Monday, January 30, 2017

Decisive Railroading, an enterprise perspective

Written by  Ron Lindsey, Contributing Editor
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Next Generation Train Control (NGTC) has been a popular subject for conferences for a number of years. However, judging by the attendees at past NGTC-related conferences, this is a subject of little interest to the U.S. freight railroads.

On the surface, this is to be expected, since the trackage of those railroads consists of 50% Centralized Traffic Control (CTC)—signaled—the other half being Dark Territory—non-signaled—even though one-third of that trackage is Absolute Block Signaling (ABS), a nested level of vitality.

However, there is an advanced level of NGTC, Virtual CTC (VCTC), which has tremendous opportunity for those roads, as well as across the globe. But, it will take suppliers and railroads that are willing to consider paradigm shifts in all four of the Core Technologies. I am referring to the advancements in Communications, Mobile IT Platforms, Positioning and IT Architecture that provide the opportunity to implement Decisive Railroading. This is an advanced level of railroading that can greatly reduce the capital investment and ongoing maintenance expenditures of conventional CTC operations and IT architectures, while improving the efficiency and safety of many freight and passenger railroads alike.

Advancing the safety and efficiency of railroads over the past decade has benefitted from the paradigm shifts in wireless voice to wireless data communications, mobile (on-board) IT processing, and the use of virtual positioning for non-vital systems that do not generate movement authorities. Specifically, some combinations of these three paradigm shifts have provided the means to deploy non-vital Positive Train Control (PTC) in the U.S. and vital European Train Control System (ETCS) on that continent.

However, paradigm shifts in virtual positioning for vital systems and IT Architecture have yet to be considered by most railroads across the globe, and yet they can have an unprecedented positive effect on capital investment and on-going maintenance expenditures. Unfortunately, the major challenge for each of these technologies is rejecting the sunk-cost argument of continuing with CTC and conventional IT architectures and then making the investment in advanced technologies based upon business cases that focus on increasing safety and efficiency, while reducing on-going maintenance costs of physical positioning.

To do so requires both a major shift in staunch perspectives of traditional railroad operations as well as establishing an enterprise perspective of the effectiveness of a railroad’s major departments.


The physical positioning of CTC vitality, i.e., track circuits and control points, is well established for railroads for the past century. And yet, virtual positioning, e.g., GPS, is well entrenched in what we do as individuals today. So! Why not use virtual positioning for the vitality of traffic control systems (i.e., determining block occupancy) and thereby eliminate the intensive capital investment and on-going maintenance costs of physical positioning? In fact, there is no reason in my opinion in that the availability of extremely accurate virtual positioning (e.g., augmented GPS) for a train’s front end in sync with end-of-train positioning is available now for at least the main line, if not interlockings, that can meet the accuracy requirement of physical positioning.

One point that those in denial of virtual positioning for vital operations may state is that of broken rail protection. For those individuals I offer the following: 1) One-third of U.S. freight trackage does not have such protection (shades of Federal Railroad Administration hypocrisy); 2) signaling-grade track circuits are not the only means to provide such protection (e.g., acoustic sensing by fiber optic strands along the wayside); and 3) major railroads in Europe, at least, do not require such protection. There are both regulatory challenges and business case analyses that need to be addressed for rationally moving forward as to reducing costs and increasing safety.

With the consideration of virtual positioning, the next level of NGTC is VCTC as my consultancy, Strategic Rail LLC (SR), designed for the railroads of Egypt and Kazakhstan that provides for fixed, flexible, and virtual block operations with expanded PTC functionality. A version of VCTC is now in revenue service in Mozambique provided by a U.S. supplier. However, it is unlikely that most European traffic control suppliers will offer VCTC in the near term because it greatly decreases their revenues as to capital investment and on-going maintenance expenditures.

As a side point, I wish to note that providing PTC protection in freight yards and passenger terminals, e.g., NJ Transit’s Hoboken Terminal, is a straight-forward, no-cost addition to mainline PTC by using Geo-fencing. That is, once a train enters a geo-fenced area (e.g., a yard or terminal), and until it departs, then an increase in speed beyond a defined limit is immediately enforced without warning to the engineer. This addition to PTC requires no capital investment nor GPS reception within the yard or terminal.


Typically, a railroad’s IT Architecture, i.e., the primary systems and the flow of information between those systems, has been developed over time on a department-by-department basis. Hence, the resulting Silo-based IT Architecture (SITA) is likely to result in significant duplication in the generation, processing, storage and distribution of critical data that can have a substantial negative effect on both the efficiency and safety of a railroad’s operations. Instead, what is required is an Enterprise IT Architecture (EITA), as has been deployed by major passenger airline operations, based upon a Single Source of Truth (SSOT) design to address such inefficiencies by eliminating the duplication of data management of SITA.

SR designed an EITA for Kazakhstan’s railroad, Kazakhstan Temir Zholy (KTZ), that can be applied to those railroads willing to make the business case to so deploy. For example, in KTZ’s situation, an excess of 1,000 generations/usages of data flows were identified that could be eliminated with an EITA. Last, from an U.S. freight rail industry perspective, an Industry IT Architecture (IITA) is an absolute requirement for railroads serious about scheduled operations, either individually or as an industry.

The bottom line is that Decisive Railroading is achievable with advanced levels of the core technologies that are now available. But, to do so requires the commitment by senior management of railroads and suppliers alike to provide the business cases so the proper individuals that can make such transitions.














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