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.

The Curious Case of Milepost 21

What do you do when a mile isn't actually a mile? Or when two rail mileposts are labeled with the same number but located in different places? These are just some of questions Railinc faces as it works to build a map of the Chicago Gateway, the busiest rail hub in the U.S. In this guest post, Railinc Data Architect David Weinberg considers the curious case of Milepost 21 and how data that seems simple can get complicated in a hurry.

I spent an interesting hour recently with Abby Clark discussing geographic information systems (GIS). These systems are designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage and present different types of spatial or geographical data.

Abby is among the leading GIS minds within the freight rail industry. Not only did she lead the Association of American Railroad's GIS committee for years, she helped to found the GIS program at CSX, where she worked until retiring earlier this year. These days, she's consulting for Railinc and leading our efforts to establish our GIS capabilities.

We are fortunate to have Abby. Her experience within the industry and knowledge of the various technologies will help us develop a solid foundation for Railinc's two big GIS technology projects, including one in the Chicago Gateway. The Chicago Gateway hub is the busiest rail hub in the nation and the freight rail equivalent of New York's JFK International Airport. Not only is Chicago superbusy, the inherent variability of multiparty rail transportation and brutal winter weather make for a challenging planning and execution environment.

Railinc's Chicago Gateway work this year is creating an authoritative map of the hub that will include tracks and many other data points such as mileposts, control points and corridors. We expect to put trains on the map by 2016. That eventually will support the display of dynamic train routing options based on changing conditions such as track repairs.

But when Abby and I met, we were working on something really basic. Or so I thought.

It was one simple locational data type and probably the most-used geographic element in the freight rail industry: the lowly, and certainly lonely, milepost.

Railroads use mileposts to define locations within their rail networks. The mileposts fall within broad regions in the networks called subdivisions, which are part of divisions. Railroad GIS departments maintain map layers of all the fixed assets along their track, along with the geo-coordinates.

The milepost number only has meaning in the context of a specific subdivision. For example, a particular milepost might be within the Santa Rosa County subdivision of CSX in northern Florida. There is undoubtedly another milepost with the same number in another subdivision.

Abby and I were reviewing milepost data when I noticed something weird. She had a Chicago map on the screen, and it had multiple mileposts for the same location but from different railroads.

Why would this be?

"Oh, that's an easy one," she said. "Railroads often have mileposts for the tracks they use, even if they don't own the track."

We were looking at a squashed, centerline view of the map, which is basically a logical view that creates one main track and eliminates detail. Then she zoomed out on the map, and my mouth dropped open. The two milepost 21s were in different locations.

Will the Real Milepost 21 Please Stand Up?

How could this be?

There are two possible reasons, Abby said. One is that the two points were surveyed using different methods, one more accurate than the other.

The other?

"One might not be a physical milepost," she said.

Some railroads maintain a layer of virtual mileposts that are always exactly 5,280 feet apart, though most only maintain the old physical mileposts like milepost 21 shown above. While the track network changes over time, physical mileposts rarely move. A measured milepost could end up in a different (and virtual) location from the physical milepost.

So which one will we show to the world in our Chicago interface? Possibly neither.

For various reasons, Railinc might need to create a third milepost, a "reference milepost" that splits the difference between the two and also places it alongside the rail, where it should be. This reference milepost would be for display purposes only, not for track maintenance or any other operational work.

Still, we would need to maintain its traceability to the "real" ones. It is also possible we will show all three of them, but in different contexts.

Looking at the same map, I noticed something really weird about the mileposts on the right side.

A Country Mile

The mileposts aren't the same distance apart. I pointed this out to Abby.

"It's the same issue," she said. "Track changes over time, but they don't move the mileposts. This can lead to some big differences in the distances. But it may not matter. It all depends on how you are using the data."

In other words, it's reasonable to assume that Milepost 5, below, is exactly a mile from Milepost 6. If you did, though, you would be dead wrong.

But if you used the geo-coordinates to calculate a point along the rails halfway between Milepost 5 and Milepost 6, you would be fine. Perhaps a better name for this type of data is not "milepost" but simply "post."

The lesson here is that even the simplest locational data element can get complicated in a hurry. In the case of mileposts, here are a few questions that arose:

  1. How do we handle the differences between physical and virtual mileposts? Do they need to be labeled?
  2. Some railroads have multiple mileposts with the same number and in the same subdivision. These are generally associated with different tracks. How do we handle these?
  3. What are our actual use cases for mileposts? Without those, it will be difficult to define the data.
  4. Generally, how do we translate our virtual shared view of Chicago into railroad-specific, functional versions?

I was definitely impressed with the challenges we face. After all, this was just one data point. We still had to look at corridors, control points, interchanges and many others. It was only about 10 a.m., and my head was already spinning. Abby wasn't fazed by any of this.

"The railroads have been struggling with these kinds of things for 10 years," she said. "Welcome to GIS."

—David Weinberg

David Weinberg is a data and information architect on Railinc's architecture team. Thanks to Abby Clark and Railinc employees Jason Hood and Bill Coupe for their contributions.

Remembering a Friend

As the workplace goes, coworkers come and go. Companies grow, more people join. People grow and people go. It’s the natural course in the life of a business. But there are those who join, work hard, make good things happen and stick around for a while. Maybe even for most of their career. They grow a following, a friend base of people they work with, customers and vendors they get to know over the years. When they leave the company—for one reason or anothera hole remains long after the office has been reassigned and new pictures are on the wall.

A few months ago, Railinc and the freight rail industry lost a good friend—David Kaufman. Dave was a Railinc leader, one you could count on to work hard, have a laugh and keep things moving. He was committed to the industry and to making Railinc a place that our customers could count on. He was loved by coworkers and customers alike.

It’s often said that one shows his true colors when the deck is stacked against them. If that’s the case, we will remember Dave as a courageous soul with an unyielding optimism and fighting spirit who refused to give in to the darkness of disease. Wit and good humor were his constant companions. His love for his family unbound. He inspired many.

We miss Dave at Railinc.

You can read more about his life at http://www.newsobserver.com/news/article32857722.html.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

"Mr. Umler" Retires After 57 Years of Service

When Jim Moran started his railroad career in 1958 as a clerk in the machine room of the Pennsylvania Railroad, the industry had not yet embraced data processing. A discipline like car hire—the calculating and disbursing of the compensation paid for the use of a railcar—wasn't done through sophisticated technology systems like the ones Railinc manages today.

"If you could have seen what we did with car hire," Moran said. "It was unbelievable how anyone got paid."

Today, the car hire process is much smoother thanks to innovative ideas, powerful technologies and dedicated people like Moran.

On Oct. 31, Moran retired from Railinc after 57 years of service to the freight rail industry.

A Leader in Railroad Technology

Moran has been a leader at the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and Railinc in the development and advancement of essential technology tools that have contributed greatly to the ongoing safety, efficiency and ultimate success of the freight rail system. Moran, who retired as director of AAR support services, was central to the development of the Umler® system and its adoption as the keystone industry repository for critical rail data.

Today, the entire freight rail industry uses the system "Mr. Umler" helped to develop. The data contained within it are essential to a wide range of railroad operations and form the foundation for many Railinc applications.

"Jim has always been stalwart in his work ethic and unwavering in his support for our company and our industry," said Allen West, Railinc president and CEO. "His knowledge of railroad operations and his drive to improve the underlying processes and technologies have helped to make the industry safer and more efficient. His work has made lasting changes to how the industry operates."

Impact Visible Across the Industry

Moran joined the AAR in 1967 and came to Railinc in 1998, when the AAR spun out the company as a subsidiary. The impact of his work is visible in operations across the industry, from car hire to asset health to the circulars that support rules all railroads must follow. He helped to create the Early Warning system, which enables the rail industry to identify mechanical problems on railcars that could affect the safe movement of freight.

It's the Umler system, though, that has returned inestimable value to the freight rail industry—no measure simply captures its success. His work in the development and growth of the original Universal Machine Language Equipment Register (U.M.L.E.R.) and through its evolution into the current Umler system transformed railroad technology and communications.

From the early punch card mainframe to the table-driven database with millions of data points, Moran guided the industry in the most critical of paths, providing information for building and routing trains across North America and shepherding the rail industry into the information age.

"If a car isn't correctly registered in Umler, it doesn't move off your property," Moran said. "It is work registering cars, but the ultimate gain is having the information in there correctly. In this world, you can't live with mediocrity. If you don't report the right length on car in Umler, you can destroy a train."

Teaching, Learning, Making the Industry Better

Beyond the technology, Moran's greatest impact remains upon the people he worked with over the years. The strong relationships he developed with industry representatives and Railinc customers and coworkers reflect the respect they have for him and for the care he brought to his work.

"Jim was dedicated to his job and the industry, and his name would always pop up when I'd go to industry committee meetings," said John Kozlowski, a Railinc business analyst. "From car owners to roads, everybody has worked with Jim. And they always have good things to say, that he has been a benefit to the industry."

He always had an ear to listen and a good word to offer to anyone seeking his advice, wisdom and counsel into understanding how and why the rail system works and how to get the most out of the technology.

"Jim’s understanding of the rail industry and the foundational elements of its technology is without equal," said Anthony Will, a senior technical writer. "He always made time to answer any questions I had, and his solutions combined the best of common sense with keen business acumen."

For Moran, learning was always central to his work and was one reason he stayed in it so long. The industry is always changing, he said, and if you don't learn something every day, you aren't doing your job.

"It's the challenge," Moran said, "not only to learn new things, but of picking up a process and asking, 'Is that the best we can do this? How can we make this better?'"

By doing just that, Moran helped make the industry better.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Railinc Wellness Program Supports Employee Health

Stop by the Railinc office at lunchtime on any Monday or Thursday and you'll likely encounter employees running figure eights around the parking lot, doing burpees by their yoga mats or carrying a 20-pound medicine ball up and down stairs, all under the watchful eye of a personal trainer from O2 Fitness.

The free, biweekly boot camp is part of Railinc's Wellness Program and is open to all employees. It's been a hit, too, with as many as two dozen employees turning out for the two, hour-long sessions.

Jack Ngui, a senior software developer, stays active on his own, running, lifting weights and swimming. He has run half marathons and shorter races. The boot camp, he said, has been a great way to add variety into his routines.

"Our trainer has us do exercises that I don't normally do, and it's nice to incorporate them into my workout routine," he said. "The beauty of boot camp is you can take it easy or push yourself as hard as you can."

The benefits go beyond the physical, though.

"We get to interact with colleagues that we don't normally work with," said Ngui, who has participated in the boot camps since they started in fall 2014. "And we have a chance to have fun together and get to know each other."

Health, Wellness a Cornerstone of Railinc Culture

In 2012, Railinc launched the voluntary wellness program, which gives employees resources to get active, make healthy lifestyle choices and save money.

The program includes free, on-site nutrition counseling, free memberships to the O2 Fitness health club, lunch-and-learn sessions, free chair massages, a free Fitbit, and fun, companywide Fitbit challenges. Earlier this year, for a coast-to-coast Fitbit Challenge, teams of employees competed to see who could log 2,689 miles (the distance from Wilmington, N.C., to Santa Monica, Calif.) the fastest.

Employees participate in tug of war at Railinc's 2015 fall event.

Employees also have access to an on-site gym and yoga, and they can get active on the nearby greenways and at a city park less than a mile from the office. Railinc also sponsors an annual company 5K race and walk, a fall event with games and prizes, and recently began providing free fruit in the office's main kitchen.

Thanks to the program and employee participation, Railinc was named a Healthiest Employer in the Triangle by the Triangle Business Journal in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

"Having a culture that supports wellness is important," said Kristen Sandstrom, Railinc's human resources director. "Healthy employees keep Railinc's health insurance costs lower. But they're also more engaged with their work, get to know their colleagues better and they just feel better. Plus, they're developing healthy habits we hope will last."

A Railinc employee gets pointers on healthy eating at an on-site cooking demonstration.

For some employees, those habits include being more informed and deliberate about their food choices. To help them, Railinc works with a nutritionist partner who provides private, on-site, one-on-one nutrition counseling. It's a popular offering—open slots fill as soon as they're posted to the company intranet and employees who work with the nutritionist get weekly emails with healthy recipes and tips for making good food choices.

Tracy Brewer, a senior product support specialist, has worked with the nutritionist since Railinc introduced the benefit in 2013. The regular meetings have given Brewer the support she needs to make positive lifestyle changes, including mapping out a food plan, staying active, and keeping healthy snacks at her desk and at home.

"It's very convenient that she can come to us," Brewer said. "She keeps me in line, and I just enjoy talking with her and feeling like I have someone who understands me."

Healthy Employees Help Keep Costs Low

Healthy employees also have a positive impact on a company's bottom line. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthier employees are less likely to need to use sick leave. For example, obese men use 56 percent more sick days per year than normal-weight men.

Healthier employees (and a wellness program that supports healthy lifestyles) help Railinc better manage its annual health insurance costs. Because of the Wellness Program and healthy lifestyle choices employees have made, Railinc has been able to mitigate annual increases in health insurance premiums. Coming into this year, Railinc saved more than $180,000 in renewals, keeping both employee and company costs low. Ninety-nine percent of Railinc employees participate in the company’s wellness program.

"It's real money in our employees' pockets," said Allen West, president and CEO. "We have a generous health insurance program at Railinc, and we do a lot to maintain that. But our employees know they can have an impact on what we pay for health insurance, and they work hard to help keep those costs low."

How low are the costs? Employees pay less than $150 per month to insure their families under Railinc's PPO plan. Overall, Railinc employees spend on average $2,400 less each year on their medical deductible than employees at other companies and $8,200 less per year on health insurance. Railinc also provides employees and their families with free dental and vision coverage, as well as free confidential counseling.

Each year, employees must complete a physical exam with their personal doctor, complete a health risk assessment and participate in an on-site biometric screening that measures indicators including cholesterol and BMI. They have to meet defined standards or show improvement in their BMI from the previous year.

Employees who don't meet the BMI standards or show improvement over last year can
participate in twice-weekly, on-site boot camps and pay lower health insurance rates.

Even if an employee doesn't meet the BMI standards or show improvement over last year, it doesn't mean they'll pay higher insurance rates. Railinc has an alternative reasonable standards program that includes options like health and wellness education, fitness classes, a weight management program and online programs from Railinc's health insurance provider, UnitedHealthcare.

"The Wellness Program is designed to give Railinc employees the resources they need to make healthy choices," Sandstrom said. "We don't exclude anyone based on things like their level of activity or whether they've dropped 10 pounds in the last 12 months. The program gives employees a variety of ways to satisfy the requirements and realize the health insurance savings."

Employees Drive Wellness Initiatives

While decisions around the health insurance program are made at the executive level, employees drive nearly all other Railinc wellness initiatives.

Railinc's wellness team, a 12-person group of employees from across the company, meets biweekly to plan wellness activities, from lunch and learns to Fitibit competitions to an annual fall event, which this year had employees competing in field day activities like dodgeball and tug of war.

A team of Railinc employees coordinate the company's wellness activities.

Wellness team members also manage Railinc partnerships with companies such as O2 Fitness, which provides trainers for the on-site boot camps, and Go Local Produce, which delivers fresh fruit each week.

"It's a lot of fun working with our colleagues to develop these initiatives and activities," said Latetia Coston, a wellness team member. "From the team's perspective, it's exciting to see our fellow employees get involved, get enthusiastic about health and wellness, and see positive results."

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Railinc Celebrates Fall with Picnic, Field Day

Every year, Railinc employees come together to celebrate fall with a fun, companywide event. It's a great chance to unwind with our colleagues outside the office for an afternoon.

Recently, we took the short walk from our office to North Cary Park to enjoy a lunch prepared from the back of a vintage fire truck by Barry's Cafe. After lunch, employees competed in some classic field day activities, including dodgeball, tug of war, a hula hoop contest and an old fashioned egg race.

Check out pictures and a video from this year's event below and on Flickr. More photos from Railinc events, including our 2014 Fall Event, are available on our Flickr page.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Railinc 2015 Fall Event