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.

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

Railinc Restates Recent Short Line Data

Railinc collects, manages, distributes and analyzes a lot of rail data. For example, in our Event Repository database, we have logged at any given time, nearly 1 billion movement data points ("events") that document the time a train arrives to or departs from a location.

Moving and managing that much data requires Railinc to use state-of-the-art technologies and infrastructure solutions so that we can meet the evolving needs of our customers. Just recently, Railinc completed work on a very large, multi-year project to migrate all of our systems and applications from a mainframe server environment to a more flexible and dynamic midrange environment. With tremendous credit to our IT teams, this effort has already produced significant positive results for the company and will improve its cost structure, which in turn, improves the value our customers will receive for years to come.

But this project also inadvertently affected the process used to generate the Railinc Short Line and Regional Railroad Index. The "Short Line Index" is published monthly on our website and in Railway Age Magazine. It reports on a monthly basis the number of carloads by commodity type that originated on short line and regional railroads compared to the same month in the previous year.

Generating data for the index is a complex process that involves collecting data from more than 500 sources, creating algorithms for building railcar trips using that disparate data, matching waybills to the derived trips and finally counting the railcars carrying the specified commodities. The process is both artful and scientific.

Unfortunately, for the February, March, April and May 2015 indexes, the movement of the reporting process from one technology platform to another resulted in different data sets used than those needed for the comparison. This led to errors in those editions of the index. Railinc data scientists have since corrected this reporting problem. As a result, we are restating data in the Short Line Index from February 2015 to May 2015. You can find the updated indexes at www.railinc.com/rportal/railinc-indexes. Railinc apologizes for this error and has already improved its process for publishing the data.

The company also has notified the editors of Railway Age, who were very gracious in working with us.

While the reporting error is unfortunate, there is an upside to improving the technology used in creating the index. In 2009, when Railinc launched the new Umler system on a new technology platform, there were also changes that led to improved data quality and richer, more accurate data analyses. We fully expect the same from this technology upgrade.

Please contact Railinc Corporate Communications if you have any questions about the Short Line Index.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Employees Learn, Grow in Critical Support Role

Railinc Customer Support Representative Kelli Buchanan in the Customer Support Center.

Not all customer support jobs are the same. Starting in the Customer Support Center (CSC) at Railinc gives employees a solid foundation to build on as they work to reach their career goals. In this guest post, Railinc Customer Support Representative Kelli Buchanan talks about the phone calls, the schedule, and the opportunities to learn, grow and make an impact across the company. Click here to find out more about the Railinc Customer Support team.

Before I started working in CSC at Railinc, I saw customer support like most people probably do: a large group of anonymous employees in a room answering phone call after phone call, occasionally helping a customer solve a problem.

Well, I do answer a lot of calls—as many as 40 a day.

But I do much more than that.

Improving the Customer Experience

We're the first point of contact most of our customers have with Railinc. When I'm not answering the phone or responding to customer emails, I'm working with people across the company to make sure I know our products and services inside and out; to support important programs and processes; and to help make the customer experience better.

I don't have a typical day. If I'm in the group of CSC employees that comes in early, I get in at 7 a.m. and begin responding to customer emails from the night before. Phone calls start soon after and include everything from requests to unlock online accounts to questions about an error message a customer might receive when working in one of our applications.

Application Testing, Data Management, Disaster Recovery

Railinc Customer Support Representative Kelli Buchanan working with a colleague.Beyond responding to phone calls and emails, CSC is in charge of reviewing permissions requests from customers who want to access our applications. We put each request through a verification process to make sure that customers get the right permissions and that our data are secure. We test applications, keep important industry databases are up to date and accurate, and play important roles in company-wide disaster recovery exercises.

We also work closely with Railinc's product support teams, which provide second-level support, and attend meetings and trainings for individual product groups. This helps us understand Railinc products, keep up with product releases and let product groups know about any persistent issues customers have had. It feels good to know that the customer feedback we collect and share is used to improve our products.

Importance of Customer Support at Railinc

Because we provide 24/7 customer support, we are on an on-call rotation. For one week every two months, I'm responsible for responding to emergency requests that come in after business hours. I have been woken up at 3 a.m. to facilitate a conference call when one of our applications went down. It can be challenging, but it's a reflection of how important a responsive CSC team is to Railinc's work.

It might seem overwhelming to answer and log every phone call and email and to always be ready to remember what each field in the Umler® system user interface means and how entering one wrong code into the system can keep a railcar out of service.

It can be.

Thankfully, we aren't expected to be subject matter experts from the start.

Training, Learning, Professional Growth

In fact, every Railinc CSC representative goes through a 90-day training period to learn all our products and get comfortable interacting with customers. When we start, we do things like unlock online accounts, respond to email requests, and send a "morning report" to the entire company that recaps critical cases from the last 24 hours as well as internal or external notifications that we sent. The learning doesn't stop after our first 90 days: there are plenty of opportunities to to learn through lunch and learns, product training sessions and shadowing of groups throughout the company.

Railinc Customer Support Representative Kelli Buchanan takes a break with a colleague.It's tough learning all the products and services and the freight rail industry as an entry-level employee. But it positions us well to advance in the company quickly. A lot of our product support employees, managers, business analysts and others started on Railinc's CSC team. This opportunity to grow is just one of many things I like about working in CSC at Railinc.

Another one that's important to me is flexibility.

It might seem like I have to be tethered to my phone and computer during work hours, but I can take advantage of Railinc's flexible work environment, too. I have had to run home for an emergency a few times. I was able to log on from home and work the rest of my day there. If you're on call, you have even more flexibility during daytime hours so you can do your job and live your life.

Customer support isn't for everyone. You have to multi-task. You have to be proactive. You have to be patient as you work to learn from the customer what their challenge is and figure out what you can do to help. And you have to be thoughtful and follow up to make sure they get what they need.

At Railinc, customer support is more than just answering phones. We've helped to build a strong foundation with our customers and support the work everyone throughout the company does.

—Kelli Buchanan

A graduate of UNC-Greensboro, Kelli Buchanan joined the Railinc Customer Support team in 2014.

Update: Since we published this post, Kelli has earned a promotion to product support specialist with Railinc's Commercial group. She is an essential part of a team that provides support for internal-facing services that are critical to our products, and we look forward to her continued growth and progress with the company. 

Railway Age Features Railinc Locomotive Review

Railway Age this month featured freight equipment data and analysis provided by Railinc. But this time it's locomotives. In the July 2015 issue of Railway Age magazine, Railinc data scientist Dr. David Humphrey gives a summary of the size and composition of the North American freight locomotive fleet. The article is based on key findings from Railinc's 2015 Locomotive Review. The review features data related to the characteristics of the locomotive fleet, including information about the age and size of the fleet, new locomotives joining the fleet, types of power in the fleet, horsepower ratings trends in the fleet and more. This is the first year that Railinc has published the report. 

Humphrey compiled all the data in the report from Railinc's Umler® system. The Umler equipment registry contains the physical characteristics, transportation management and pool assignments of nearly two million pieces of rail equipment in North America. It is the base file for other industry reference files and industry equipment accounting files and is updated more than 600,000 times each month.

You can read more about the state of the locomotive fleet in Railinc's North American Locomotive Review 2015, which is available to download for free. Railinc's complete list of reports, including the 2015 North American Freight Railcar Review, are available to download for free here.

—Railinc Corporate Communications