CEO PERSPECTIVE: Leveraging Advanced Technologies

Written by Katie Farmer, President and CEO, BNSF Railway
Katie Farmer, President and CEO, BNSF Railway

Katie Farmer, President and CEO, BNSF Railway

As part of a special series in Railway Age’s March 2021 issue, 11 North American railroad CEOs address the daunting challenges the freight rail industry faces as the 21st century enters its third decade—from operations and technology to marketing and growth. Here, Katie Farmer, President and CEO of BNSF Railway, discusses leveraging complex, exponentially growing advanced technology.

At BNSF Railway, we always look to leverage advanced technologies that will improve our ability to operate a safe and efficient railroad as well as provide better service and enhanced user experiences for our customers. We recognize that continual exploration of new technologies is critical to
our success. 


Last year marked an important milestone for safety in the rail industry as we collectively made Positive Train Control (PTC) fully operable on 100% of federally mandated locations. Every train that moves with PTC is a safer train and that’s why we were deploying PTC as a safety overlay across our railroad before it was ever mandated. 

— “We recognize that new technologies are key for us to meet the needs of our customers, employees, communities and the environment.” —

BNSF has continued to install PTC on several non-mandated sub-divisions across our network. We will continue to look for opportunities to utilize PTC for additional productivity gains beyond the safety purpose for which it was created. 

Advanced Network Operations

BNSF has made substantial investments to migrate to advanced network operations by integrating various transportation systems and tools such as Movement Planner, Terminal Planner, Dispatching System (TMDS) and iPad-based work order reporting. Each tool creates value on its own, but it’s the powerful combination of systems and capabilities that enable us to improve safety, service and network fluidity while improving the work experience for our employees.

Big Data and Artificial Intelligence

Not only have we increased the pace at which we install and utilize new technologies that enable us to drive safety and efficiency, but we also continue to explore new opportunities to harness information by leveraging big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to accelerate results. 

Pictured: A BNSF wayside detector array.

Multiple AI techniques have been deployed in the field at BNSF. One of the latest additions is AI-based image analytics that processes the pictures captured by Machine Vision Systems (MVS). The MVS across our network capture more than 750,000 wheel images per day, which are analyzed by an AI-based scoring system to quickly identify hard to find defects and present them to the detector desk to take action promptly. BNSF is also piloting an Optical Track Inspection system that uses AI to identify track defects like a hairline crack or a missing bolt in a joint bar. 

Furthermore, we have leveraged big data analytics to enhance our geometry car and wayside detector systems to ensure the safety of track and rolling stock respectively. Use of unmanned geometry cars has enabled us to expand track inspections, and using these analytics, we are able to predict issues before they occur and create an optimal comprehensive plan. By leveraging our various sensors, like temperature, acoustic signature, wheel profile and wheel-impact, we have also been able to improve defect identification. 

Intermodal Advancements 

BNSF was the first U.S. railroad to use wide span electric cranes, Automated Gate Systems (AGS), and a number of other technologies across a network. Our goal is to continually explore and deploy intermodal technologies that improve service for our customers. 

BNSF has enhanced the in/out gate processes with our RailPASS mobile app that enables drivers to get through the gate in as little as 30 seconds. Building on that success, we are piloting touchless gate technology at our South Seattle Intermodal Facility, which will reduce the need for driver interaction at our facility gates.

BNSF Railway and Wabtec are testing a battery-electric locomotive (BEL) in revenue service between Barstow and Stockton, Calif. 

Environmental Technologies

BNSF continues to expand the adoption of technologies that are environmentally friendly. We are leading the rail industry by piloting a battery-electric locomotive in revenue service in California. If the initial pilot proves successful, BNSF will explore additional testing at other locations as we do our part to reduce emissions and environmental impact. 

The electric wide span cranes we use at several of our busiest intermodal facilities produce zero emissions and reduce the number of diesel-powered hostlers needed due to increased efficiency from a wider range of motion. We have deployed electric-powered, cargo-handling equipment in several intermodal facilities in California.

Customer Experience 

We have leveraged GIS and GPS technologies to improve our customer experience significantly. We have delivered new web and mobile tools that provide accurate and more frequent information to our customers regarding their shipments so that they can more effectively plan their operations. We have also provided new API capabilities to make the exchange of data even easier and more flexible in our effort to make doing business with BNSF as easy as possible. 

In closing, at BNSF, we recognize that new technologies are key for us to meet the needs of our customers, employees, communities and the environment. As we look to the future, we will continue to focus on pioneering and developing emerging technologies that help us meet the needs of  our various stakeholders as well as those of our company. 

Read more of Railway Age’s special CEO Perspectives series:

Ian Jefferies, Association of American Railroads: Sustainable Economic and Legislative Policies
• Keith Creel, Canadian Pacific: Growing the Top Line
• JJ Ruest, CN: Improving Customer Supply Chain Visibility
• Jim Foote, CSX: Railroads as a Sustainable Business
• Pat Ottensmeyer, Kansas City Southern: Maximizing USMCA for Cross-Border Growth
• Jim Squires, Norfolk Southern: Building the Digital Railroad of the Future
• Lance Fritz, Union Pacific: Smart Capital Investment Strategies
• Peter Gilbertson, Anacostia Rail Holdings: Providing Outstanding Customer Service
• Dean Piacente, OmniTRAX: Building Better Communities Through Industrial Development
• Dan Smith, Watco: Integrated Transportation Services Fuel Growth

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