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.

"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




Railinc Ranked a Top Triangle Developer

Let’s be clear: We all prefer to be recognized for the quality and value of our work.

Like when the Railinc-made mobile app AskRail, which is a safety app for first responders, gets discussed on CNBC or by a rail industry publication. That makes us feel proud because our work means something.

But it’s also nice to be recognized for having a large presence in a thriving tech community where that product gets made. Like right here in the Triangle, one of the hottest tech communities in the U.S.

Railinc was recently ranked as one of the largest software developers in the region by the Triangle Business Journal. This annual survey ranks the top 25 Triangle software developers by the number of local employees.

Coming in at No. 8 on the list, Railinc is in good company with area stalwarts including IBM, SAS, Allscripts, HCL Technologies and Red Hat. With 295 employees, Railinc is also one of eight companies listed with more than 250 employees. This is the sixth consecutive year Railinc has appeared on the list, which was published on Aug. 14.

"We have a lot of talented people at Railinc doing important work to serve the freight rail industry," said Allen West, president and CEO. "The Triangle is one of the great places for technology workers in the U.S., and it's exciting for us to be among the largest software developers in the region."

A complete list of the largest software developers in the Triangle is available at http://www.bizjournals.com/triangle/subscriber-only/2015/08/14/software-developers.html (subscription required).

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Found on a Sticky Note

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 regular 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.

We deal with big data all the time at Railinc. But one challenge of working with massive data sets is pulling only the information our customers need. When it comes to big data, more isn't always better.

And searching big data sets isn't easy, either. It requires query processes that enable the parsing of billions, or even trillions, of data records quickly to deliver exactly what the customer requests.

Until recently, our Car Hire Rate Negotiation Self-Service (CHRNSS, pronounced "churns") application was mining too much data as it delivered results to customers. The result: CHRNSS was churning, loading too slowly.

This Found on a Sticky Note looks at work we've done to ensure CHRNSS searches and pulls only what's needed, reducing the time it takes for the application to load and to return data after a query.

CHRNSS Helps Lessees, Car Owners Negotiate

CHRNSS gives users a single access point through which they can participate in negotiations around car hire. Car hire is the compensation paid to the owner of a railcar for its use.

In other words, if I want to "rent" a railcar that you own, we can use CHRNSS to negotiate the rate I pay. CHRNSS helps users better define the car types they need, car owners better segment their cars during the rate negotiation process and bid recipients quickly validate that the offered cars meet expectations.

It's a great tool that makes a complex process less complicated. But CHRNSS was taking up to a minute to load, and that was a problem for our customers.

Why was it taking so long?

CHRNSS provides a real-time feed of railroad data. Before we completed this work, the application pulled a massive amount of data, including information that wasn't necessary, from multiple tables when a user logged in. This led to the long wait time.

Slimming Down the Search

The sticky notes above, taken from the CHRNSS team's Agile task board, outline two steps in the work we did to simplify the data mining process and reduce the time it took for the application to load.

From top to bottom, the sticky notes read:

Update data model for BOT, BOTED

SQL script to push rate data up into bid_offer_transaction

Remove/change references to bid_offer_trans_equipment_detail

The top note, User Story 27619, tells the development team, in general terms, about the activities detailed in the two notes below it.

We updated the data model for a table called bid_offer_transaction (BOT). To do this, the project's lead developer created an SQL script that pushes relevant car hire rate data into the BOT table.

Now, the application doesn't have to search so many tables for the relevant car hire rate data. The data is already where it needs to be, in the BOT table.

We also removed references to a table called bid_offer_trans_equip_detail (BOTED). These references complicated the query process and slowed CHRNSS.

"There was a lot of unnecessary activity going on in CHRNSS, which was degrading the customer experience," said Rob Hannah, the project's lead developer.

Cutting Load Time to Less Than Two Seconds

Without references to these tables, CHRNSS now can make a beeline to the relevant car hire rate data. The updates to the application also enable users to see changes to offers as they occur.

Because we're mining only the relevant data sets, CHRNSS now loads in less than two seconds.

"This process involved refactoring a lot of code, and it was a huge testing effort that collected input from a group of CHRNSS users," said Meghan Finnie, a business analyst on the CHRNSS team. "But we wanted to get it right, and the feedback helped us make sure we gave customers what they wanted and make it easier for them to use the application."

—Railinc Corporate Communications