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.

How Network Visibility Optimizes Rail Shipping

Freight rail network, equipment and shipment visibility makes sure cereal is there in time for breakfast each day.

Eating breakfast cereal seems simple. You pour it in bowl, add milk, grab a spoon and dig in. But when you think about what it took for that cereal to reach your table, breakfast can get complicated.

First, a farmer bought supplies to grow and harvest the grain, which was then shipped for milling. Paper pulp and plastic were needed to produce the box and inner wrapper. Those components went to a cereal-production plant. The finished cereal boxes shipped via multiple modes and vehicles to one or more warehouses before arriving to the store. The manufacturer had to maintain product quality and prevent losses from theft and accidents all along the way.

So it turns out, the most important ingredient in your cereal might just be the transportation network that got it to you.

Railcars are an essential part of this network. Freight rail is integral in the production of breakfast cereal and most every other consumer or industrial product. If a railcar is delayed, there could be an impact on the price, the variety or even the availability of a product. Complete equipment and shipment visibility into the network can help.

Complete Equipment and Shipment Visibility Available with Shipping by Freight Rail

For industrial and consumer goods to move safely, efficiently and reliably, a shipper must have optimum visibility into the location and status of transportation equipment and shipment visibility across its entire network.

That's why accurate, up-to-date railcar tracking is critical. Railcar fleets can include thousands of freight cars, many of which are nearly identical. But each car belongs somewhere, whether in a customer's yard, at an interchange point or in a shop for scheduled maintenance or emergency repair.

 

 


The stakes are only getting higher for railcar owners and users because with new opportunities come new customers.

The Association of American Railroads reports that in the last 15 years, North American railroad market share (by ton-miles) has topped 40 percent. Railroads carry more ton-miles today than any other mode, including truck. But as freight rail has become a more important link in many supply chains, expectations are higher for railcar owners.

This environment drives the need for complete equipment and shipment visibility across the North American rail network and has given rise to new tracking and tracing technologies. Shippers, third-party logistics service providers (3PLs), and railcar owners and lessors who make effective use of these technologies have greater opportunities for success.
 



RailSight Data Support Fleet Planning, Railcar Tracking and Greater Rail Shipment Visibility

Consider Railinc's RailSight suite of applications and how it supports railcar tracking and tracing.

Class I railroads have built data gathering and management networks to provide information that supply chain managers need. These networks collect data from the 1.5 million railcars tagged for identification as they pass one of the thousands of scanners strategically placed across North America. RailSight users can access that data to support real-time decision-making and can review historical data for analysis and optimization.

With more accurate data and complete visibility, railcar owners can better plan their fleet deployments, track cars and meet their customers' expectations.

With more accurate data and complete network visibility, railcar owners can better plan their fleet deployments, track cars and meet their customers' expectations.


A railroad is always the best source of information about a railcar or shipment on its network and this flow of data often occurs between a railroad and its customers. When shipments move among railroads, RailSight processes interline data, providing a seamless integration of all data coming in from the approximately 570 railroads in North America.

Railinc's team, with input from railroads, car owners and lessors, shippers and 3PLs, designed RailSight to deliver comprehensive shipment and equipment management data via a flexible framework that supports its users' changing needs.

RailSight helps railcar owners, shippers and 3PLs locate equipment, improve planning and meet customer expectations through greater network and shipment visibility.

 




Evolving Freight Rail Environment Demands Dynamic Technology Systems

The RailSight team serves freight rail customers with high quality data and solutions that improve equipment and shipment visibility and support informed decision making and efficient operations.

The freight rail environment is constantly evolving. The good news is that technology resources like RailSight and new approaches to supply chains can help shippers serve customers with high-quality data and solutions that support informed decision-making and efficient operations. Some examples include:

New technology solutions—Technology providers of all sizes and segments, including Oracle, MercuryGate and others are developing solutions for rail. These tools integrate applications and data and are accessible via the cloud.

Greater access to information—Data as a Solution (DaaS) or Software as a Solution (SaaS) services provide deeper visiblity into the supply network and reduce or eliminate costs associated with systems integration. Even companies with small IT footprints can access powerful technology tools that can help optimize operations, and large organizations can leverage systems and data across their enterprise.

Sharpened management focus—Linear supply-chain thinking has evolved into supply-network thinking. These supply networks are composed of relationships among many parties at many levels. The supporting data, apps and infrastructure can shorten the shipment cycle, improve efficiency and reduce errors.

Improved data and visibility—Better data leads to benefits such as more predictable ETAs; reduced dwell time; faster equipment turns; and the potential to reduce costly equipment purchases.

Because supply networks constantly change, businesses should develop processes that continuously optimize their transportation alternatives. Railcar shippers have told us that their biggest operations challenge can be accessing vital information on their large and geographically dispersed fleets. Companies that leverage high quality, complete data can realize greater productivity.

A flexible, evolving technical infrastructure also enables improved utilization of people, processes and technologies across more complex organizations and supply networks.
 



4 Things You Can Do Now to Improve Network, Equipment and Shipment Visibility

Are you wondering where to start? Here are four things you can do today:

  1. Revisit and validate your data sources to ensure you are receiving the most timely and complete data.

  2. Optimize your supply network across modes, and include rail in your mix. If you don't consider rail, you might leave money on the table.

  3. Incorporate cloud-based solutions that enable you to use the most up-to-date data and applications in support of big data and predictive analytics initiatives.

  4. Take the long view, with a strategy for continuous improvement of your infrastructure, from data to applications. To remain competitive every company needs an evolving plan that leverages a range of tools, from SaaS solutions to ERP systems.

As freight rail has grown in volume, market share and importance, the industry has kept pace with cloud-based information management technology offerings and applications. And that breakfast cereal? It's the high quality data and complete equipment and shipment visibility these solutions provide that help get it to your table.

—Chuck Hieronymi

Railinc's Chuck Hieronymi, who connects customers with RailSight tracking and tracing solutions to help them get the most out of their supply networks.             As Railinc's director of business solutions, Chuck Hieronymi connects customers with RailSight tracking and tracing solutions to help them get the most out of their supply networks. Chuck has held leadership roles with financial, consulting and media companies, and he earned an MBA from the University of Virginia.

 

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.

The North American freight rail industry depends on rules and processes to ensure the proper movement, interchanging, monitoring and repair of more than 1.5 million railcars across the 144,000-mile North American rail network.

Why are these rules so important?

"They externalize business logic, enable business agility and enforce data quality around activities that are critical to safe and efficient rail operations," said Jerry Vaughn, Railinc's director of interline product management.

Freight rail operations are complex. Rail carriers haul and interchange cars that do not belong to them. A railcar owned by a company on the East Coast might get pulled from service for repairs on the West Coast. Railcars and individual components need regular testing and inspection, no matter where they are. Data on activities such as repairs and recalls have to be reported and shared across the industry to verify the health of railcars in service.

Industry rules help to ensure the entire industry applies the same standards to these types of tasks. Contained within the Association of American Railroads' official rules manuals, industry rules cover everything from component characteristics to data reporting procedures to processes around car hire. Many of Railinc's systems and applications are designed to support these rules-based activities and are embedded in critical operations and financial systems throughout the industry.

Two Sentences Help Reduce Customer Confusion Around a Rule

The sticky note above summarizes a user story connected with the freight rail industry's Rule 107 and was part of work completed in late 2015 on Railinc's Damaged and Defective Car Tracking (DDCT) system. The note reads:

US32251

Notification — Rule 107

Update verbiage

A centralized system for tracking damaged and defective railcars, DDCT standardizes the process for reporting and storing data on these cars. For decades, this information was documented on a 3 1/2-inch by 8-inch paper defect card affixed to the side of a railcar. Companies maintained their own tracking systems, which often led to conflicting or unavailable data and required car owners to contact carriers to find out a car's condition.


A defect card holder on the side of a railcar.

Implemented in January 2011, DDCT standardized these processes, improving data accuracy and timeliness, reducing administrative costs for railroads and car owners, and improving the enforcement of industry car hire rules. Industry rules require that rail carriers, car owners and repair shops use DDCT for all cars that participate in interchange.

Railinc team members at the whiteboard.

Rule 107, referenced in the sticky note, establishes the sequence of events that must occur to compensate a railcar owner whose equipment is damaged or destroyed. For example, if a railcar is damaged during interchange, the responsible rail carrier must follow steps detailed in Rule 107 to reimburse the car owner for the damage or to pay for the repair.

DDCT sends auto-generated email notifications to car owners throughout this process, helping them stay informed about the status of their cars.

"Based on what we were hearing from our customers, one of our emails needed more information," said Sophie Hamida, a business analyst on the DDCT team. "Car owners were taking time to call Railinc to find out why the system was displaying the data it was."

In this case, the repairs on a railcar might be complete, but the incident did not show in the system as being closed and the car itself was not removed from the related maintenance advisory. The DDCT team added verbiage to the email that detailed the timeline for closing the Rule 107 incident.

"The aim was to reduce customer confusion about why a car that might have returned to service still showed up in the DDCT system as an open incident," Hamida said. "We only added two sentences to the email, but it will help make what can be a challenging process a little easier for customers."

Railinc Program to Modernize Rules Management

The business logic, rules and processes embedded in Railinc products help to enable the enforcement of industry requirements, like Rule 107. Last year, the company launched a multi-year Rules and Process Modernization (RPM) program, which will modernize the management of the industry rules and processes that underlie our applications and systems.

The RPM program leverages technology to enable the company to take a more consultative approach with customers and helps to improve the efficiency, consistency and reliability of these rules and processes within Railinc applications. DDCT was among the program's proof of technology projects.

"Nearly half of our project development activities involve the implementation of business rules and processes," said Jeanine Bradley, senior manager for business rules and process management.

These rules and processes have traditionally been buried in code in Railinc applications. Because they were not visible and documented with a common language, it has been challenging to respond quickly to customer questions or requests for changes to applications.

"The RPM program is an effort to advance how we manage rules and processes within our applications," Bradley said. "We want to be able to eliminate the complexity so we can support our customers better and deliver innovative solutions that meet the ever-changing needs of the industry."

—Railinc Corporate Communications

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