Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fast-in, fast-out

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor
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The classification yard is arguably the most complex operation on a railroad. Despite the growth in unit trains, breaking up and reconfiguring trains—blocking and tackling—remains one of the basics of railroading. Over the years, a lot of research and effort have gone into improving yard productivity and efficiency.

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CSX Manager-Operations Planning Jeremiah Dirnberger is an expert on yard operations. Before joining CSX, Dirnberger was Specialist-Yard Operations Performance at Canadian Pacific. Prior to that, he was a graduate research assistant for Dr. Christopher Barkan in the Railroad Engineering Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He and Barkan collaborated on two research papers, both of which have become important industry reference tools: "Improving Railroad Classification Yard Performance Through Bottleneck Management Methods," and "Improving Railroad Classification Terminal Performance Using Concepts of 'Lean Railroading.'"

"Because railroad classification yards can be considered production systems, insight into the dynamics of a yard system can be gained by adapting production management tools that have led to significant performance improvement in manufacturing," Dirnberger writes in the Bottleneck Management Methods paper. "The most important manufacturing process analogy to improving yard capacity is the bottleneck. In a production system, the bottleneck is the process that limits its throughput. The processing rate of the bottleneck sets the rate for the entire system. Improvong the performance of the bottleneck is the best way to improve the performance of the entire terminal process. The train assembly (pull-down) process has been identified as the bottleneck in a majority of classification yards."

One of Dirnberger's principal findings is that "the humping process should be subordinate to the pull-down process because the latter is the principal bottleneck in many yards. The hump should be managed and operated so that it provides the bottleneck exactly what it needs, when it needs it. The quality of sorting during a humping operation directly affects the performance of the pull-down process."

Today, at CSX, Dirnberger and his Operations Planning colleagues are working with consultant Innovative Scheduling on a Hump Yard Simulation Model that works directly with the railroad's ONE Plan operational planning and implementation system. There are 12 hump yards throughout the CSX network, and the new simulation model is currently being rolled out at the Hamlet, N.C., yard. "The model incorporates 73 operational parameters," Dirnberger told Railway Age. "We've been designing and simulating process improvements that help us to see our metrics more clearly, and to understand and maximize the capacity of our existing operations. As our traffic grows, we will be using this model to help justify capital investment in our yards."

Following process improvements, CSX will be looking to move forward on physical improvements like extending yard tracks where appropriate, operational improvements for train crews (especially as hiring and training continues as volume grows), and with technology.

Supplier perspectives

Railway Age asked several key yard automation system suppliers to address the following: We now see Class I average yard dwell times down to 24 hours or slightly less. What more can railroads do to improve on this? What systems do you currently offer or are developing that in your opinion best serve your customers' yard productivity needs?

RailComm: Automating critical areas in the yard to remove bottlenecks has worked very well to get dwell times down to where they are now. Our customers have been happy with the fast and significant ROI for the projects.

Our customers frequently ask us to expand upon an original switch or protection automation project to encompass more areas of the yard and/or cover additional processes. Some of the largest systems in service today started with a very basic concept and have grown to be the backbone of the yard's operation, with multiple control areas across various departments.

While "islands of automation" have been very successful, working with our Class I customers, we see the next real opportunity to improve yard productivity: Taking a more holistic view of the entire yard, continue expanding automation of key processes and start using the resulting real-time data to guide better decisions. This leads to the ability to plan and optimize the entire yard and its overall operations.

Much of our thinking comes from our "Yard 2020" initiative, a collaborative effort with executives from all of the Class 1 railroads to define a technology roadmap for the Class I freight yard. It is the result of discussions with industry and transportation executives around the US who repeatedly noted that, although near-term automation opportunities in yards are relatively clear, coming changes in traffic levels and mainline operations make thinking through the next ten years far more challenging. These changes include:

• Increased volume through the yard as mainline traffic rebounds and velocity increases, putting pressure on yards to receive trains at a faster pace and return them onto the mainline faster.

• The rising complexity of increased volumes (e.g. cargo mix) and the escalating demand for customer service.

• Capital commitment mandates (such as PTC) and demands (new bridges and tunnels) that limit available spending on yard infrastructure improvements.

• Investor demand for profitability that can ultimately be met only by lower operating ratios.

• Looming brain drain as tens of thousands of workers become eligible for retirement in the next 15 years—meaning yards must not only improve productivity, but do it with less-experienced people.

We kicked off Yard 2020 by spending time in 12 different Class I freight yards. Starting with a clean sheet of paper in each yard, we looked carefully at all of the processes and workflows. We asked a lot of questions to really understand the entire yard operation, as a whole and in more detail in key parts. We explored what yard personnel at every level want or need to operate better.

While every yard is different, some common themes emerged:

• The yardmaster is a bottleneck. All workflow goes through this one person, leading to delays between every step in any process as the yardmaster has to sequentially tell different people what to execute, and then wait for confirmation that it's done before moving on, with multiple processes being handled simultaneously.

• Communication inefficiencies abound. There is an opportunity to improve productivity simply by enabling faster communication. In addition, information latency is very common and people are frequently forced to make decisions on old information—using printed lists, for example. Providing access to real-time information will be huge.

• Over the years, railroads have installed various generations of control systems from multiple suppliers. The systems are intermingled within a single yard and are also deployed across multiple yards. User interfaces were created by different groups based on their needs and customized to each yard by the superintendent. There is a lack of standardization and each yard relies on its own "tribal knowledge."

• Turnover makes training a big issue.

• Exception handling is vital. If there were never a problem or exception (a lost car, mismarked/unmarked car, etc.), yards would probably operate satisfactorily in "manual" mode. In reality, exceptions are numerous and dealing with them, while keeping the overall flows going, is a huge challenge.

These are the challenges we are addressing today and in the next several years, building new capabilities into our RailComm Central connected automation platform.

In the short term, we have some immediate solutions for improving the speed and efficiency of communications between the yardmaster and the transportation and mechanical crews. We can enable crews with portable devices to receive real-time work orders directly—no more paper lists—and report task completion in real time. For example, a switch crew using a mobile device can access the switch list, step through each planned move, pause the process when exception occurs, and resume the process when the exception is resolved—all on the mobile device. The switch list updates in real time, including the exception reporting.

The most exciting opportunity, though, is taking the wealth of data we've created through automation, and using it to dramatically improve decision making and planning. This is where the next leap in yard productivity will come from, and where we are focusing our efforts for the next generation yard automation solution, RailComm Central.

We already have sensors (axle counters) at all three points around an automated switch. RailComm Central uses this real-time data to monitor traffic into and out of the switch area, and confirm the switch is clear before it can be thrown. When we combine this information stream with the data from the AEI reader at the entrance to the yard, we can track the movement of every car in the yard, right through departure, in real-time. We can automatically calculate the remaining capacity on every track. Adding information from the car management database, we can even report the actual consist of every train.

The impact on productivity is immediate and dramatic.

With the ability to see the real situation in the yard at any moment, yardmasters can set up tasks need to be done in the most logical order for maximum efficiency, rather than attacking each issue as it comes up. The system can bring in additional information about the yard—such as crew skills and availability—and enable yardmasters to prioritize tasks with knowledge of all available resources—not only location of every car, engine and crew, but also insight into what's coming into the yard and when.

The wealth of real-time information makes the best yardmasters even more effective. Combined with decision support capability, it helps every yard master be more like the best.

Beyond visibility and real-time decision support, RailComm Central can also be used to make plans for a day or for a shift. The plans are based on existing schedules and respect all the rules and constraints of the yard. Yard masters can explore different options and preview the impact on yard operations.

Finally, RailComm Central enables longer-term planning to improve productivity. How will you handle a 10% volume increase? A 5% increase with a change in mix? Would adding more automation help, and if so, where will it help most? Should you add crews? Build more track? RailComm Central lets you create multiple "what if" scenarios and evaluate the impact on yard productivity.

Trainyard Tech, LLC

Trainyard Tech has contributed significantly to the increased hump yard productivity with the installation of the ClassMaster™ Hump Process Control system at 13 hump yards throughout the U.S. and will soon be adding four more ClassMaster systems at CSX Rice Yard, NS Sheffield Yard, BNSF Lincoln Yard, and CN Symington Yard (Canada).

The ClassMaster system increases throughput in the yard with advanced functionality including:

• Yardmaster Planning Screens: provides the yardmaster with the look-ahead status of the humping operation.

• Remote Locomotive Hump Speed Calculation: optimizes the hump speed to increase throughput while eliminating car catchups and car misroutes.

• Interactive Pinpuller Display: provides information to allow the Pinpuller to assist the yardmaster in management of the humping process

• Automatic Tuning: increases the overall performance of the yard with very little effort required by the technician

Additionally, the system is highly reliable, providing uninterrupted service, 24/7. This is accomplished with the highly available redundant hotstandby computer configuration coupled with distributed I/O interfaces.

The design of the hardware for the ClassMaster system makes it easy for technicians and maintainers to troubleshoot problems. The manner in which the I/O interface hardware is laid out is straightforward and simple. All interconnections have LED lights to guide the trouble shooting process. All of the interconnection modules are plug connect modules, meaning that no rewiring is required. The design also includes advanced lightning protection modules, again with LEDs to indicate the health status, and plug connections for quick change-outs. And finally, several of the critical modules are monitored and alarmed, such as the health of the power supplies, lighting arresters, network interfaces, and many other items that would point to potential problems.

All of this design is intended to maximize the system availability and to identify issues before they become problems.

Trainyard Tech is also advancing railyard productivity in the area of retrieving car data and hump statistics by using a new web-based tool called "TTReporter." Using any computer with access to the railroad intranet, and with the appropriate authorization, a user simply points his computer browser to the TTReporter link and can quickly pull up reports and car data using a simple point and click web style interface. This has significantly improved the time to access information from the process control system and has reduced the number of people traditionally involved in gathering data to satisfy any question(s) a user might have.

The TTReporter has been installed in four yards thus far and has proven to be a huge success by bringing all the important hump process control information to the fingertips of the users that include all levels of management throughout the railroad.

Trainyard Tech is currently installing a new type of shove separation system, ShoveMaster™, at the IHB Gibson auto-carrier yard in Hammond, Ind. ShoveMaster provides an electronic method of determining the length of train that is shoved into each track in the flat yard. The system maintains the track spaces used and reserved from both ends of the track, allowing the operation to shove and flat sort from both ends of the yard simultaneously. This will greatly increase the overall productivity of the sorting operation. ShoveMaster sends the information to a central yardmaster workstation; displays the information over outdoor scoreboards; and sends it wirelessly to wearable computer devices. The wearable computer devices provide the functionality for the transportation ground operators to communicate with the system, reserving track space, and updating information directly from the field.

Global Rail/Vossloh: The railroads tell us, "The yards are the biggest money pits on the railroad. They consume budgets, talent and contribute little in the way of revenue." This is the reputation the yards have. To date, and with the little amount of money spent on yard productivity, railroads have done an incredible job getting the numbers to where they are today.

We hear the railroads talk about trying to increase throughput or decrease dwell times. But rarely are they able to get boots on the ground and have the Industrial Engineering group do time and motion studies on activities and identify where the real bottlenecks occur. Global Rail/Vossloh assists its customers by spending time in the yards and gathering information with the local experts on where the most impact can be made for their investment. Each yard has its own nuances and even complex simulations aren't able to do what is required. The talent pool is getting younger and younger, so giving the employees the right tools to get the job done safer and more efficiently is where the smart money goes.

The Global Rail/Vossloh Modular Yard Automation (MYA) platform is a scalable solution for any yard automation program, whether that be switches, derails, heaters, gates, or any other devices desired/required to be automated. The system is scalable from a single switch, yard entry/exit, or a through yard routing system controlled through DTMF with hand held or locomotive based radio, standard flatyard switching systems, shove-to-couple applications and fully automated stacked routing systems to eliminate the need for expensive hump yards. Reliability and availability are the keys to improving safety and throughput and decreasing dwell times. Global Rail/Vossloh provides those keys. A single switch can sometimes make a whole yard flow better and keep the public happy by not fouling a crossing for longer than needed while entering or exiting a yard.

We've also developed an interface that can tie into anyone's mainframe for switch list exchange, as well as being able to tie into the car management systems as desired for car locating and tracking. These systems can help most railroads manage their information more efficiently, which in turn should help their bottom line.

Another area that is getting more attention is vitality for yard applications. As our customers look at getting into yard automation, some believe a vital system is the way to go. Until now they have had to go with extremely expensive CTC type systems that limit even the biggest operations from automating a yard. With the vitality and viability completed on our Vital Processor, Global Rail/Vossloh now has the vital platform available to offer a very affordable vital system that would meet any railroads safety and budget requirements. We hope this allows even more railroads and transit systems to start looking seriously at how they can improve their operations safely.

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