As the industry’s centralized provider of interoperable rail data, Railinc is an essential partner to the industry in keeping trains moving efficiently and safely through rail corridors across North America. The company, a subsidiary of the Association of American Railroads, was purpose-built by the industry to tackle big challenges with the power of data. Railinc manages 11 million daily messages among more than 570 rail carriers. Given its significance, Railway Age reached out to talk to Railinc chief executive Allen West to get a sense of how the North Carolina company is handling the COVID-19 situation.
RAILWAY AGE: How is everyone at Railinc doing?
WEST: We’ve been fortunate that none of our team or their close family members has contracted the virus. Being based outside Raleigh, N.C., in the Research Triangle helps, as we don’t have the population density of the bigger cities, or the mass transit, or some of the other factors that have driven up the number of cases in other areas around the country. The number of infections in North Carolina has remained relatively low, though the state has had fatal cases and that obviously weighs heavily on all of us.
RAILWAY AGE: How are Railinc employees working during COVID-19?
WEST: As a technology company, we have the luxury of being able to move to remote work with very little disruption. We had documented business continuity plans for situations that called for closing our physical headquarters, and we drill on those plans each quarter, so we were ready. We were also fortunate, however, because at the beginning of the year we adjusted our remote work guidelines to allow our teams to work offsite for more of the week—completely unrelated to the COVID-19 outbreak. Without knowing it, we were giving our teams valuable time to prepare home offices, adjust to collaborating virtually, and acclimate to remote work technology solutions. In the second week of March, based on guidance for employers from our governor and state health department, we decided to close our offices and move everyone to remote work. This transition was pretty painless because so many people were already set up to work that way. It was a positive nexus of planned, practiced crisis preparation and good luck.
RAILWAY AGE: How is Railinc able to serve its customers and the industry with a stay-at-home order in effect in so many states?
WEST: We’re supporting the industry and our customers at the same high level as before the pandemic. There was an initial period of adjustment for us and our industry partners who needed to become comfortable with remote collaboration, but our industry committee meetings—which drive our industry-supporting projects every year—and our customer check-ins have all gone virtual. While these meetings aren’t exactly the same as they would be in-person, we’ve found them to still be successful. Because of our team’s swift adjustment to remote work, our project work and product support have not skipped a beat. In short, the data is flowing, we’re open for business, and the work is all getting done.
RAILWAY AGE: What early trends are you seeing as a result of this situation?
WEST: As carloads have continued to dip, we have seen a corresponding slowdown in messaging traffic throughout the North American system. We’ve also seen purchasing decisions for our commercial solutions delayed as potential customers assess the short and intermediate-term impacts of the pandemic on their businesses. One positive trend for us has been the effectiveness of our workforce while working remotely. When all this is over, our office environment and how we collaborate will change. We and our customers are becoming accustomed to the software tools we need to collaborate and work remotely. So, internally, we’re already planning for those changes at Railinc once we see some kind of return to normal operations across North America.
RAILWAY AGE: What is Railinc doing to plan for different outcomes that may result from an extended economic slowdown?
WEST: Like many businesses, our leadership team has conducted extensive scenario-planning for potential timeframes and economic impacts. Railinc is fortunate to be in an “essential” industry and be able to continue to perform our work remotely. We have already been able to achieve savings on a number of non-critical initiatives that had been planned for this year and have identified other areas where we could realize savings while still maintaining our high level of support for the industry.
RAILWAY AGE: Is there a plan for transitioning back to full on-site operations?
WEST: We are taking our cues on returning to work on-site from our governor and state health officials. From what we hear and read, any return to on-site work will be executed in phases, so we’ll have to see what that looks like in North Carolina and how it applies to our team. Once we get the all-clear for everyone to return on-site, we’ll give our employees notice to prepare themselves, engage our building facilities staff to ensure everything has been sanitized and deep-cleaned, and make sure our building and local technology infrastructure is primed and ready for us. As I noted before, how we work once that all-clear is sounded may look different from before the pandemic, and we’ll be executing our plans for that as well.
RAILWAY AGE: What are some of the things you’ve learned about yourself or your employees as all of this has unfolded?
WEST: Even though we had planned and drilled for this kind of situation, I was impressed with how easily our team was able to transition to remote work and still support our customers at the highest level. We weren’t vacating our office building for a week because of a water main break or a natural disaster. We were abruptly switching to remote work in the face of a global pandemic, with no definitive end date, and all the stress that goes along with having to balance work with staying in our homes and worrying and caring for our families. Given that context, I was extremely proud of our team and how they have performed. As for me, I learned that I can be a “remote work” person. In my 37-year career, I have always worked from the office and assumed I work better there than I ever could at home. I have found out differently, but I do miss being around my colleagues and the more personal interaction. The small moments that you share with your colleagues, whether it’s going to lunch or a random encounter at the coffee machine that sparks an idea—those are things you can’t replicate over Zoom or Teams and something I’ve really missed. My hope is that we will be able to get back to a normal cadence of things soon, and we will all come through this stronger.