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by Jeff Stagl, managing editor
It's several minutes past 2 p.m. on Oct. 4 at Norfolk Southern Corp.'s headquarters. Mark Manion enters a conference room, takes a seat, sets his Blackberry down on a table and apologizes for being late. He also jokes about not being able to shake hands.
It's not because he's physically unable to do so or chooses not to. He isn't in the building. Manion, NS' executive vice president and chief operating officer, is in an Atlanta facility about 600 miles away.
Broadcast on a high-definition television screen and speaking through a crystal-clear, real-time digital sound system, he appears to be within arm's reach.
Manion demonstrated a "Telepresence" videoconference, which is more technically sophisticated than conventional videoconferencing systems NS has used for years. Various stimuli — including blue-colored backlit walls that keep an attendee's eyes focused on the high-def TV — and state-of-the-art video and audio fidelity foster the illusion of an in-person meeting.
About five months ago, NS executives began conducting Telepresence videoconferences, which help facilitate discussions between people who otherwise wouldn't meet because of logistics issues, says Manion. The meetings don't drive up costs, either, he adds.
"We save on travel expenses," says Manion.
Reducing operating costs is a key reason NS is attempting to develop and employ more technology. Battery-powered locomotives, top-of-rail lubricators, electronically controlled pneumatic braking systems, and train movement planning and locomotive engineer training software — to name a few — promise to cut fuel, material and manpower expenses.
The hardware and software also help improve operational performance and boost business, says Manion.
"[We can] increase velocity, reduce potential congestion issues and put more volume out on the railroad," he says.
All Class Is, dozens of regionals and short lines, and a host of passenger railroads are employing technology for the same reasons. For decades, the rail industry has attempted to automate manual processes and operate more efficient, state-of-the-art equipment.
NS can learn a thing or two from some "interesting" things other railroads are doing, says Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Wick Moorman.
Remaining in tune with technological advances can help the senior team achieve such long-term goals as sustaining a sub-70 operating ratio, generating more than $10 billion in annual operating revenue and keeping operating costs well below 11 figures each year, they believe.
There also are operational and financial benefits to reap, as long as senior execs are willing to commit tens of millions of dollars and other necessary resources to the cause. The willingness is there if the benefits are, says Moorman.
"We remain very committed to implementing technology if it gives us another opportunity to improve the railroad," he says.
Opportunities abound when it comes to deploying two software systems that NS has tested and analyzed the past several years: GE Transportation's RailEdge¨ Movement Planner and New York Air Brake Corp.'s Locomotive Engineer Assist/Display Event Recorder (LEADER¨). Senior execs have decided to roll out the systems because they're convinced the software will help bolster on-time performance and reduce operating costs.
Designed to improve crew management and increase average network velocity by 10 percent to 20 percent, RailEdge Movement Planner is targeted for system-wide installation by 2011's end. The software had been lab-tested for several months and field-tested for about six months prior to installation, which began in late 2009.
RailEdge integrates railroad logistics with traffic control systems and forecasts expected track usage based on train schedules, then develops an optimal plan to ensure trains move faster and more efficiently.
Senior execs plan to implement the software on a periodic basis, perhaps every three to six months, as workers install the Unified Train Control System (UTCS) — a computer-aided dispatching system NS developed with GE — in all of the Class I's 11 divisions. So far, the movement planning software has been rolled out in three divisions; by year's end, six divisions will be using it, says Manion.
"We're getting accustomed to it," he says, adding that hours are being shaved from transit times, and operating personnel are getting a better handle on each train's make up and schedule.
For Moorman, RailEdge has been a "real eye opener" because the software already is generating some "meaningful" increases in average trains speeds — most of the 2-to-4-mph variety — that can help attract and retain business. NS has determined that increasing train speed by 1 mph potentially can save about $200 million annually.
"This leads to increased capacity, to less capital requirements and to fuel savings — all virtues flow out of it," says Moorman.
After implementation is complete, virtually all operating systems eventually will funnel into RailEdge, says Manion. The next step: tying a yard scheduling system and road train operations into the software system, perhaps in 2012, he says.
"Yard and road operations [personnel] don't talk to each other now," says Manion. "We would have a much more seamless operation."
NS also is advancing deployment of LEADER, a locomotive computer system designed to improve fuel efficiency and boost safe handling for long-haul trains. The system provides locomotive engineers with real-time information about a train's operating conditions. NS first began testing LEADER in 2003, when the Class I conducted a pilot project involving 15 coal trains moving between Winston-Salem, N.C., and Roanoke, Va.
An on-board computer calculates and displays an optimum operating speed, depending on topography and track curvature, as well as an optimal train length and weight. LEADER can calculate a "golden run," or the best train-handling strategy for a particular train movement.
"This is a great technology," says Moorman. "It prompts the engineer as to how to operate a specific train in a specific territory."
By year's end, 425 locomotives will be outfitted with LEADER, says Manion. Workers are testing the software with GE's Trip Optimizer, an automated system designed to optimize fuel usage based on a train's makeup and route. In addition, LEADER eventually will work in tandem with UTCS and RailEdge, says Manion.
"There's an opportunity to do a more efficient job of pacing trains," he says.
Although LEADER predominantly is used on locomotives operating on Virginia Division coal routes, the software soon will be deployed on trains moving between Chicago and New Jersey, says Gerhard Thelen, vice president of operations planning and support. Intermodal and general merchandise trains also will begin using the system in the near future, he says.
In addition to software, there's some hardware NS is using more often and in more places to boost efficiency and cut costs. A top-of-rail (TOR) friction management system developed by Portec Rail Products Inc./Kelsan Technologies Corp. currently is installed on 300 sharp curves in the Pocahontas Subdivision (which includes portions of West Virginia) to reduce lateral forces in the track, increase rail and wheel life, and cut fuel consumption. The TOR device applies a modifier designed to reduce friction between track and wheels without impacting traction or braking.
The system helps extend rail life two to three times, enabling the railroad to skip a rail gauging cycle, says Thelen. In addition, the system provides minimum fuel savings of 4 percent, adds Manion.
Senior execs plan to install TOR systems in areas with sharp curves and high train frequency rates. Crews currently are installing the devices on lines between Cincinnati, Chattaonooga, Tenn., and Atlanta.
"The goal is to have the systems on all of our sharp curves in a couple of years," says Thelen.
By that time, mechanical department managers also might take a few more steps toward implementing electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes, which NS has tested for more than a decade.
So far, the railroad has equipped 700 rail cars with the brakes and is operating six ECP-equipped coal trainsets, mostly in Pennsylvania and Virginia. Three trains operate in the Shire Oaks, Pa., area; two serve a Shelocta, Pa., power plant; one serves a Blairsville, Pa., power plant; and three operate in the Clover, Va., area, occasionally serving Spencer or Eden, N.C., as demand dictates. The three Clover-area trains employ Wire Distributed Power technology, with three locomotives on the head end and two units serving as remote locomotives at the rear, says Jamie Williams, NS' superintendent of air brakes.
In addition, NS plans to operate an ECP-equipped train with BNSF Railway Co. between Wyoming's Powder River Basin and Scherer, Ga. In 2007, the Federal Railroad Administration granted NS and BNSF a waiver to operate an ECP-equipped coal train 5,000 miles without stopping for intermediate brake inspections (current ECP rules only allow 3,000 miles between brake inspections).
"The 5,000-mile waiver is limited to one route," says Williams. "We have not begun to operate [the train on] this route as of yet, but we are looking at the possibilities."
As more trainsets are fitted with the brakes, mechanical department managers expect to continue gauging ECP's benefits, such as better cycle times, and less fuel usage and equipment wear.
In the meantime, the mechanical department is advancing a few other projects. Department managers are working with Axion Power International Inc. to develop a battery management system designed to power locomotives and recharge via regenerative braking. Featuring Axion Power's PbC batteries, the system would enable certain locomotives to operate without diesel generator sets, cutting the motive power's fuel usage and air emissions down to zero.
A battery-powered unit would be part of a three-locomotive consist with two conventional units to help push a train uphill. Batteries would recharge while a train applies dynamic brakes heading downhill via a system developed by Brookville Equipment Corp.
A prototype currently undergoing tests — the 1,500-horsepower "NS 999" switcher — features 1,080 lead-acid, 12-volt batteries. NS chose lead-acid batteries instead of nickel-metal hydride or lithium-ion models, which continue to be developed, says Thelen.
However, finding an energy management system that can ensure equal battery performance when charging and discharging is proving difficult because current systems are limited and better ones need to be developed, he says.
"We need to find the right battery management system," says Thelen, adding that it's equally challenging to configure enough batteries in the tight confines of an engine frame.
NS' R&D department managers also are trying to develop a six-axle road locomotive powered by batteries. They're working with Penn State University researchers to test batteries and battery strings with a maximum potential of 3,000 horsepower, says Thelen.
"We have a large R&D department, and it's a strategic benefit to do things independently as well as keep up with TTCI and other researchers, so we don't double up," he says.
The R&D partnership approach led to the development of another alternative locomotive: a modified GenSet produced by Progress Rail Services Corp. that features two Caterpillar Inc. engines working in tandem to generate power. In 2008, officials from NS and Progress Rail — which is owned by Caterpillar — began to jointly develop the high-horsepower "PR43C."
The repower locomotive features a Caterpillar C-175, 3,600-horsepower engine and a secondary Caterpillar C-18, 700-horsepower engine. The PR43C uses the larger engine when operating and smaller engine when idling to maximize fuel savings, reduce emissions and lower lifecycle costs.
"The advantage is that we're working with Caterpillar, which has expertise in engine research and development," says Moorman, adding that Caterpillar also recently added locomotive expertise to its repertoire after acquiring Electro-Motive Diesel Inc.
NS currently is using three PR43Cs — two owned by the railroad and one Caterpillar demonstration unit — and has four more on order with Progress Rail, says Thelen. The four new units will feature upgraded traction systems, control systems and modernized cabs.
Although NS figures to consume a lot less diesel because of the alternative locomotives, as well as a number of other fuel-management measures, the Class I's annual usage still totals hundreds of millions of gallons. So, senior execs are analyzing the potential of synthetic — and perhaps lower-cost — fuels. The railroad has tested a coal-to-liquid fuel produced in South Africa that burns cleaner than diesel, says Thelen.
However, to be a practical diesel alternative, the coal-to-liquid fuel would need to be produced domestically; NS is seeking a U.S. company to produce it, says Thelen.
"We're trying to encourage companies to get into that business," he says.
Fuel costs — and total operating expenses — also are factors in senior execs' decision to modernize locomotives produced prior to 1972. Workers at the Juanita Shops in Altoona, Pa., continue to rebuild four-axle GP38s into helper units renamed SD50Es. The units are stripped down to their frames and rebuilt. The SD50Es include new cabs featuring a low-nose, full-glass view instead of the former high-nose configuration, says Manion.
"We have a fleet with a lot of age in it. The rebuilds can add 20 years to the life of a locomotive," he says, adding that work can be done at less than half the cost of a new locomotive.
The goal is to rebuild 35 locomotives per year; so far, shop workers have rebuilt 175 units.
Although senior execs have chosen to upgrade the older locomotive fleet, there's another ongoing technological development that's been thrust upon them and leaders at 40 other U.S. railroads: positive train control (PTC). To comply with the federal mandate, NS execs plan to install a Vital Train Management System on two-thirds of the railroad's 21,000-mile network by 2015's end. The total cost: $1.1 billion, or $1.5 billion to both install and maintain the system, says Moorman.
"It's hideously expensive. We see the FRA implementing PTC in ways that are more costly and well beyond the intent of the legislation," he says. "We hope the industry gets some relief on the most onerous parts of this."
A risk mitigation strategy that addresses the safety of transporting toxic-by-inhalation materials would be a better option than PTC, Moorman believes.
"We should be exploring those options," he says.
When it comes to exploring various other technological options, NS is taking the do-it-on-many-fronts approach. During the past few years, the railroad's R&D efforts have included:
However, there still are a few items on NS' wish list, such as the deployment of more detection devices. From hot bearing to wheel impact load detectors, the devices can help reduce time delays and cut costs, says Manion.
"You can detect something well in advance, like a bad-actor car," he says.
Staying ahead of and embracing technological advances is vital to NS' growth, senior execs say. There are dozens of benefits — and millions of dollars — at stake if they don't.
"Technology helps to reduce costs, and at the same time, provide better service to customers," says Manion.