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By Jeff Stagl, Managing Editor
In mid-2019, a track inspection supervisor approached Norfolk Southern Railway executive John Fleps holding a cell phone high in the air. The engineering department employee had been logging 14-hour work days and missed a lot of time at home.
But a new mobile track authority application eliminated time wasted from back-and-forth conversations with a dispatcher so he could focus entirely on his inspection territory. The supervisor’s work day shrank to about eight hours and became more predictable.
“He told me this phone has changed his life, that he’s going home to his family sooner,” says Fleps, NS’ assistant vice president of engineering. “That was a turning point for me, to see how technology can change lives.”
As an organization, NS has reached such a technological turning point. The Class I is trying to develop or adapt mobile applications that can improve employee communications, processes and tasks. As part of that effort, the railroad is distributing the same mobile device to the vast majority of its employees.
The undertaking — which will take several years to carry out — is aimed at making the company more agile, efficient and modernized. Such qualities could help the company better navigate in the post-pandemic world, NS leaders believe.
Although new technologies and innovations are being sought to improve many other aspects of the company, the new mobile apps are considered vital because employees drive everything.
“Putting advanced mobile technology in the hands of our people enables Norfolk Southern to be a faster, smarter and more efficient railroad,” said NS Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer James Squires in an email. “These mobile initiatives are part of a comprehensive technology vision that touches operations, customer service, employee engagement and virtually every area of our business to make our company stronger.”
The mobile app pursuit aims to arm workers with the necessary tools to perform their jobs better and more safely, develop a better understanding of and appreciation for all parts of NS’ business, and feel heard and valued up and down command chains. NS leaders hope that by harnessing mobile technology, connectivity will be strengthened between co-workers within the same building, shop or anywhere across the network.
For example, replacing paperwork with mobile apps means workers no longer will need to transpose their notes at a reporting location or have someone else document them electronically, says Fred Ehlers, NS’ VP of information technology and chief information officer. Plus, customers get timelier information that’s close to real time instead of about an hour old, he says.
“The obvious benefit from the mobile app approach is efficiency,” says Ehlers.
The railroad now is trying to be more aggressive on the technological frontier. That requires a transition from a sideline watcher that first waited to see if new technologies worked at other companies before adopting them to a full-out game player that develops its own apps and pursues its own innovations.
To that end, the Class I recently:
• developed the FORGE employee communication app to replace cumbersome email blasts with customized real-time communications;
• created a mobile track authority interface as part of its UTCSLite mobile platform that helps improve coordination between dispatching and track maintenance crews; and
• honed a Virtual Crew Room that allows train crews to check in, receive work orders and expedite deliveries for customers via a mobile device.
The railroad also is pursuing Project Fusion, a major effort aimed at fostering connectivity at its new Atlanta headquarters, which is slated to open next year. A new mobile system will serve as a security badge and support various other tasks.
The technological changes have many moving parts because NS can’t accomplish its goals with a single mobile app, says Ehlers.
“It’s a collection of apps working in concert,” he says.
The Class I had been making strides with developing mobile apps, but the pandemic accelerated those efforts since many employees either are working from home or social distancing. The decision was made to change priorities and slow down certain information technology (IT) projects, says Ehlers.
The development of FORGE certainly was sped up — it took less than two months to develop the app, which consolidates company communications into one mobile platform.
Introduced on June 16, it includes corporate and internal announcements, department news and communications, external news and information from across the rail industry.
NS first formed a cross-functional team that benchmarked how other railroads and companies in industrial settings shared information with their employees. With 20,000 workers spread over 22 states, the railroad needed a standard communication platform that could better connect all employees.
The team played a role in the decision to configure a platform developed by SocialChorus to create the FORGE app. The Class I worked with SocialChorus to tweak their off-the-shelf platform and fine tune it for the features NS desired.
In employee surveys, many workers said NS issued too many company emails, operated too many company websites and offered no direct line of communication to the field. They also expressed a desire for more transparency from the company and to receive more messages from NS leaders.
FORGE offers multiple ways to communicate with employees in small bites — the way people want to digest communications these days, says Annie Adams, NS’ executive VP and chief transformation officer, who was part of the FORGE development team.
Workers can use the app to find and download information that interests them, upload their own content and comment on items. Channels can be created that target one specific group, such as maintenance-of-way (MOW) employees.
Worker surveys conducted since the app’s launch have shown an uptick in employee engagement scores, says Adams.
“We plan to build on the capacity of FORGE and get more information into their hands by layering on tools,” she says. “We can give them messages about the company’s strategy and performance results.”
FORGE gets everyone on the same page, fosters two-way communication, targets communications to the right employees at the right time and makes information more readily available to the field, says Ehlers.
“Email is not a good medium for digesting information. It’s hard to do with field personnel because they are so dispersed,” he says. “This way, employees can digest information when they want and not have to fish through emails.
The UTCSLite mobile track authority also places more power in workers’ hands, specifically thousands of MOW and communications and signals (C&S) department employees. Track maintenance crews can use the interface to access an eight-hour projection of train traffic and activity to identify optimum work windows without having to contact a dispatcher. Workers then can take advantage of naturally occurring, open windows, says AVP Fleps.
Mobile track authority is an internally developed app that interfaces with NS’ dispatching system, which was built by GE Transportation/Wabtec Corp.
For the past 10 years, track workers have been able to obtain a static view of dispatching via mobile devices. The GE dispatching system led to the development of UTCSLite in 2013. In what’s been a steady but complicated effort since then — due to technological challenges — NS has worked with GE to develop the mobile authority app, says Fleps.
Interface tests began in 2018 and in January 2019, NS began to roll it out to non-agreement MOW and C&S employees. About 350 MOW supervisors and more than 100 C&S supervisors helped vet the interface, says Fleps.
NS then began to provide it to agreement workers in the two departments. Now, the interface is used by about 1,250 MOW workers (including 900 agreement employees) and 790 C&S workers (including 130 supervisors).
NS plans to continue enhancing UTCSLite and the interface. But the mobile authority tool already has been “life changing” in the engineering department, says Fleps. Instead of waiting up to an hour for a dispatcher to approve a work window — time that could have been spent doing something else — a worker can get track time in about two minutes, he says.
“MOW workers talk about being the only workers in America begging to do their job because they’re at the mercy of others. They competed for dispatchers’ time,” says Fleps. “Now, we do the work in the field and make window requests, and the dispatcher just needs to acknowledge it, which takes the workload off of them.”
The next big thing on the tool-development horizon — which is expected to prompt a jump in users — is activating the interface in dark unsignaled territory covering 700 to 800 miles. When that happens this month, about 500 more workers will use the tool.
By 2020’s end, NS also expects to begin rolling out the first phase of an asset enterprise management tool that will analyze every asset employed in work flows, says Fleps. The tool will eventually place asset management under one central app, which will help with inventories and financial reporting, he says.
The first phase — a bridge inspection tool — is targeted for a completion in 2020. A track assets tool will follow next year.
NS will continue to reap benefits from apps, but the company first needs to ensure all workers are using the same mobile device in the field. It needs to be a common device, like a radio, says Ehlers. The idea is an employee will use it until the company replaces it, he adds.
NS eventually will roll out 8,000 mobile devices to train and engine-service (T&E) workers to use in all facets of their job. Hundreds of engineering department workers also will receive the devices, as well as a number of mechanical department employees, but the railroad has just started to address the mechanical side, says Ehlers.
Many T&E workers already are benefiting from the Virtual Crew Room mobile device interface, which calls for eliminating crew rooms, where employees work in close proximity and share computers. The Virtual Crew Room enables workers to use a mobile device to check in — thus starting their work day faster — receive work orders and consists, and find next-job or payroll information.
Most T&E workers now start their shift at a crew room, where they access a computer terminal shared by dozens or hundreds of other employees — depending on the location — to receive job information, read bulletins, or access email or rulebooks, says Jacob Elium, NS’ assistant general manager of crew management.
A Virtual Crew Room rollout is in the early stages now; by year’s end, about 2,000 T&E employees will receive a company-issued mobile device and begin using the interface. The rollout might be completed by late 2021, depending if certain regulatory and technological issues are sorted out, says Elium.
“We need to replace a 30-year-old mainframe-based system,” he says.
Virtual Crew Room not only will save employees time, it’ll save the company money on overhead since hundreds of printers, terminals and other hardware no longer will be needed, says Elium.
Saving time and money also are the goals for Project Fusion. By the time the new Atlanta headquarters opens in third-quarter 2021, it should be highly WiFi- and technology-enabled, says Chief Transformation Officer Adams. The thousands of HQ workers will be able to use their mobile device to get past security, call an elevator, reserve a meeting room or even order food, she says.
The goal: to create a touchless work experience for each employee.
“They will be able to go all the way to their workstation and only touch their mobile device,” says Adams.
Project Fusion and the mobile app effort are aimed at making work seamless whether a NS employee is working at home, in an office or in the field, she says. Having all workers use Microsoft Teams for online meetings and the same mobile device for apps will prompt that, she says. Fostering more collaboration and teamwork is a goal, too.
“We want to bring teams together that historically have not always worked together,” says Adams.
Locating the HQ in Atlanta — a techno-rich talent breeding ground — and pursuing technologies will help NS attract and retain talent, she says.
“But Atlanta is also a very competitive environment for talent,” says Adams.
The company-issued mobile devices will be continuously developed and not be ignored for a long period without any enhancements or additions, says Ehlers.
“What other apps can we add over time? We keep getting ideas for more apps,” he says.
Better mobile communications are just part of NS’ technological journey. The Class I needs IT enhancements and some better foundational systems, as well, says Ehler.
“We still need a good underlying system to support all of it,” he says.
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