Programmed for failure

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, January 11, 2019

The mining giant Rio Tinto, after almost $1 billion and ten years, has automated its 1,050-mile railroad across Western Australia. Trains of 28,000 tons run from a dozen mines to four seaports with nobody aboard. Think: Robot Railroad. I mention this because we like to think America has the best freight railroads. What we have is a railroad network that is probably more prone to breaking down than any in the industrialized world. The problem is that we have way too many failures—pull-aparts, broken this and thats, crews not completing their runs. The Russian railways are better run. That poses a question: Are the railroads we have the ones we want? I challenge anyone to answer yes.

We need railroads that respond to the needs of shippers, first of all by delivering freight when they say they will and also staying price-competitive to trucks and other modes. You build reliability by preventing the failures that both screw up schedules and drive up costs. That requires even more lineside technology to detect equipment defects, better inspections of freight cars and probably proactive maintenance before something cracks or fails instead of after. All this costs money, which is why not much of it gets done. But equipment failures and recrews cost money, too, and rob railroads of reliability. And speaking of equipment, a freight car not in unit train service still makes but one turn a month, spending most of its life standing still and waiting. Locomotives don’t do a whole lot better.

Now imagine a railroad that can handle today’s traffic with 30 percent fewer freight cars and 25 percent fewer locomotives. We pay railroad executives a lot of money, and some day one of them is going to figure out how to get 25 or 30 percent more miles out of everything. What you’d have then is a whole lot less maintenance to perform on the equipment you no longer need, freeing money to more proactively maintain cars and locomotives you do need and prevent the failures that are the bane of American railroading—a sort of virtuous circle.

Precision Scheduled Railroading as practiced by the late Hunter Harrison did some of this. Everywhere Harrison went he put hundreds of locomotives in storage. He didn’t do so well with freight cars, however. The thinking seems to be that since customers own so many of them, they’re essentially free to sit and gather cobwebs. But when a chunk of wheel falls off a shipper’s tank car because a crack was never detected and sends a freight train onto farmland, that’s not free.

The Santa Fe Railway almost got it right 45 years ago. Every two hours a freight would leave Kansas City for Barstow, Cal., and every two hours a freight left Barstow headed east. Along the way, they swept terminals every 120 minutes. You can imagine what this did to per diem payments for freight cars and to their utilization. A year into the experiment, nobody thought to alter things during the slow Labor Day weekend. President John Reed in his business car saw a train go by with three diesels and seven cars. What was that, he asked? Thus ended that experiment. Today almost never will a railroad run blocks of cars between any of its origin-destination pair more than once a day.

Yet there are a lot of smart people in this business, some of whom aren’t afraid to think, and ideas keep bubbling up. For instance, is it necessary that every car be standardized in order to be interchanged and shared among railroads? BNSF Railway and Union Pacific run unit grain trains that don’t interchange, and the same of their coal trains. So permanently couple them in 25-car sets to minimize slack, electrify the brakes to maximize control and shop each set on a mileage schedule to ensure better reliability. I’m told the technology exists to platoon trains. An engineer is on the lead train and following it at set distances could be any number of other trains (or modules) with their own locomotive but controlled by that engineer. Let’s take the example of CSX intermodal train Q031, which operates between New Jersey and Jacksonville, Fla. CSX also hauls garbage from the New York side of the Hudson River to near Petersburg, Va. Those garbage cars could be cycled a lot faster if they platooned behind Q031 from New Jersey to Collier, where control could be transferred to the yardmaster as Q031 glides by. My point is, we can do this better.

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