at any given time. This phenomenal difference between the simplistic functional vitality of dark territory and the complex engineering vitality of signaling infrastructure can be a difficult point for a signal engineer to readily accept.

The next question goes right to the point of productivity. I ask the class, “What is the purpose of signals?” To a person they will state, “To run a safe railroad.” “Really!” I say. “So how is it that a railroad can operate safely without signals? In fact, 50% of the track in North America, albeit only 20% of the traffic, is operated without signals.” All are willing to agree that signaling is installed to increase capacity. If a railroad is going to use signals, then their responsibility as a supplier is to ensure the integrity, the engineering vitality, of that equipment.

Finally, I move on to question that addresses a railroad’s bottom line. “If railroads install signaling infrastructure to improve traffic throughput, then what are you doing to advance your CAD (computer assisted dispatching) platform to support that effort?” For this question, there has rarely been a satisfactory answer in that productivity is not their expertise. Technicians are not usually interested in traffic management, only traffic control, the difference being that traffic control is what generates the authority and traffic management is the efficiency of that generation, thereby addressing the safety vs. business value of railroad operations. What many traditional suppliers are overlooking is the effect on the bottom line of the equipment they install and maintain. To them, such investment and maintenance expenditures are cost factors for railroads and not revenue ones. Engineers and technicians steeped in traditional technologies are much more concerned about safety than productivity.

To the defense of traditional suppliers, traffic control systems have evolved over nearly a century without wireless data, an operating environment in which one may know which block a train is in, but not its speed. This is an operating environment in which advancements in technologies are directed at making the status of the railroad more presentable to the dispatcher, but not to provide significant improvements in traffic management. That is, CAD platforms are basically unintelligent SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems, and not management systems. The difference is that CAD is the means for the dispatcher to execute decisions based upon the most primitive data being presented. As one chief dispatcher noted recently, “CAD shows you where the railroad was. It doesn’t show you where it is.” To that I add that CAD certainly doesn’t tell the dispatcher where the railroad will be. The point here is that dispatchers are in a crisis-based, reactive mode of managing traffic instead of being proactive in being able to project conflicts in train movements, and then take the appropriate steps to mitigate the consequences of those conflicts, if not eliminate them altogether.

Norfolk Southern is making the transition to proactive traffic management (PTM) in sync with the deployment of its new GE dispatching platform, UTCS (Unified Traffic Control System). NS is now tracking trains via a simplistic GPS reporting approach without waiting for PTC implementation and its associated wireless data network. This was a pragmatic decision that demonstrated a willingness to step beyond traditional technologies and practices.

Any railroad can implement a PTM platform independent of CAD. Such a platform would be available to a dispatcher to view options, given a timely update of train position and speed data being fed via a GPS reporting system, with the dispatcher using CAD to execute decisions as is done today. The PTM platform would replace the dispatcher’s mental processes with mathematical processes that can consider a much greater range of variables than the human mind, and in a consistent fashion.

With such a platform, all dispatchers become equally proficient. More variables can be considered from a cost standpoint in routing trains, including crew and power availability, as well as the status of inbound tracks at critical yards. Operations has a much greater opportunity to maintain a schedule when disruptions occur. A truly scheduled railroad would not require the use of wireless data to provide for PTM, at least not in signaled territory. The OS reports generated by a train as it proceeds through blocks would be sufficient to make adjustments to traffic movements to get back on schedule.

Few would argue that running a railroad based upon a schedule generated by Service Design would be ideal. But it is not realistic to expect such precision to be executable. Why schedules are quickly compromised ranges from problems with ports and mines that initiate trains on a railroad’s lineup, to crew or locomotive distribution, to the dependence on reliable interchanges. However, almost all of the reasons that I have heard as to why a railroad’s lineup is readily corrupted are in fact due to the railroad’s operation and marketing practices, including trains being unpredictably initiated by shippers.

The primary challenge to running a scheduled operation is what other railroads are doing with their schedules.Unreliable interchange is the Achilles’ heel. While each railroad has its management incentives for meeting key operating parameters, few have an incentive for management to make interchanges reliably. Going to an industry perspective is a step that railroads will need to take. The concept of industry intraoperability—knowing where a railroad’s assets are as well as their status regardless of the railroad over which they are operating—introduces a whole new level of possible productivity improvements.

What can be done with the availability of an industry-based database? A shift to performance-based locomotive maintenance. Accurate and timely ETAs for trains from foreign roads. Accurate reporting of locomotive fuel levels at interchange. Status of a lead locomotive regardless of ownership. Accurate and timely shipment monitoring as to status and location.

All this is independent of PTC. And unlike PTC, there is a true ROI that can justify the resources to bring about PTM and industry intraoperability. However, this is not a task for technicians. Rather, what is required is the use of railroad and supplier technologists who can deliver an operations strategy in sync with a technology strategy—what I refer to as Strategic Railroading.

For additional information, see Ron Lindsey’s blog, www.strategicrailroading.com, a continuous source of material on the advancement of railroad operations.