CEO PERSPECTIVE: Building the Digital Railroad of the Future

Written by Jim Squires, Chairman, President and CEO, Norfolk Southern

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, Jim Squires, Chairman, President and CEO of Norfolk Southern, covers unlocking the power of Big Data, advancing automation and empowering its workforce.

Throughout history, technological innovation has been a driving force of transformation and growth in the rail industry. Now, in our nation’s Fourth Industrial Revolution—Industry 4.0, a movement defined by the intersection of digital and physical capabilities—Norfolk Southern (NS) is accelerating our own transformation to lead the digital revolution sweeping our industry.

We’re accomplishing this by unlocking the power of Big Data, advancing automation and empowering our workforce.

Unlocking the Power of Big Data

Data is foundational to everything we do. With our investment in Positive Train Control (PTC) and other automated technologies, terabytes of operational and customer-centered information are pouring into our data centers and applications every day. This exponential growth of data allows us to create a comprehensive, integrated and real-time environment of actionable information.

We are enhancing safety, increasing operating efficiencies and customer engagement, reducing costs, and much more. We’re building mathematical models that predict traffic flow and locomotive maintenance, and offering relevant data to our business partners as a service product. We’re breaking down silos within our organization, collaborating, and sharing this data freely across departments to increase productivity. 

We’re committed to leveraging high-definition data—images, videos, and beyond—that provides even more value, further transforming how we maintain our infrastructure and enabling us to quickly adapt to shifting market demands. 

Advancing Automation

Automation projects are rarely just about workforce productivity. They often generate better results and, most important, safer outcomes. 

Our locomotives, for example, are equipped with more than 350 sensors that provide real-time vitals on our trains and infrastructure, much like an Apple Watch does for individuals. In fact, NS has been doing this much longer than Apple. To generate value from the high-velocity data streams that are coming in, we built robotic infrastructure and leverage artificial intelligence (AI) to process the information in the field. 

There is a significant role to be played by AI in automating many aspects of operations, especially around the issue of safety. The traditional train inspection process, for example, is inherently challenging and vulnerable to human limitations. We’re working on technology-driven inspections using machine vision portals, AI algorithms and high frame rate cameras that far exceed what humans are able to detect.

Empowering Our Workforce

A vital part of our strategy is leveraging mobile devices and applications in field and yard operations. 

As we combine our operational and performance goals with the new capabilities of Industry 4.0, we can deliver long-term shareholder value with lasting impact on the rail industry.

To offer just a few examples, our train and engine crews are equipped with mobile devices and a Mobile Train Reporting application we developed that dramatically reduces the amount of time and effort required to report their pick-ups, drop-offs and other work activity. The efficiencies of the app are also producing more timely, detailed updates for our customers as they track their shipments. Our ExpressNS mobile app focuses on improving every aspect of the customer experience and getting truck drivers in and out of our intermodal facilities as quickly as possible. 

We’ve also deployed our own Terminal Inventory and Yard Management solutions that use GPS to track every equipment move. In each case, digital technology is empowering our workforce to achieve outcomes beyond human ability alone.

Blazing a Trail in the Digital Revolution

As we combine our operational and performance goals with the new capabilities of Industry 4.0, we can deliver long-term shareholder value with lasting impact on the rail industry. By being responsive to customer needs and market demands, evolving quickly, and remaining focused, we are well-positioned to lead the charge in our industry’s digital

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

Ian Jefferies, Association of American Railroads: Sustainable Economic and Legislative Policies
• Katie Farmer, BNSF: Leveraging Advanced Technologies
• 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
• 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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