Railinc Tracks Blog

Railinc tracks are everywhere although you don't always see them. The Railinc Tracks blog reveals them one at a time and shows you how we help to keep railroads, railcars and rail shipments moving across America. The blog is staffed by the Railinc Corporate Communication team and will give you news and insights about our company, our people and our products.

Automation Tools Help Railinc Manage Big Data

At Railinc, we handle a large volume of rail data every day and use automation tools to support our work. Control-M helps us monitor complex batch processes across multiple platforms and applications and plays a vital role in what we do. Robert Redd, a release engineer administrator at Railinc, wrote the blog post below about how we are using Control-M and big data to help build a smarter rail network. It was originally posted on BMC Software’s website. BMC Software also recently published a case study on Railinc’s use of Control-M.

Established in 1999 to provide IT services for the Association of American Railroads (AAR), Railinc is the railroad industry’s most innovative and reliable resource for IT and information services. Today, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the AAR, Railinc supports business processes and provides business intelligence that help the freight rail industry increase productivity, enhance operational efficiency, and increase their return on investment in assets.

Rail industry participants recognize the opportunities big data presents. In response to the critical need for actionable data, we are working with Class I, short line, and regional railroads as well as other Railinc customers to capture huge volumes of data across diverse points in the rail network and help our customers:
 

  • Track shipments across the North American freight rail network
  • Achieve efficiencies around railcar repairs, car hire and other rail operations
  • Monitor the health of equipment to ensure the safe movement of freight
  • Better manage traffic to keep railcars moving


Railinc is the largest, single source of real-time, accurate, interline rail data for the North American railroad system. That data is empowering our customers to drive efficiency, manage costs, and improve the health of the North American rail network.

To continue meeting our customers’ data needs, we’ve embraced big data and replaced a previous proprietary data warehouse with an open-source environment that offers greater flexibility at a lower cost. Two years ago, we began the move to Hortonworks Hadoop as the framework for storing, processing, and managing the massive volumes of data we handle today and support even greater data volumes in the future.

Control-M is a vital part of our big-data strategy. Railinc has used Control-M for 11 years to schedule and monitor complex batch processes across multiple platforms and applications. Control-M for Hadoop allows us to develop, schedule, and monitor Hadoop batch processes using the same familiar interface we use for our other workloads.
 

Big Data Brings Unprecedented Visibility

The North American rail network is growing increasingly smarter as railroads implement advanced technology such as intelligent sensors positioned alongside tracks. These sensors provide data such as location and movement information that helps customers manage their fleets, track their equipment, view ETAs, efficiently coordinate the movement of millions of railcars and time the delivery of cargo down to the hour. Still, other detectors monitor the physical condition of rolling stock, enabling railroads and car owners to detect issues such as a bad brake or a wheel with a flat spot. These data enable Railinc to provide advanced warning to schedule repairs before a minor issue becomes a costly repair.

The volume is staggering. We’re capturing data from more than 40,000 locomotives and 1.6 million railcars traveling across 140,000 miles of track. The data come from equipment belonging to 1,700 different rail car owners, 560+ local and regional railroads, and seven Class I railroads. Our data warehouse already contains 50 terabytes of data from disparate sources and we expect that volume to increase nearly 100% over the next few years.

Railinc industry applications leverage these data to enable customers to operate more efficiently and economically. Our car hire applications support activities around the fees charged and paid for the usage of rail equipment, enabling higher equipment utilization and improving payment accuracy. Traffic management applications such as our Clear Path™ System support the movement of trains through the Chicago Terminal, the busiest rail gateway in North America.


Control-M Helps Keep Big Data Flowing

To support our industry applications, we must gather huge volumes of data every day from many sources, move it through various systems for analysis and translation into actionable information, and generate and distribute reports to our customers. The workflows that get the data where it needs to be when it needs to be there are highly complex with numerous dependencies.

That’s where Control-M comes in. It simplifies the creation of even the most complex workloads. Using the graphical interface, I can literally draw the dependencies among jobs, so I can ensure that prerequisite processes in a sequence are completed before the next process in the sequence is started.

Perhaps the most significant benefit is that the solution isn’t tied to a single technology. When we added Hadoop, Control-M was a natural fit, giving us the same kind of visibility into and control of Hadoop jobs that we experience on other platforms. The scheduling staff didn’t have to learn a special scheduling tool for Hadoop. We use the same interface to schedule workloads on all of our platforms and we have full visibility into the hundreds of jobs that run every night.

Control-M Batch Impact Manager lets us monitor Hadoop jobs without having people sitting in front of a console 24/7. If the solution detects potential delays or failures, it alerts us immediately. Our customers rely on us to meet those SLAs. Delayed reports on the Chicago Terminal, for example, could affect rail operations not only in the Chicago area, but throughout North America. Batch Impact Manager gives us an intelligent, proactive approach to keeping processes—and trains—running.

Another plus for Control-M is that it supports multisite environments. The critical nature of our big-data environment makes it important to have a second site for disaster recovery purposes. So we created a primary and secondary site for our Hadoop environment.

However, we aren’t limiting the second site to DR activities. We need the flexibility to do any job on either site. Control-M can easily talk to both sites, enabling us to ETL to either site, manipulate data, create views, and move processes back and forth between sites as necessary and ultimately replicate IT services and data on both sites. In the future this multisite capability will help with load balancing, enabling us to keep up with the increasing demand for big-data reports.


Conclusion

The transition to Hadoop has added significantly to the number of jobs we run and Hadoop workflows now account for about one third of all our batch processes. The orchestration that Control-M performs to get data where it needs to be at the time it needs to be there is critical to the success of our big-data efforts.

We simply couldn’t do the job without Control-M.

—Robert Redd

As release engineer administrator, Robert Redd manages systems that ensure Railinc applications are working for customers and that support the work the company’s developers do to create innovative solutions for the freight rail industry. Redd, who joined Railinc in 2000, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and a U.S. Army veteran.

Railinc Wins NCTA Business Value Award

Railinc has been recognized as winner of the 2017 Business Value Award at the NC Tech Awards, the largest and most prestigious statewide technology awards program. Presented annually by the North Carolina Technology Association (NCTA), the awards honor the companies and individuals who represent the best and brightest in technology and business in North Carolina.

This is the first time Railinc has won the Business Value award. Railinc was named Industry-Driven Company of the Year in 2016.

“It’s an honor to be recognized among such an impressive group of technology companies and leaders,” said Allen West, Railinc president and CEO. “This award underscores the important work our people do to support the freight rail industry and the value they deliver to customers every day through our products and services.”

Railinc’s nomination highlighted the company’s asset health work, the AskRail mobile application and its efforts to support freight rail operations in the Chicago Terminal, the busiest rail terminal in North America.

“Since 1995, the NC Tech Awards has honored excellence and innovation throughout North Carolina, representing the best and brightest,” said Brooks Raiford, NCTA president and CEO. “As a winner, Railinc has distinguished itself as a peer-leader, and we are proud to recognize them as a 2017 NC Tech Awards winner.”

Railinc’s CIO, Jerry Traynham, was also recognized as 2017 Private Sector CIO of the Year at the event. Click here to read a Q&A with Traynham.

You can see the complete list of award recipients here. Winners were recognized at NCTA’s annual awards gala on November 9 at the Sheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center in Durham.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Railinc Named Triangle's 12th Healthiest Employer

Railinc’s twice-weekly, onsite boot camp is more fun than Richie Stewart, the company’s IT manager, expected. He had been an avid cyclist and had done plenty of group rides in the past, but he was used to the solitude of long rides or individual workouts at the gym.

“I’ve been amazed at how much I enjoy going to boot camp with my coworkers,” Stewart said “They support you and encourage you. And they hold you accountable.”

Since one of his colleagues convinced him to attend a boot camp session, Richie has lost 40 pounds.

The free boot camp, led by a trainer from O2 Fitness, is part of Railinc’s Wellness Program, started in 2012. The voluntary program gives employees and their families resources to get active, make healthy lifestyle choices and save money.

It also earns the company recognition.

For the fifth consecutive year, Railinc has been named one the Triangle Business Journal’s Healthiest Employers. The company was No. 12 on the list for 2017 and has been among the top 15 healthiest employers in the region four times in five years.

Railinc was recognized with the other winners at a luncheon at The Rickhouse in Durham on Oct. 19.
 


 

Employee Input Encourages Participation

Employees drive nearly all Railinc wellness initiatives. The company’s 11-person wellness team includes employees from across the company who meet regularly to plan activities and share feedback. Employee involvement in setting the program agenda helps boost participation: Railinc has had 100 percent employee participation each of the last two years.

The team adds new activities every year. Last year, Railinc started an in-house Weight Watchers program. Twenty-three people participated in the first 19-week series; 21 participated in the second series that began in early 2017, losing a combined 252 pounds. Railinc defrays part of the program’s cost for employees who sign up within the first two weeks of the series. This year, the wellness team created a dedicated meditation space.
 


Railinc's Wellness Team and other Railinc employees at the 2017 Healthiest Employers luncheon.


Other activities and resources that are part of Railinc’s Wellness Program include:

  • Free onsite boot camps led by a trainer from O2 Fitness
  • Free onsite yoga
  • Year-round deliveries of free fresh fruit
  • An annual 5K run and walk
  • Free Fitbits for full-time employees and fitness contests with prizes
  • An onsite fitness center
  • Subsidized gym memberships
  • Weight Watchers at Work
  • Chair massages
  • Nutrition counseling
  • Sports teams, including softball and cricket

“The company culture at Railinc embraces wellness and staying active,” said Nicole Jesserer, a business analyst who has participated as a player and coach in softball. “Whatever you like to do, chances are good that you’ll find some of your co-workers are already participating in that activity.”

That’s the point. The wellness program’s breadth of offerings supports participation by all and helps to make wellness a cornerstone of Railinc’s culture. Not everyone runs marathons or cycles at lunch or does pushups in the parking lot at boot camp. The program offers employees an array of choices for how they can get involved. This approach gives employees access to resources that fit their needs and has improved program engagement.

Sometimes activities emerge without the program’s involvement. When Brian Childs organized lunchtime ultimate Frisbee last year, he was just hoping to get a regular game going. Interest was high, and he eventually got support from Railinc to buy supplies. About 20 employees turn out each week.

“I thought if we could run the games in a low-key fashion and get everyone playing, that would be fun,” said Childs, a business analyst. “It’s been over a year now, and I think we’ve played every week. Most of the time, it’s twice a week. I’ve gotten to know my coworkers better, and it’s opened me up to a lot more people.”
 

Healthy Employees Help Keep Costs Low

Healthy employees also have a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, employees who reported having a strong culture of health at work were more likely to report being happy, less likely to report that stress has a negative impact on their work, and less likely to cite the work environment as an obstacle to health.

The program has enabled Railinc to better manage its health care costs in recent years and to continue to keep health insurance premiums low. For example, a Railinc employee will spend an average of $2,260 less per year on health care than their peers at similar companies; employees who insure their families through Railinc will spend $8,650 less. Railinc also provides employees and their families with free dental and vision coverage, as well as free confidential counseling.

“It’s exciting to be recognized again for our wellness program,” said Kristen Sandstrom, Railinc’s director of human resources. “We’ve always placed a high priority on health insurance. Our Wellness Program has helped us build on that, making an impact on our employees’ health and their wallets and supporting a positive workplace culture. We’re proud of that.”

—Railinc Corporate Communications

 

Railinc's Traynham Named CIO of the Year

Railinc’s Jerry Traynham has been named Private Sector CIO of the Year for 2017 by the North Carolina Technology Association (NCTA). Jerry manages Railinc’s complex technology environment, providing vision and leadership for the company’s data, product development and information systems platforms. He joined Railinc in 2005 and has led a number of significant technology projects, including the technical reengineering of the Umler® system, a foundational application for the North American freight rail industry.

A graduate of Clemson University, Jerry has worked nearly 40 years in technology. He has held leadership and management positions with Lucent Technologies, AT&T, Bell Labs and Blue Shoe Technologies, where he led development efforts on applications for the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency and others.

Jerry talks about his career, technology and Railinc below.

Railinc CIO Jerry Traynham with Joan Smemoe, director of application engineering
Railinc CIO Jerry Traynham, right, with Joan Smemoe, director of application engineering

 

How did you get into technology and software?
I had a strong affinity for mathematics and engineering in high school. My dad was an engineering supervisor, and we had a machine shop on our property. As a kid, I was doing a lot of mechanical design, building go-karts. When I went to college, there wasn’t a computer science curriculum, so I pursued an electrical engineering degree, which encompassed computer science. After graduation, I went to work at Bell Labs as a systems engineer of radars for the Department of Defense.

The systems engineers designed and integrated the hardware, but we also worked with the software teams. I was drawn to the software side and transferred to a business unit where they were developing the UNIX system and software apps for the telephone industry. I worked shoulder to shoulder with some of the first UNIX developers and rose to project manager for the Trunks Integrated Record Keeping System (TIRKS), a telecom operations support system that’s still in use today. Creating this highly complex, critical industry system was when I really became focused on software engineering.
 

What do you like about working in technology and at Railinc?
I’ve always liked creating products that provide value and solve important problems. That was my attraction to Railinc. Our products touch the entire lifecycle of a train, and we use a lot of leading-edge technologies here, which is exciting for me and our engineers. We have tremendous breadth and depth for a company of about 300 people, particularly from an architecture, technology stack and design perspective.

Being a centralized hub for the North American freight rail industry, we maintain a wide range of apps that includes everything from financial exchanges to apps that help in the design of a railcar. Before I joined the company, I was doing work for the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense on some interesting, high-tech applications. I’m drawn to building things that add value. If I’m not able to do that, I’m not going to be particularly interested in the work.
 

What are the biggest technology challenges Railinc faces today?
One of Railinc’s greatest challenges is managing technology refresh. The rate of technology change continues to accelerate, supporting new use cases, and we work hard to stay ahead. One area we’re presently looking at is mobility, where we don’t have much of a presence today. Because of safety, there has been a concern around using mobile devices in railyards. But today, it’s possible to have in the palm of your hand devices that can enable you to perform business processes and analytics wherever you are, and our customers are adapting operational processes to take advantage of these capabilities.

Another area of challenge and opportunity is big data. There’s opportunity for us in both analysis and management of data. We’re a data hub for the industry, and we have enormous feeds of data coming in. The railroads are fielding sensor systems around North America that are capable of sending data to Railinc. I don’t believe many people fully realize the power or the growth of that data yet. The challenge is to continue to provide the technology, tools and expertise to enable that data to better serve the freight rail industry.
 

How do you approach strategic planning for the IT group?
It’s important for us to understand what the strategic plan is from the business team. We work to make sure that our IT strategy aligns with Railinc’s business strategy. Some strategic areas are more IT-centric and focus on IT workflows and processes. One example is security. It’s a top priority for our Board of Directors, and we have made significant investments in our security program the last two years. It’s the kind of investment that isn’t apparent to our end users, but our strategy is to have a security program in place that keeps all our business processes running and all our data secure and protected. I have quite a bit of experience in cybersecurity during my career and have seen the benefit of having a strong security program and what happens when you don’t.

Another important part of our strategy is staying current in our technology stack while at the same time reducing operational costs. It’s a continual challenge to maintain that balance. We look for open source options where possible. With the rapid advent of new technologies, we’re able to transition from good, expensive, proprietary solutions to good, open source solutions that may be easier to operate and maintain and that help us reduce costs.
 

What advice would you give to someone starting out in IT today?
I don’t think the size of the company you start at is that important as long as you have the opportunity to develop or enhance software systems. For most IT people today there are going to be the operations, support and maintenance aspects of the assignments. Finding the opportunity to work in product development or in the integration and support of underlying technologies is key because these enable you to grow professionally.

Also, it’s important to work on teams where you can realize mentoring, both in development techniques and quality processes. At Railinc, we are very supportive of our IT staff’s continued learning and professional advancement. We also emphasize mentoring here, especially from technical and software engineering process perspectives. All software engineers, from development to infrastructure, must stay current with technology changes by connecting with your peers and reading and experimenting as much as you can.
 

North Carolina's only statewide technology awards program, NCTA’s annual NC Tech Awards recognizes companies and individuals who have characterized excellence, innovation and leadership. Railinc was also named a finalist in the Mid-Size Company of the Year and the Business Value categories. Jerry will be recognized and the winners in the company categories will be announced at the NC Tech Awards Gala on Thursday, November 9.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

 

Railinc Interns Get Hands-On Experience

Railinc internships offer valuable, hands-on experience in areas ranging from IT to business operations to human resources. This summer, the company welcomed about a dozen high school and college students, including Jesse Morgan, a senior North Carolina State University computer science major who worked as a software engineering intern. Jesse was kind enough to share with us his thoughts on his Railinc internship experience:

What I Did
I worked on a product called the Car Repair Management System (CRMS), which keeps track of repairs between different repair companies. I helped test the product and web application. I spent most of my day writing code to automate the testing using a framework for the Java programming language Selenium, which makes it easier to automate. I ended up doing about 50 to 60 percent of the CRMS web application user interface testing. My typical day would start the night before. I would run tests through Jenkins, an automation server, before I left each night. When I’d arrive in the morning, I could see what passed and failed. I kept track of cases I was working on through a wiki page and added the new cases to the page so I would know what I needed to pass. I actually ended up getting them all passed by the end of summer.
 


Jesse Morgan, center, with his fellow interns at the Railinc summer event.


What I Learned
I learned a lot of practical skills. I already had some experience working with Java, but I was able to learn more and develop my skills. As I gained experience during my internship, I learned better software design techniques such as writing more general code that can be applied to multiple test cases.

What I Liked
I really liked the people. Everyone was always willing to help me if I needed it. My supervisors were knowledgeable and helpful, and they kept me on track. I never felt like I was on my own in figuring out a problem or attacking a project. I also built some great connections and relationships with people I worked with and with other interns. My internship offered me a taste of what a real-world job and working in an office setting would be like. I had never had that opportunity before, and it was just a really great experience.

Railinc hires interns throughout the year and posts internship openings on the Railinc Careers page. 

—Railinc Corporate Communications

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