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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
In late 2004, Matt Rose sat in his Fort Worth, Texas, office and pondered my question as to why BNSF Railway Co. had developed a reputation back then as a quick adopter of emerging technologies. The Class I’s then-chairman, president and chief executive officer summed it up thusly: We have a technological bent.
“Technology makes you more productive and gives you tools to succeed,” Rose — who’s now BNSF’s executive chairman — said at the time. “All railroads are doing a good job in implementing technologies, but we’d rather be in the front of the parade than in the rear.”
Not much has changed in 13-plus years. BNSF still is aiming to remain ahead of the Class I crowd in the pursuit of promising technologies and enterprising innovations. Moreover, the railroad continues striving to be a fast adopter for many of the same reasons cited by Rose.
“Our overall approach to technology is about improving our capabilities. We leverage new technologies when and where it makes sense to enhance the safe and efficient operation of our railroad,” said current BNSF President and CEO Carl Ice via email last month. “Technology helps us meet our customers’ expectations today and into the future.”
Conversations conducted last month in Fort Worth with the Class I’s senior technology officer and other executives revolved around how technologies are pervasive throughout BNSF, and help drive productivity and efficiency gains. From adopting predictive analytics to developing machine learning techniques to pursuing Big Data, the technological exploits of late are targeted at making the Class I a better rail operator and service provider.
As examples, the Class I over the past year has issued tablets to thousands of field employees to improve the speed and accuracy of tasks, employed autonomous cars to boost the frequency and reliability of track geometry tests, developed a new computerized pricing system to make it easier and faster for customers to obtain rates, and created algorithms to reduce costs in track surfacing and curve replacement programs (click here for more information).
In 2012, the Class I crafted a “road map” to guide technology adoptions through 2020, and since has extended it by several more years, says Jo-ann Olsovsky, BNSF’s chief information officer and vice president of technology services. The long-range strategy focuses on ways to improve the organization, such as bettering customer experience and service delivery methods.
“These are opportunities to reduce costs while increasing efficiency,” Olsovsky says. “Our goal is to take the busy out of busy work.”
The challenge is working against the clock to adopt technologies and incorporate innovations with the talent and resources BNSF has on hand, says Olsovsky. The pace of technological change is a factor, too.
“Some are ripe and ready to go, while others will take time. It depends on how technologies are coming together,” she says.
Perhaps no other recent BNSF project exemplifies both embracing technological change and easing busy work than the modernization of the railroad’s network operations center (NOC) in Fort Worth. Opened in 1995, the NOC houses more than 500 dispatchers and support staff who manage traffic around the clock in 10 divisions governing 95 dispatching districts.
The company’s dispatchers authorize the movement of every train across BNSF’s 32,500-mile network in 28 states and three Canadian provinces, and handle about 500 train starts per day. At any given time, there are 100 to 150 dispatchers on the NOC floor managing 1,400 trains and 205,000 rail cars moving in the network.
Dispatchers constantly communicate with other dispatchers in regional hubs, train and maintenance crew members, terminal personnel and others to ensure the safe, fluid delivery of freight throughout the system. Accordingly, the Class I needs highly trained people using very sophisticated technology — including the most advanced transportation management system — to keep track of all traffic, BNSF execs say.
The more than 20-year-old center needed a refresh so both training and technology could be vastly upgraded, they believed. That’s why the railroad pursued and completed a nine-month, nearly $20 million project last year. (To view a time-lapse video of the construction work, click here.)
The center now is or soon will be equipped with the most sophisticated transportation planning technology available, BNSF execs say.
“The big thing is there was yesterday’s technology at the center,” says Olsovsky. “And it was set up to be reactive while today it’s all about being predictive.”
Other project objectives called for improving communication and collaboration both among NOC workers and between dispatchers and employees, and obtaining additional flexibility to adapt the center in the future, if necessary.
Conducted from February to October 2017, the modernization was an enormous and complicated undertaking for several reasons, says Shea DiMauro, BNSF’s director of dispatcher and yardmaster support, who managed the project. For one, all the work was performed in a 40,000-square-foot area that could house a football field or 10 Olympic-size pools.
For another, all NOC workers needed to be housed temporarily in an operations support building located 9 miles away in Fort Worth while the center was remodeled, says DiMauro.
“It took planning from A to Z. It was a challenge to move out the 150 people who work there at any given time during the renovation and then bring them back,” she says.
The NOC houses nearly 100 BNSF dispatcher desks and two Union Pacific Railroad dispatching desks (for traffic on jointly used lines), as well as 120 supervisor and support staff desks. The support desks are manned by crew, engineering, locomotive and mechanical team members, as well as employees assigned to certain commodities. It took about 45 minutes to move each desk and only nine to 16 desks could be moved in a day, so an entire move took about 10 days, says DiMauro.
The major components of the project involved:
• demolishing the former tiered floor — which resembled one used in a stadium or movie theater — and constructing a flat single-level floor throughout the center;
• replacing nine separate and dated large-screen televisions with one 160-foot-long, 18-foot-high seamless TV;
• building a sub-floor beneath the NOC so future electrical, heating and cooling work can be performed without disrupting operations; and
• installing next-generation workstations with advanced monitors, sit/stand desks for better ergonomics, wireless headsets and improved temperature control devices.
In addition, lighting, acoustics and ventilation systems were improved to create a more comfortable, productive work space. The NOC has a hardened exterior shell made of concrete — enough to pave a 12-mile, two-lane highway — that helps protect it from tornadoes and other severe weather events, but impacts the interior environment.
The king-size TV — which covers an area equivalent to 240 55-inch, wide-screen televisions — can display up to 32 inputs, such as weather maps or radar, network areas with service disruptions, or locomotive supply charts. At the time of installation in fall 2017, it was one of the largest single-span projector screen TVs ever produced, says DiMauro. The TV displays no bright colors or flashing images to prevent distractions.
The placement of desks was reconfigured so NOC employees who work together in territories are in close proximity instead of spread out like before, says DiMauro. The new configuration improves coordination among divisions and regions and across traffic corridors by better aligning dispatchers and support teams on the floor. In addition, NOC managers have greater flexibility to reorganize work groups as needed.
“We used to put desks where we could find open spots. Now, it’s an open environment and communication is enhanced,” DiMauro says.
The open pod design is workers’ No. 1 positive comment about the project, says Greg Lawler, BNSF’s general superintendent of transportation-south region, who oversees that region’s dispatching operations at the NOC. Workers in territories can talk face to face instead of trading emails since they no longer are stationed far apart, he says.
“[The project] addressed traffic flow in general, and also communication flow,” says Lawler.
Workers also now can access meeting rooms, break rooms and restrooms that were built within the secured areas of the NOC instead of taking the time to leave and re-enter security while using those facilities. Since fewer workers are passing through many areas of the center, safety in general has been improved and there are much fewer disruptions to operations, says Lawler.
“They can be locked into what they’re doing now,” he says. “Decision-making is quicker and cleaner, and they’re making the right decisions.”
The new workstations were designed with employees in mind — and with input from them, as well. American Train Dispatchers Association members and officials provided suggestions after examining the workstations as configured by BNSF. Their feedback prompted such changes as installing vents off to the side instead of in the middle of the desk, and adding more depth to the workstation so it was easier for dispatchers and staffers to keep paperwork and notes in front of them, Lawler says.
To display more information, the workstations feature five monitors stacked on five monitors instead of the previous four-over-four configuration. The installation of advanced video monitor technology and side cabinets has freed up space that had been used to house old cooling cabinets for now-outdated large-tube monitors.
Sometime in mid-2018, BNSF plans to install GE Transportation’s Movement Planner solution at the NOC and in other locations. A combined rail traffic-control system and logistics planner, Movement Planner is designed to electronically analyze and optimize traffic so more trains can run on the same track at faster speeds.
The solution can significantly improve on-time performance, increase network capacity and fluidity, and provide a more comprehensive view of the railroad’s network, BNSF execs believe.
Movement Planner offers real-time train movement planning and train trip optimization — in a planning horizon up to 12 hours — as well as conflict detection and resolution features.
“It will help us with the meets and passes of trains,” says CIO Olsovsky.
For now, BNSF will focus on improving training for NOC dispatchers. The Class I plans to perform training functions at the operations support building that temporarily housed NOC workers.
Training previously was handled by a third party on desks that differed from those used in the NOC, says Lawler. Now, dispatchers will be trained on the actual workstations.
“They are better prepared that way,” says Lawler.
The new NOC ultimately will better prep the railroad to support the technology, tools or operational and organizational changes coming in the foreseeable future, BNSF execs believe. The center is set up to “evolve and pivot” to help the company meet its strategy objectives and service goals, they say.
So far, the benefits BNSF wanted to derive from the NOC have been “right on the money,” says Lawler.
“It’s all about information flow — crisp, clean and easy,” he says. “It’s what it needed to be.”
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