By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University
Railroad communications technology and machine automation have a history of working to improve railroad operations and employees’ job performance. At the same time, artificial intelligence (AI), human-computer interfaces and robots are affecting the railroad industry by replacing some workers.
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For example, DELAIR is an organization that uses drones to help locate problems on rail routes. The railroad industry also uses “Clear Track Ahead,” a mapping technology company that teams with emergency managers to ensure that they have the GPS maps needed to locate rail emergencies for their 911 centers. Global Information Systems also provide tracking system technology.
Besides railroad employees’ obvious hard work, they have a unique language that at times seems alien. The railroad dictionary is a unique world of terms that show the level of complexity of rail transportation operations. From A to almost Z, the words and terms are mostly unique to ordinary daily dialogue not related to the rail industry.
These railroad terms include An End of Car, Act of God, Ballast Tamper, Cabin Car (also called a Caboose), Dead Man Valve, Elkins Act, Fifth Wheel, Gauntlet, Head End, In The Hole, Jib, Kingpin, Lead End, Make the Air, No-Rail Origin, On the Ground, Palace of Justice, Queue, Rail Bond, Sand House, Tariff, Unit Train, Van Train, Waycar (also called Caboose), and Yard Slug. But there are no terms starting with the letters X and Z.
Technology Is Changing Railroad Train Control
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) works with transportation to insure the safety at the more than 200,000 grade crossings in the U.S. The rail industry is using a variety of communications and computer technologies to make these crossing and the trains crossing them safer and more reliable.
Positive Train Control (PTC) technology alerts train operators to potential train collisions. PTC also helps prevent trains from traveling too fast by automatically braking when they approach an unsafe speed. But PTC is not yet mandatory on all rail lines.
A clear example of the need for PTC was Amtrak Cascades train 501. On its inaugural run on a new, faster route from Seattle to Portland, Ore., in December 2017, the train flew off the tracks near DuPont, Washington. The train was going 78 mph on a sharp curve with a posted speed limit of 30 mph. Miraculously, only three people were killed, and 57 other passengers and eight people in highway vehicles were injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) criticized the decision to start service on the new route without having installed PTC on the trains, “which would have intervened to prevent the wreck.” As with any new technology, PTC involves hiring people who have new skills, updated equipment and facilities made for this technology.
PSR Seeks to Attract Customers to Use Rail Cargo Rather than Trucking
Precision scheduled railroading (PSR) is a system to attract customers to use rail cargo rather than trucking. PSR is an operational concept to track each individual carload on an entire train. News reports say many rail companies are reporting profits due to PSR, whereas that was not so just 10 years ago.
Changes Are Coming to Today’s Railroads
The AAR reports weekly rail traffic in carloads, containers and trailers. For the week of February 15, for example, nearly 500,000 carloads were transported by rail. The items transported included petroleum products, motor vehicles and associated automotive parts, ores and metals, coal, nonmetallic minerals, and grain.
From 1947 to 2012, the U.S. rail industry experienced a steady decline in employment, according to RailServe. The number of railroad workers in 1947 was around 1.5 million. With a steady, almost straight-line decrease, that number fell to just over 200,000 in 1997 and continued to a low of 231,000 in 2012. But by 2014 (the last year available), employment rose to 235,000, a 1.8 percent increase.
The growth of railroad workers was due to increased demand, but that demand was short-lived. Between 2018 and 2028, overall employment of railroad workers is projected to decline two percent, due to “decreasing demand for the transportation of bulk commodities, such as coal and oil.”
The Unions Hold the Lead
Railroad Workers United (RWU) is “an inter-union, cross-craft solidarity ‘caucus’ of railroad workers, and their supporters, from all crafts, all carriers, and all unions across North America.”
The RWU includes thirteen unions representing all kinds of railroad jobs, including the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers; the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees; the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen; the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, and the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen.
However, Union Pacific plans to lay off nearly 3,000 employees this year because of its streamlined operating plan to run longer trains and fewer train runs. The more streamlined routing, planning and scheduling is reducing the workload. This downward trend started with Union Pacific’s 2018 announcement that its Unified Plan 2020 would be an important part of its “objective of operating a safe, reliable and efficient railroad.”
Some railroad observers blame PSR for creating layoffs and closing down some rail operational facilities.
The Railroad Systems of America
CSX is one of North America’s largest rail-based transportation suppliers of intermodal containers and trailers. Overall, the CSX transportation network encompasses about 21,000 miles of track in 23 states, the District of Columbia, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Nearly two-thirds of Americans live within CSX’s service territory.
The Norfolk Southern transports commodities such as coal, agricultural products, automotive, chemicals, metals, construction materials and forest products.
The Union Pacific Railroad operates from Chicago to the western half of the U.S. The railroad transports coal, fertilizer, food and grain.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), formerly the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Company, transports agriculture products, chemicals, frozen food, ethanol, fertilizer, automobiles and their parts, coal, metals and solid waste.
My experiences traveling on Amtrak and Alaska Railroad are different. When I traveled by Amtrak along the East Coast, passengers were not allowed to stand in the open doorways between the cars.
But on the ARRC, the doorways between passenger cars have open windows so you can stick your head out, feel the wind in your face and take lots of great pictures. On occasion, the train will make unscheduled stops to let another sightseeing train pass by or to let off a passenger going home to his cabin in the woods.
The history of Alaska Railroad is one of true ruggedness and perseverance about Alaska wilderness living.
About the Author
Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.
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