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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
At the Belt Railway Co. of Chicago (BRC), train consists are assembled like clockwork. For a switching railroad that receives 3,000 rail cars and humps 2,400 cars daily, train-building operations need to be systematic.
First, BRC managers develop an operating plan with each of the 14 railroads that use the Chicago-area switching yard to identify schedules and blocks for every train. An AS400 computer system then generates a blocking table to correlate a city with a blocking code and the delivering carrier provides a computer message containing the inbound train consist. BRC and delivering carrier officials confirm the destination block or reroute code.
Next, the AS400 automatically applies a received code to cars arriving at the BRC and the hump conductor slots a train consist prior to humping cars. The AS400 forwards the consist list to a GE - Transportation PROYARD™ hump computer, which assigns a track to the block code.
After cars are humped, they’re pulled from the classification yard to a departure yard, where blocks are assembled as designated by carriers’ train schedules. The BRC then enters carriers’ train make-up restrictions into the AS400, corrects any deviations and meets the outbound train schedule, which includes train length.
BRC managers also rely on a train block inventory process to determine the number of cars per block on hand in the receiving, classification and departure yards.
The switching railroad has employed the same train-building processes and technology for years, primarily because everything is functioning smoothly, says BRC General Manager of Transportation Mike Paras.
“It’s like an assembly line that keeps going,” he says. “It’s no different than what the Class Is are doing.”
From the outside looking in
There isn’t much of a difference in the technology Class Is are using to build train consists at yards, either. For years, large roads have been using various systems, including GE’s PROYARD and PROYARD II™ process-control systems, and their own proprietary computer systems.
What is different is how Class Is are tapping technology to plan and adjust train blocks long before cars enter a yard.
Earlier this year, BNSF Railway Co. began using prototype modeling software designed to determine the best way to block traffic. Developed with software provider Innovative Scheduling, the Innovative Railroad Blocking Optimizer (IRBO) is an interactive, Web-based tool designed to help BNSF create optimal blocking and operating plans for each train. CSX Transportation currently uses a different version of the decision-support software.
IRBO generates 28-day data files containing historical traffic patterns for each car, including origins, destinations, special customer instructions and car characteristics. After IRBO is fully implemented at year’s end, BNSF managers will use the data to plan train builds.
“It replicates our physical network and can create a pattern of how traffic should be blocked,” says John Orrison, BNSF assistant vice president of service design and performance.
The need for speed
BNSF managers have determined a car is moving on a train 18 percent of the time and sitting in a yard or other facility the remainder. When sitting, the car is controlled by the railroad 55 percent of the time and customers, 27 percent of the time.
The Class I’s top goal — as handed down from Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Matthew Rose, and cascading through the organization — is to increase velocity, says Orrison. And IRBO will help BNSF accomplish that
objective, he says.
“IRBO will reduce handlings and minimize mileage,” says Orrison. “If we get cars through yards quicker, we’ll have more space to handle more cars.”
So far, BNSF has increased the average velocity of merchandise trains from 109 miles per day in January 2006 to 125 miles in May 2007.
IRBO will complement other technology BNSF uses to assemble consists.
For the past few years, the railroad has generated a computerized transportation service plan for each car that includes blocking and train assembling instructions for switchmen and yardmasters. In addition, BNSF uses other systems when pre-blocking cars with interchange partners, and performing reciprocal blocking with other Class Is and short lines.
“We plan to expand IRBO to incorporate the networks of other railroads,” says Orrison.
‘Pre’ is key prefix
Canadian Pacific Railway also plans to begin using an electronic tool to more accurately plan a train consist before cars reach a yard.
In fall, the Class I will upgrade its Train Yard Execution System (TYES) with a “Pre-Build” component designed to enable front-line managers and yardmasters to plan a train ahead of consist-building operations, as well as verify train marshalling, compare a consist against Design Intent (DI) and maximize train size, says CPR Director of Yard Operation Performance Mark Austin.
“The work plan can be communicated to the yard crew at the outset of their assignment and avoid rework in the final build process,” he says. “Pre-Build takes us another step closer to automating and improving the entire build process.”
CPR purchased the computerized Thoroughbred Yard Enterprise System from Norfolk Southern Railway in 1998 and spent five years customizing it into TYES, which CPR rolled out in 2003 and 2004. TYES sends a “slew of information” to field personnel, including a train’s schedule, which trains are carrying particular shipments, how trains should be sequenced and step-by-step trip plan instructions, says Austin.
Later this year, CPR also plans to upgrade its YardPro software — the railroad’s initial yard planning tool — to include crew and track resources, links to DI, and enhanced planning tools for front-line managers at switch and hump yards.
“The planning tool is intended to ensure each process step is followed to a very rigid timeline,” says Austin. “Tight execution processes ... will improve flow and consistency of the final product — a full train built safely and accurately to design.”
In addition, CPR plans to continue using a Train Area Marshalling (TrAM) mainframe program along with the Pre-Build-enhanced TYES later this year. TrAM takes into account a train’s weight, length and overall makeup against the terrain a train will travel over, says Austin.
“It allows the end user to understand the end result much earlier in the train-build process,” he says.
Currently, CPR is considering several other enhancements or tie-ins to TYES. In an early proof-of-concept phase, the railroad is using Automatic Equipment Identification (AEI) technology and new logic in TYES to compare tracks pulled from bowl or yard tracks to a work list, says Austin.
“We are having early success in reducing extra or missing cars on outbound trains and improving our consist accuracy,” he says.
Meanwhile, Kansas City Southern officials continue to rely on an internally developed Management Control System (MCS) operating platform to accurately build train consists at the company’s two railroads.
Implemented at the Kansas City Southern Railway Co. in 2002 and Kansas City Southern de México S.A. de C.V. in 2006, MCS houses train operations data that helps both railroads keep an accurate inventory and build consists via connections to AEI readers and a Train Management Dispatching System, says KCS spokesperson Doniele Kane.
Managers currently are trying to improve remote work order reporting to reduce data integrity issues and improve the timeliness of reporting changes, she says.
Key to automating the train build and execution process is enabling front-line managers to plan and supervise yard operations without having to key information into a computerized system after a train plan is set, says CPR’s Austin.
“The end result will be a manager with far less computer work and fuller trains built more accurately at the exact time they are needed,” he says.