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.

Entries with tag process .

Reference Files Help Keep Industry Moving

Imagine that you run a lumber company, and you need to ship plywood from Oregon to Maine. Your shipment would move on multiple railroads to travel the approximately 2,600 miles from origin to destination.

What if those railroads each used different information to identify where exactly the railcar carrying your shipment was to be interchanged along the way?

Your plywood shipment would probably take a lot longer to get to Maine.

If it got there at all.

Industry Reference Files (IRFs) serve as the North American freight rail industry’s official code tables. IRFs enable data consistency that helps the rail industry manage the movement of 1.7 trillion ton-miles of products every year in the most efficient way possible. They are the sources the railroads involved in your shipment would use for critical information like station locations and the commodities they’re supposed to be moving. As the hub for industry data, Railinc maintains 12 IRFs and uses them to support essential rail systems and operations.

“IRFs are vital to the rail industry because they play a role throughout the entire lifecycle of a rail shipment,” said Rob Drew, Railinc’s IRF product manager. “You can think of IRFs as data as a service (DaaS) that Railinc maintains on behalf of the rail industry and its customers. The real value of IRFs is that everybody in the industry is working off the same set of reference data.”
 

IRFs Provide a Single Source for Essential Information

The first railroad moving your plywood knows exactly where it will hand off your shipment to the second railroad because they’ve both gotten the location address from the same source. In this case, they’re using data from the Centralized Station Master, a geographic location file that contains information about rail and motor carrier point stations.

Industry Reference Files serve as spell checkers, data dictionaries and thesauruses supporting communications within railroads and across the industry. 


The dozen IRFs that Railinc maintains are full of other details such as railroad personnel contact information; route origin, interchange and destination points; customer names and locations; commodity types; information on hazardous materials; and shipment types. They serve as spell checkers, data dictionaries and thesauruses supporting communications within railroads and across the industry.

These files help railroads plan freight movement, transport hazardous materials safely, identify revenue routes, apply switch charges accurately, communicate delivery instructions and ensure billing accuracy. Without IRFs, railroads and their partners and customers would have a difficult time communicating about these activities, and railroad traffic would slow.
 

IRFs Play Role Through Rail Shipment Lifecycle

IRFs contain essential information that gets used even before your plywood shipment is loaded on a railcar. When you’re ready to move your plywood by rail, you create a bill of lading and send it to the first railroad. That railroad uses the information you’ve provided to create a waybill with details and instructions for your shipment. Waybills include information from several IRFs, including the Customer Identification File (CIF) to identify the customer, the Mark to identify the rail carriers involved and the Standard Transportation Commodity Code (STCC) to identify the commodity being shipped.

CIF contains about 300,000 records. Carriers use CIF data to identify customer locations where price and other contract terms apply so they can provide accurate delivery instructions and improve shipment reservation, booking and equipment-ordering processes.

CIF includes the name, physical and mailing address, corporate parent identifier and a unique identification code for each location managed by the corporate parent. Carriers don't have to worry about inconsistent data because the information is managed using the same standards by a single entity—Railinc. Our employees receive new entity, name change and other requests and update CIF information daily.

Because more than one railroad will carry your plywood, information from IRFs is required to help determine the rate each carrier will charge the shipper. IRFs enable railroads to automatically split up and settle payments among carriers and help to ensure that shipments are routed properly and switch charges are applied correctly.
 

IRFs Feed Critical Industry Systems

But IRFs aren’t just standalone reference resources. Critical industry systems like the Interline Settlement System®, the Umler® system and the Damaged and Defective Car Tracking (DDCT) system rely on the information they contain to function.

For example, the Mark register contains a record of all reporting marks, the alphabetical characters stenciled on every railcar to identify the railroads, shippers and equipment companies that own or lease them. Marks support electronic interactions among railroads, their customers and Railinc systems and files and are used for revenue accounting purposes like car hire and car repair billing.

If your shipment travels on more than one carrier, industry rules require that the car that carries your plywood to Maine must be registered in the Umler system, a cornerstone industry database that contains information on more than 2 million pieces of rail equipment in North America. The Umler system uses the Mark register to identify equipment owners and lessors. This ownership information, combined with the data in the Umler system, helps to ensure car hire billing and demurrage and other fees are assigned to the right entity.

Mark information and other IRFs also play critical roles in DDCT, which provides a centralized system for freight car owners, railroads, repair shops, and scrap and storage facilities to track damaged and defective railcars. DDCT uses Mark, STCC and other data so handling carriers can search and enter crucial information for cars that are being tracked.

Freight rail industry rules also require DDCT users to register in FindUs.Rail, an IRF that contains contact information for industry participants. DDCT uses FindUs.Rail data to send notifications throughout the DDCT workflow, keeping industry participants informed about incidents and repairs.

So by the time you close the books on your shipment, it’s possible that as many as 11 of the 12 IRFs will have played some role in getting your plywood to Maine. (Had you been shipping hazardous materials, all 12 IRFs would have had a role.)

“IRFs are sort of like the little engine that could,” Drew said. “On the face of it, they might just seem like lists of addresses and commodity codes and company names. But they’re dependable and indispensable, and they’re essential to helping the North American rail industry keep trains moving and efficiently serve customers.”

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Found on a Sticky Note

A sticky note detailing a user story from a Flex-to-AngularJS migration.


The sticky notes you find around Railinc tell stories about our culture and how we develop our products; how we learn from and work with our customers; and how we meet the technology needs of the freight rail industry. A recurring feature on the Railinc Tracks blog, Found on a Sticky Note takes a look at an individual sticky note and provides insights into who we are and what we do.

One of Railinc’s biggest challenges is managing technology refresh. Our people work hard to stay in front of technology changes so we can adopt new tools and development approaches as our customers’ needs shift.

Sometimes that means we leave behind old technologies.

For example, Railinc completed its four-year mainframe migration project in 2015, moving the company from an expensive and rigid technology approach to a less costly, broader and more flexible midrange solution. How is that helping? By enabling us to grow applications and systems and to handle the ever-increasing amount of railroad data we manage.

Even more technology changes are under way. Right now, Railinc is migrating its RailSight applicationsDemand Trace, Track and Trace, and Monitor—from Flex to the open-source, HTML- and JavaScript-based AngularJS framework. Already, Railinc has transitioned nearly two dozen applications to AngularJS, including the Damaged and Defective Car Tracking system, Clear Path, and Car Accounting Self-Service, and expects to complete the RailSight migration in early 2017.

The move from Flex will enhance the quality of RailSight applications, support changes to how customers access and use RailSight, and lower the cost to serve customers, said Charles Paye, director of commercial products.

“It lays a foundation for future growth and changes in RailSight,” Paye said.
 

Demand Trace Changes Support Query Capabilities, Improved Functionality

With the move from Flex to AngularJS, Railinc is making application changes—like the one in the sticky note above—that can have a real impact on how customers work. The note reads:
 

RS Demand Trace Flex Migration: Equipment Formatting Validation

Description: As a Demand Trace User, I’m unable to enter invalid equipment formats when running a trace.

About: This keeps users from searching invalid formats that won’t produce any trace results.

Requirement:

  1. Only alphanumeric entries allowed to be submitted in equipment field.
  2. Equipment can be separated by comma, space, or page break (enter)
  3. User can copy/paste using mouse clicks.
  4. User can copy/paste using keyboard shortcuts


Part of the RailSight suite of applications, Demand Trace gives users the ability to access data through the complete lifecycle of shipments and equipment. Instead of subscribing to a feed of data, a Demand Trace user can keep tabs on a shipment by manually submitting or scheduling a query whenever they want.

“It’s really data on demand,” said William Holt, a business analyst who works on Demand Trace. “You’re searching the equipment you want to find, when you want to search it, and you pay for those queries.”

To submit one of these queries, a user enters a series of alphanumeric characters—two to four letters and one to six numbers—associated with a particular piece of rail equipment. Demand Trace returns data on shipment events, including location and scheduled arrival and departure times.
 

The move to AngularJS allows for more separation of the UI on the back end. You can make changes to the front end, improving the way users interact with the app, without having to change the application itself.

 

With the newly migrated Demand Trace, the development team set up restrictions for queries. Without the restrictions, users could input any alphanumeric combination—one letter and seven numbers, for example—and run a trace no matter whether the rail equipment ID format was valid. Instead, as soon as a customer enters an invalid character, an error message appears and the user cannot submit the search, preventing “bad queries” on cars that may not exist and any unnecessary charges.

Developers also made it easier to copy and paste using keyboard shortcuts and the mouse. This makes it easier for users to move large amounts of data from an application like Excel to the query box in Demand Trace so they can get their work done more efficiently.

“The move to AngularJS allows for more separation of the UI on the back end,” Paye said. “You can make changes like these to the front end of the app, improving the way users interact with the app, without having to change the application itself.”
 

Migration Supports Richer Apps, Better User Experience

Railinc employees work together during an Agile training session.There are reasons beyond flexibility to make the move to AngularJS.

“Chrome and other browsers aren’t supporting Flex,” said Prabhu Kompella, a project development manager. “It’s becoming obsolete.”

The ubiquity of mobile devices makes the move to AngularJS all the more necessary. While Flex supports interactivity, it is not supported by the two most common mobile operating systems—iOS and Android—and doesn’t enable responsive web design, which automatically adapts a web page to the type of device a customer is using.

Not only are applications on the AngularJS platform mobile friendly, they’re easier to build and update.

“The level of productivity for developers is better,” said Ryan Nguyen, a user interface architect. “It cuts down on the development time.”

There is also more opportunity to automate testing, which speeds the development process. The platform also supports changes that will improve the overall user experience, bringing applications in line with what customers are used to on non-Flex web pages.

“What we’ll end up with is a richer application for users,” Paye said. “That helps us deliver a better user experience.”

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Training, New Tech Help Employees "Own" Apps

Employee training is an important part of Railinc’s culture. From certifications to regular lunch and learns to on-site training in a working rail yard, employees have a variety of opportunities to grow their knowledge of Railinc technologies and the freight rail industry.

Remaking the way business analysts, developers and others approach their work, like the Railinc Rules and Process Modernization (RPM) program is doing, requires a significant training effort that helps educate employees on new technologies and concepts.

"We're digging into our applications and rewriting rules,” said Jeanine Bradley, senior manager of rules and process management at Railinc. “We're developing standards we can apply company-wide and ways to assess work outcomes. And we're training a lot of our people, teaching them new technologies and new ways to approach their work."

 

Nearly all Railinc business analysts have completed training that focuses on capture, analysis and specification of business rules. Many have attended business process model notation and rules authoring training as well as sessions on technologies such as RuleXpress. This year, 15 business analysts are participating in an intensive, hands-on "learn-by-doing" training program that pairs Railinc employees with outside business rules experts.

Railinc employees participate in RPM training.


"The RPM effort has taught me a lot about my product, Car Repair Billing," said Kiersten Duffy, a Railinc business analyst who is participating in training throughout 2016. “Once you go through the entire modernization of the business rules process, you are truly the product owner and know your application inside and out. It has helped me to identify production issues in a fraction of the time. When you’ve been in the code, you see first-hand the expected action. Once you have this knowledge, you can bring a lot of value to customers.”

Railinc is also conducting training sessions for technical staff, including developers, quality assurance engineers and architects.
 

Railinc RPM Program Featured in Red Hat Case Study

As part of the RPM program, Railinc is implementing technologies that will support these modernization efforts, including the Red Hat JBoss BPM Suite. Red Hat is one of Railinc's longtime technology partners and the Red Hat JBoss BPM Suite had the flexibility and cost-effectiveness required for the RPM program. Red Hat JBoss BPM Suite provides key capabilities, including the flexibility of open source, which prevents vendor lock-in and promotes innovation for both technical and business teams.

“Open source technologies help to support Railinc’s culture of innovation,” Bradley said. “They give our developers maximum flexibility to create solutions for the freight rail industry, and they cost less than other, more rigid technologies.”

Red Hat recently featured Railinc's RPM program in a case study that highlighted the increased agility, improved productivity and enhanced industry knowledge that the RPM program and the Red Hat solution are enabling.

"Red Hat strives to help our customers meet their business needs in a flexible and open manner, and we're pleased that Railinc chose JBoss BPM Suite as part of its modernization initiative,” said Phil Simpson, Red Hat’s JBoss BPM product marketing manager. “With Red Hat BPM Suite, Railinc is providing essential business rule management facilities for its customers in the freight rail industry."

—Railinc Corporate Communications 

This is the second in a two-part series on Railinc’s Rules and Process Modernization (RPM) program, its impact and the training the company is providing. Click here to learn about the program and how it is changing our employees’ approach to their work.

New Tech Changes Rules Management, Processes

Nearly half of Railinc’s project development activities involve the implementation of rules and processes. So when Doni Reece saw the connections among Railinc systems, industry terms and equipment components mapped, she recognized the potential a networked view had to help employees understand the myriad rules and processes that underlie the company’s applications.

As a business analyst, Reece works on Railinc’s Umler® system, a cornerstone rail industry application that supports numerous other products, from Early Warning to Component Tracking. Being able to see the relationships mapped into “neighborhoods” gave her new insights into these connections, eliminated assumptions around equipment and component classifications, and was a first step in standardizing language and terminology around rules and processes.

 

“The neighborhoods provided a great viewpoint into our systems and the terms our industry uses and how they all relate,” Reece says. “And having everyone use the same terminology will make it easier to onboard new employees and team members.”

The work, done in partnership with outside consultants, is part of Railinc’s Rules and Process Modernization (RPM) program, an ongoing five-year initiative to develop operational processes, enhance employee skill sets and leverage technology to modernize Railinc’s rules and process management.

Launched in late 2014, the program will enable Railinc to take a more consultative approach with customers and will help to improve the efficiency, consistency and reliability of the rules and processes and optimize the work around them.
 

Program Changing Railinc’s Approach to Business Rules, Process Management

The North American freight rail industry depends on specific business logic to ensure the proper movement, interchange, monitoring, and repair of more than 1.5 million railcars across a 140,000-mile rail network. This business logic—often expressed as rules and processes—has traditionally been buried in code in Railinc’s applications, making it difficult to respond quickly to customer questions or requests, update applications, or share knowledge across the company.

For example, recently a customer wanted to know if individual railcars were qualified to carry a specific commodity and provided the commodity specifications. Railinc documented these specifications in the business rules engine, then ran the rules against the Umler system to instantly generate a list of which railcars could or could not transport the commodity. As a result, the customer could take action based on the inquiry in record time, keeping their freight cars—and their business—moving.

The RPM program is shifting the responsibility for rules authoring and management from IT to the business side of the company, increasing agility by enabling seamless knowledge transfer among developers, business analysts and customers. Business analysts, product support specialists and others will be able to research and update rules within an application without help from developers, which will free up time for IT to focus on development tasks.

“We wanted to manage the life cycle of the rules and process capabilities within our applications to create value through improved quality, increased productivity, and greater speed and innovation,” said Jeanine Bradley, senior manager of rules and process management at Railinc. “The program will improve visibility into the rules and processes, will spread these capabilities across the organization and will help us better align our products with our customers’ needs.”

Railinc is in the process of completing nearly a dozen technical assessments of applications to understand whether they are compatible with a rules engine, as well as business assessments of three product groups. The company is modernizing business rules and process management for five applications in 2016.

Railinc teams will also apply what they’ve learned to a new application that is expected to launch this year that will analyze and report on equipment failure data. This work is in addition to developing standards for internal authority over business rules and terminology, conducting multiple proof-of-concept projects and defining metrics that will help measure the productivity of development teams.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

This is the first in a two-part series on Railinc’s Rules and Process Modernization (RPM) program, its impact and the training the company is providing. Click here to read about the training that is part of RPM implementation.

Railinc Helps Industry Track Railcar Components

Since its launch three years ago, Railinc's component tracking program has increased the visibility of rail equipment components such as wheelsets, side frames, bolsters and couplers on railcars across North America.

Today, when a newly manufactured wheelset goes into inventory, the wheel shop places a bar code (pictured below) on the axle and registers the wheelset with Railinc’s Umler® component registry. The process enables the car owner to monitor the wheelset and evaluate its performance. If a problem arises, the car owner can target the individual wheelset for research, analysis and even replacement.
 


“As safety is a top priority, there is a need to know where components such as wheelsets, side frames, bolsters and couplers are located when in service, along with important manufacturing characteristics such as the design code, who manufactured them and where they were manufactured,” said Jerry Vaughn, director of asset services and Umler product manager.

This detailed view of rail equipment health and performance data provides personnel across the rail network with information that may improve rail safety, reduce maintenance costs, and support more efficient and effective rail operations.

And the view is only going to get better. The latest phase of the program is under way and will add key brake valve components to the registry.

How Component Tracking Happens

Railinc works with the freight rail industry through industry committees sponsored by the Association of American Railroads (AAR). The AAR’s Equipment Health Monitoring Committee and other committees help to define data requirements for component registration and develop schedules for mandatory registration and association throughout the industry. The typical timeline for phasing in new components allows for six months of development and a year to implement rule changes.

The component tracking program involves millions of components and big data, so it requires sophisticated and reliable technology.

That’s where Railinc comes in.
 


Click image for larger view.


The Umler component registry is a dynamic database designed to process updates quickly and efficiently. To accommodate new component specifications, Railinc adds a new value in a metadata description and creates the business rules required to ensure high levels of data quality.

“Separating the business rules gives us visibility to decisions that normally occur in the technical code and creates efficiencies that lower our total costs,” Vaughn said.

Wheelsets Lead the Way

The freight rail industry continues to move forward with the adoption of component tagging. According to Vaughn, 55 percent of all wheelsets in the North American railcar fleet now have an associated component ID (CID). Nearly 5 million wheelsets are registered in the Umler component registry, and about 3.3 million wheelsets are associated with individual railcars. Even more wheelsets will get CIDs soon because normal wear requires the replacement or refurbishing of wheelsets about every five years.
 


The success of the wheelsets phase enabled the addition of side frames, bolsters and couplers to the component tracking program in 2013. And the industry added another component to the program last year.

“The big news in component tracking today is our initiation and support of the service and emergency portions of brakes valve into the program," Vaughn said. “This started as one of Railinc’s 2014 industry projects, which involved Class I railroads, railcar owners, brake valve reconditioners and major brake valve manufacturers.”

Brake valve registration and association are voluntary now. That changes in July, when industry rules will require registration. Mandatory association of brake valves on newly built cars and existing cars begins in January 2016.

Building a component tracking program is like creating a high-tech treasure map. There are more than 1 million places to look for specific components in service across North America. Using that map to find the component you're looking for when you need to is like discovering riches measured in safety and efficiency.

Thanks to the efforts of AAR industry committees, suppliers and Vaughn’s team at Railinc, tracking components is getting much easier. And everyone gets to share in the wealth.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

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