Monday, August 27, 2012

Maximizing productivity in “the heart of coal”

Written by  William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief

The question facing the rail industry is not whether coal traffic will come back, but rather, when will it come back. When it does, the railroads will be ready, as evidenced by ongoing capacity and efficiency improvement projects.

Among these is a major improvement program at BNSF Railway’s Alliance Terminal in Alliance, Neb., the railroad’s major unit coal train central processing yard. BNSF, according to Terminal Superintendent Ryan Shoener, calls Alliance “the heart of coal.”

Alliance, which employs 660 (140 yard employees and 520 locomotive shop employees in several crafts), supplies empty coal trains to the Powder River Basin mines, and services loaded trains operating east to electric power utilities in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. At present, on average, 65 trains (30 coal loads, 30 coal empties, and five mixed freight) pass through Alliance Terminal each day, though the facility is capable of processing up to 72. Alliance also includes a major locomotive maintenance and repair shop, where, each day, 40-50 locomotives are serviced in the Diesel Service Facility and 70-80 locomotives are serviced by mechanical teams at RSLs (remote service locations). The facility’s Locomotive Shop is responsible for close to 1,000 units (a mix of EMD SD70MACs, SD70ACEs, and GE EVOs) that are assigned to it for servicing and inspection. “We’re a very power-hungry terminal,” says Locomotive Shop Superintendent Bruno Soto.

Alliance’s most important performance metric is how efficiently it builds unit coal trains to tender size, which is the number of cars in a train required by the particular mine/electric utility pair being served. This number is typically 120 cars, but it can be as low as 105 and as high as 150. There needs to be about 900 “fill cars” available for this purpose. Yardmasters and trainmasters spend a great deal of time analyzing switching and lead times, and planning locomotive and car movements. As Division Manager Steve Nettleton puts it, “Doing a five-car fill may sound simple, but it’s really not. Our goal is a 10% improvement in building trains to tender.”

That’s because there are a lot of variables that must be addressed in processing a unit coal train. Typically, yard and trainmasters need to be able to look out anywhere from 36 to 48 hours to determine what’s coming into Alliance, and identify equipment by train and car I.D., origin, pool type, train size, and other factors. “Stripe alignment”—the direction in which rotary-dump coal gons are facing, determined by the paint stripe on one end of an otherwise bare-aluminum carbody—is critical. According to Nettleton, an average of one train per day needs to be adjusted for stripe alignment. All switching and car repair/maintenance work needs to be performed on the empty-car side of a move, before the train is dispatched to the mine. BNSF’s web-based TSS (Transportation Support System) Xpress system is used to keep track of all this information. TSS Xpress, which provides communication in real time, “gives us excellent interaction between our Transportation and Mechanical departments,” says Shoener. “Our focal point is ontime train performance.” TSS Xpress also helps balance train power requirements with what power is ready for service.

Alliance is a flat-switching yard with one RCL and eight conventional switch jobs operating at one time. BNSF is currently installing about 60 remote control switches, where primary control is from the tower, for better efficiency.

RailComm is BNSF’s primary contractor for process control improvements at Alliance Terminal. “Whereas some benefits are very specific to the mechanical or the transportation groups, some of our solutions can tie together benefits for both, and therefore the railroad can share different budgets to fund solutions for a common goal,” says President and CEO Joe Denny. “For instance, automatic switching benefits the Transportation group by having the ability to remotely line trains into the yard. These same switches will be part of the track protection system to protect the Mechanical crews during the inspection of the train.”

Part of BNSF’s objectives is eliminating CTC within yard limits. Why does BNSF wish to do this and what benefits does it expect to derive? In general, what are the advantages of doing this?

“Some CTC interlockings are located very close to yard entrances and exit points,” explains Denny. “When dispatching a train, the main line dispatcher has no special interest in those interlockings located next to yard limits. Therefore, these CTC interlockings can become a bottleneck for the yard. To minimize this problem, we offer the option to take the CTC interlocking out of the main line dispatch control and create a yard system that includes these locations, or to add these interlockings to the existing yard system. This option gives the main line dispatcher the ability to see the status of the CTC interlocking but not the ability to control it. The yardmaster has that responsibility. Thus, integration of CTC interlockings to the yard application gives the yardmaster the ability to release bottlenecks in traffic coming into and out of the yard.”

“This solution only makes sense in certain cases, so it cannot be applicable across the board, and the railroad must have a substantial case for this integration,” says Denny. “However, if the railroad requires following this approach, we have a very seamless integration for these CTC interlockings’ interface based on our mainline CTC experience.”

RailComm points out that it has a long history implementing solutions for yard automation, “from our first standard switch machine remote control to our current automation of yard ladders using remote control from a central location, local control panels strategically located in the field and remote control through mobile devices,” says Denny. “Our DOC® system capabilities have migrated from single isolated locations to a full control of receiving to departure areas of the yard to make inbound and outbound movements more efficient.”

RailComm’s Connected Automation™ platform for yards “integrates best-in-class switch and signal components with a command and control architecture that scales as the customers need it—from a few switches, to an entire yard, to an entire railway, increasing efficiencies, safety, and protection,” says Denny. “Our solutions include automated switching, car tracking, track protection, heater control, mobile worker, and more. Our largest customers, the Class I railroads, benefit from our Connected Automation in many ways. Rail yards are typically measured on safety, terminal capacity, throughput, and on time departures. Any solution that can help improve these metrics represents high benefits to the railroad.”

RailComm says the most important benefits its technology offers are improved efficiency and safety:

“Safety to workers is significantly improved by not having a switch tender standing on the tracks or walking in front of the locomotive to line manual switches. Automatic switching reduces the risk of having yard crews performing inefficient and hazardous tasks, in addition to other safety conditions such as having back injuries, or walking on unsafe terrain.

“Time reductions, which represent a high return to railroads, can be achieved by automating the track protection process with our Blue Flag Protection System. Wireless remote control saves hours of time on each maintenance operation by eliminating the need to physically travel to both ends of a protected zone to manually line switches and place blue flags, and again to remove them once work is complete.

“Our Shove Track System provides protection zones on the blind side of shove tracks allowing yard crews to quickly fill shove tracks without overruns or track fouling, eliminating the need to station a worker at the end of the track to monitor shove track operations. The railroad reduces dwell time and the risk of damaging tracks, cars, or car contents.”

“All these benefits are significant, based on the investment that the railroads are making every year on these technologies,” says Joe Denny. “The railroads’ measurements are closely tied to their ROI. If there is no return, they will stop investing in the technology.”