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.

Tax Season Already? Railinc Reports Can Help

When it comes to taxes, some people like to keep their records in a shoebox, an envelope or two, and likely on their laptops. Imagine what it would be like to track down assets that roam across the vast continent. And you must be in compliance with tax codes from multiple jurisdictions.

There are unique tax rules for every state and even counties within those states that can require information to specific zip codes! Those are the facts of life in the freight rail industry.

A pull quote that reads: "In the freight rail industry there are unique rules for every state (and even some counties within those states) that can require information to specific zip codes!

Big Data, Big Money

Railcar owners and their agents must keep records straight as they prepare to file and pay taxes each year. Many often turn to Railinc for help. We work with freight railroads, railcar owners and their customers to provide track and trace services for railcars and rail shipments. That location data—the data that identifies when and where a railcar is located—can help validate when a railcar was in a specific tax jurisdiction.

That’s important because railcar owners, their tax accountants and third-party partners must accurately report the location of equipment to file and pay taxes. If taxing authorities have questions about a prior year's filings, this data may help railcar owners save big money.

“I have been involved with reports where the tax implications were into the seven figures,” said Chuck Hieronymi, director of business solutions. “Now that we have years of experience in providing this information to attorneys and other tax professionals, we can provide valuable insights.”

Equipment location for tax accounting is just one example of the kinds of special reports we can produce for qualified customers. Other kinds of reports may include equipment health histories, commodities handled in specific cars, fleet utilization and ownership history.

Strict Data, Confidentiality Policies Protect Your Information

It's very important to note that Railinc data is not open and readily available to anyone. While we provide and facilitate the movement of sensitive data, we take very seriously our role as an industry steward and protector of data. The availability of any data is subject to our strict data and confidentiality policies.

“We provide rail equipment information only to parties who have a direct relationship to the equipment or to others they have specifically authorized,” said Charles Paye, director of commercial products. Equipment owners can grant that right to their tax accountants or other third parties through Letters of Authorization.

Advances in Technology, Analysis Improve Reporting

The evolution of our analytics services goes back several years, when Umler® system users started requesting information that went beyond standard reporting.

“Car owners, shippers and other users helped us see that we could add value by going deeper into our available data,” Hieronymi said.

With advances in technology, our ability to analyze railcar activity has improved since we produced the first Umler special reports a few years ago, permitting tailored reports for each customer.

"In some cases, a customer might need a full year of historical data," Hieronymi said. "But in other cases a sample is sufficient. For example, out of a 5,000-car fleet, data for 500 cars might provide sufficient information.”

So when you go to your shoebox, your envelope or your laptop to pull all of this year’s tax records together, at least you won’t have to track down data spread across multiple states and counties and zip codes. But just like Railinc’s customers, you’ll still need to report your tax information accurately and on time.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Committees Guide Railinc Projects Start to Finish

An aerial photograph of a railroad switching yard in Chicago.The Chicago Terminal is the busiest and most complex rail terminal in North America. About one-third of all freight rail traffic in the U.S. goes through Chicago. Each day more than 37,500 railcars are processed there and nearly 1,300 trains go through the terminal.

Now imagine trying to develop a multi-layered, digital map of the entire terminal, which is composed of a network of rail carriers that traverse over each others' lines but that operate separately.

One of Railinc's technology projects for 2015 will do just that. The map will include detailed data such as tracks, yards, corridors, trackage rights and capacities and will serve as a foundational resource for future work designed to improve the fluidity of rail traffic through the terminal.

Railinc Customers Shape the Work We Do

Railinc didn't decide on our own to tackle this projects or the related work that will follow. Most of our project work, like this mapping effort, originates each year in industry committees sponsored by the Association of American Railroads.

Industry committees work to ensure the smooth and efficient interline movement of freight, identifying common business problems that can be addressed through centralized data and technology resources, like the ones Railinc develops and manages.

"The committees give railroads and others a chance to help shape and provide input on rules, processes and technologies that have an impact on the movement of freight and on their business operations," said Barbara Bostian, director of our project management office. "Our work with the committees gives us really valuable insights into our customers' needs so we can better serve the industry."

In 2015 alone, we will focus on a dozen critical industry projects that will provide valuable, consequential technology solutions for the freight rail industry. In addition our development of a map of the Chicago Terminal, our work this year will focus on projects that will:

  • Enable mileage to be assigned to railcars in real time

  • Implement new data indicators and summaries to support railcar inspections and data sharing

  • Develop an industry capability to more quickly identify component and equipment failure patterns

Multi-Year Process Leads to Consequential Technologies

Planning for an upcoming calendar year’s projects starts a year in advance, when committees begin to develop detailed proposals that define railroad operational requirements. In some cases, the project will address an industry rule or process change. In most cases, though, projects are part of larger, multi-year programs that focus on solving rail network challenges in areas such as asset health, car hire or traffic fluidity.

The committees give input to the AAR Railinc Project Support Working Committee (RPSWC), which provides business representation and sponsorship from Class I railroads for key initiatives that can facilitate common industry solutions for challenges related to IT and business processes. The goal is to gain consensus from railroads on reasonable, centralized solutions to those challenges.

The RPSWC evaluates and prioritizes project proposals from the AAR committees. Only a dozen or so of the many proposed projects are selected for recommendation to the Railinc Board, which provides final approval.

Once a project begins, we work closely with the sponsoring committee throughout the year to ensure that we meet milestones, make adjustments when necessary and stay focused on the needs of our customers. The committee's guidance and the hard work of our people enable Railinc to deliver products year after year that provide measurable benefits to the freight rail industry.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

(Photograph of the Belt Railway of Chicago's Clearing Yard courtesy of Railinc employee Matt Beaver)

How Agile Killed My Product (and Other Success Stories)

You know the process—blood, sweat, tears. Some tech projects just go down that way. You feel like you’re giving blood because you really want it to succeed. The sweat comes from all the hard work. Then tears. Most teams are disappointed when their project gets canceled. But this time they were tears of joy, because we knew we were doing something right.

And killing that project eight years ago signaled a breakthrough in the Railinc software development process.

We had already tried and failed once to apply the Agile software development methodology to one of our tech projects. While customers were indeed more engaged with us, it turned out that we had picked the wrong project. And we had insufficient infrastructure in place to support it. And we had stretched our development team too thin. And the list goes on. It just wasn’t right.

But we tried again because we saw opportunity. We could make products our customers would like better. We could lower our cost of doing business. We could transform our IT culture and become a more dynamic and highly productive organization. So the next time we tried it, we had the right project and the right people. We brought in Agile consultants to advise us. We had executive support and the infrastructure we needed. Our customers were on board and fully engaged.

Then, bam! It hit us. As our work progressed and we collaborated with our customers, the business team concluded that the product did not meet a viable market need.

We had worked so well with our customers—prioritizing needs, deploying iterations and assessing performance—that they quickly saw that the product was not right and wasn’t going to be right. So we killed it and transformed our business.

What Is Agile?

A group of software development methodologies based on iterative development, Agile enables product requirements and solutions to evolve through collaboration among self-organizing, cross-functional teams. Coined in 2001, the term refers to the Agile Manifesto, which espouses four principles:

  1. Individuals and interactions over process and tools

  2. Working software over comprehensive documentation

  3. Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

  4. Responding to change over following a plan

Unlike typical “waterfall” development, it has increased employee productivity, engaged employees and brought us closer to our customers. With Agile, customers become deeply involved with the product early in the development process.

A group of Railinc employees meeting in front of a white board."Agile and our culture are focused on having discussions, which is why you see sticky notes and white boards covered in ideas throughout our offices," said Jose Solera, Railinc's director of enterprise services and our resident Agile evangelist.

Based on customer input during the process, we immediately build relevant features that address their business needs. If a feature doesn't meet a need, we can fix it, throw it out or try something else, always improving the product as we develop it. Or maybe we just kill it because it doesn’t work. Customers feel empowered because of their involvement in the process. They feel valued because we listen to them. And they feel satisfied because they get what they want most, more quickly than they thought possible.

Agile also pleases our employees. They feel better about their jobs because the customer uses more of their work and values it. Plus their daily interaction with business representatives and end-users empowers them to innovate. Teams largely manage themselves, and teamwork improves as a result.

Adopting Agile Gave Us New Life

Few companies practiced Agile when we began considering it a decade ago. But Railinc needed a change. At the time, we were dragged down too often by problems like inadequate requirements, rigid schedules, buggy systems and the perception that our IT operation was just too slow. Like in any change in doctrine, some people felt threatened and others expressed skepticism that it would work. Something had to give.

We used external consultants to help us uphold the tenets of the doctrine. We carefully picked internal staff to propagate “the faith.” We put great deliberation into choosing our Agile pilot project to improve chances of success. We quietly converted development staff along the way to advance our cause one person at a time.
But killing that project gave us new life.

It enabled us to thoughtfully take on the challenge of changing our corporate culture and convincing customers to adopt Agile and its principles. The first several projects taught us much. We weren't well prepared early on, and that made customers uncomfortable. We learned, adjusted and improved. Now they become believers on Day 1 of every project.

Railinc Becomes a Leader in Agile

Almost 10 years later, we've gotten past the growing pains and learned how to do Agile at the enterprise level. Our people have grown to become Agile leaders recognized for their knowledge and expertise. Through our employees' hard work and commitment and our customers' willingness to collaborate, Agile has just become the way we get work done at Railinc.

Killing that project was one of the best things we've done at Railinc. Agile guides our work across the organization, from product development and infrastructure management to business and product planning. Our projects come in ahead of schedule and under budget, and deployments happen quicker and more often.

Sticky notes on a task board at Railinc, which practices the Agile software development method.

In 2015 alone, we will focus on a dozen critical industry projects that will lead to such outcomes as a multi-layered digital map of North America's busiest rail terminal; an industry capability to more quickly identify railcar component and equipment failure patterns; and the ability to assign mileage to railcars in real time. And we have lots of internal IT projects, too, including the implementation of a rules process management system and the completion of a disaster recovery program. Agile will help us to deliver on all of these projects and provide valuable, consequential technology solutions for the freight rail industry.

But proof is in the performance. Our customers appreciate what Agile has done for Railinc and our development process. We hear it in emails to our executive team and in conversations with customers. And our Net Promoter Score (NPS) reflects our success. The annual NPS survey asks one question: “How likely are you to recommend my company to someone you know?” Since 2010, our NPS has improved by 37 percent, and we’ve grown from 170 employees to almost 300 now. Our future shines brightly.

"The entire Railinc organization is focused on supporting our customers through the delivery of data," Solera said. "The focus of our leadership has been to make sure we deliver on that commitment."

And we do, thanks to Agile.

—Railinc Corporate Communications

Railinc Hits the Road to Connect with Customers

Railinc employees will rack up a ton of frequent flyer miles again in 2015, attending more than a dozen rail industry and technology conferences and meetings across the U.S. We'll be sharing industry insights, providing training opportunities, connecting with and learning from customers, and talking about Railinc and our products and services.

One place where we're a regular is the annual Rail Equipment Finance Conference, which each year attracts attendees including railcar leasing companies, financial institutions, and railcar and locomotive manufacturers. Railinc employees have presented there for the last 15 years, and we provide the event's opening presentation, which reports on demographics and trends related to the North American railcar and locomotive fleets. You can download the 2015 North American Railcar Review, the 2015 North American Locomotive Review and past years' reports here.

We also attend meetings of industry groups like the Association of Car Accounting and Car Services Officers. At these meetings, we often lead training sessions on car hire and cover a range of topics including including reporting and settlement of car hire, the reclaims process and interchange reporting.

"These events give us a chance to enhance our relationships with our customers and really get a deeper understanding of their opportunities and challenges," said Chuck Hieronymi, director of business solutions. "They help us connect with the industry and gain insights into how we can help solve our customers' most impactful business needs."

Railinc is currently scheduled to attend the events listed below in 2015. 
 

Date Conference Location
March 1-4 Rail Equipment Finance Conference La Quinta, Calif.
March 4-5 Pacific Northwest Association of Rail Shippers Portland, Ore.
March 24-26 Southeast Assocation of Rail Shippers Savannah, Ga.
April 15-18 TIA Annual Convention Orlando, Fla.
April 22-24 Northeast Assocation of Rail Shippers Newport, R.I.
May 4-7 North American Rail Mechanical Operations Seminar Indianapolis, Ind.
May 5-7 SAP Sapphire Orlando, Fla.
May 12-15 Gartner Supply Chain Executive Conference Phoenix, Ariz.
May 13-15 Association of Car Accounting and Car Service Officers Springdale, Ark.
May 26-28 NARS Annual Meeting Chicago, Ill.
Aug. 9-12 OTM Users Group Philadelphia, Pa.
Sept. 27-30 CSCMP Annual Conference San Diego, Calif.
Oct. 4-7 Railway Interchange 2015 Minneapolis, Minn.
Oct. 7-8 Southwest Association of Rail Shippers Dallas, Texas
Nov. 2-6 Business Building Capability Las Vegas, Nev.
Nov. 11-13 Association of Car Accounting and Car Service Officers Albuquerque, N.M.


—Railinc Corporate Communications

Hua Wu Wins 2014 Railinc President's Award

A photograph of Hua Wu, Railinc's 2014 employee of the year.Congratulations to Hua Wu for receiving the President's Award as Railinc’s employee of the year for 2014. Hua was recognized at our February all-employee meeting.

"Hua is one of the unsung heroes at Railinc. He has excellent technical skills and shows up every day committed to serving our customers," said Railinc President and CEO Allen West. "Hua finds ways to reinvigorate our work—evaluating and bringing new technologies, collaborating across departments and improving our systems for the benefit of the broader rail industry.”

Hua has had a solid career at Railinc, joining the company in 2006 as the Java technical lead. This year he earned the top rating for his position among senior software engineers. Over the years he has made significant contributions to the Embargoes, Forward & Store and Clear Path systems.

According to his nomination, the team faced challenges with the Forward & Store application, which was causing schedule risks for the mainframe migration projects and the Forward & Store upgrade project. Hua stepped in, led the team and resolved the issue. Due to his involvement, the Forward & Store upgrade project was able to start and end on time, which eventually led to a “perfect five” project survey score from Railinc customers.

"Hua is a dream employee for any development manager. He champions best practices but is also results-driven and practical," Joan Smemoe, senior manager of application engineering, wrote in her nomination.​

The other nominees for the 2014 Railinc President's Award were:

  • ​Chad Boos

  • Meshalle Carter

  • Alan McDonald

  • Eva Anderson

  • Matt Beaver

  • Doni Reece

  • Mark Hawkins

  • Angela Buccigrosse

  • Jerri Moore-Platis

  • Syam Balakrishnan

The Railinc President’s Award is part of our Rewards and Recognition Program, which recognizes and supports the good work that happens at Railinc during the year on an individual, departmental and company-wide basis.

—Railinc Corporate Communications