Precision Crew Scheduling: What would Hunter say?

Written by William C. Keppen, Jr.
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E. Hunter Harrison in 2015. Chris Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images.

I knew Hunter Harrison when he was a Burlington Northern trainmaster and I was a BLET Local Chairman, all those many years ago. Today, as Hunter’s Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) is rolled out on six of the seven Class I railroads, I’ve come to believe that PSRis not a destination, but a never-ending journey. At least that’s how I see it.

Along the way, management should not overlook the opportunities afforded to those who incorporate what I call PCS—Precision Crew Scheduling—into their PSR plans. Think about it. Once you have train movements scheduled and balanced, it would take very little effort to also provide high-quality information to train crew personnel well in advance of when they would be called for duty.

To do that, two barriers must be overcome: 1) technology, and 2) information flow.

Technology is not a problem. It already exists, but it must be properly configured and deployed. Think of all the Cloud/GPS navigation apps that are available to the public. People can get into their cars knowing when they will arrive at destinations, with real-time adjustments for delays, whether they are planned or unplanned. Meeting people at their destinations, traveling in convoy with other vehicles? No problem; they can know adjusted locations and arrival times as well—all made possible by Cloud-based communications of vehicle movements and delays. So we have the technology.

Moving on to number 2, information flow: Like technology information flow has barriers, none of which cannot be overcome with a modicum of effort. The process of building and running trains, on schedule, involves a number of functions. At a minimum, they are: 1) train planning, 2) train building, 3) power control, 4) crew management, 5) train dispatching, and 6) train operating crew availability and proper deployment.

Functions 1 through 5 are all under the control of management; function 6, somewhat. The people performing those functions have all the information needed to track train movements and program work delays, but it is not currently being collected, aggregated and disseminated on a real-time basis. Without that, train crew personnel cannot plan rest and personal activities, which results in some crew members missing work opportunities and others reporting to work poorly rested. There are economic and safety-related implications for both.

There is a Cloud-based solution that requires very little effort, since everyone from train planners to train dispatchers are already in communication with one another by one means or another. Create a Cloud platform and require real-time inputs from all management functions that affect train origination and movement. Delays, route changes and deadheads, whether planned or unplanned, can adversely affect the availability of well-rested train crews.

However, arm them with an app, linked to the platform that collects and processes train movement and crew availability information, and railroads should be able to predict individual work events at least eight hours in advance of when people would be required to report for duty. Fewer would miss work opportunities, and many would report for duty more-well-rested and capable of performing their assigned work for shifts that can extend for up to twelve hours.

There are safety and economic benefits for all involved. Think about that.

I wonder what Hunter would say?

William C. Keppen Jr., a retired BLET (Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen) Vice President and third-generation locomotive engineer at BNSF and predecessors Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and Burlington Northern, is an independent transportation advocate with experience in fatigue countermeasures programs. A railroad industry veteran of almost 50 years, Keppen provides safety analyses for Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS) programs in freight, commuter, and light rail transportation. Keppen was Project Coordinator for BNSF’s Fatigue Countermeasures Program, and former BLE General Chairman for the BN Northlines GCA. “I started working on human-factor-caused train accidents in 1980,” he says. “It has been a struggle. I would like to think I have made a difference, but there are still far to many human-factor-caused train ‘accidents,’ which I prefer to refer to as ‘preventable incidents.’”

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