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July 23, 2021

The railroad industry is no stranger to crisis. Over the past two centuries, it has survived conflicts, depression, and restrictive regulations. The industry now needs to bring back its trademark resilience and agility to meet the demand for reliable freight transportation. An integrated transportation system is required, one that offers flexibility in getting goods to consumer markets, with reliable transit times, non-dependence on traditional energy, and reduced carbon footprint.

Are railroads equipped to handle the volume spikes at affordable cost?

Railroads need to consistently maintain service reliability and provide the best outcome at affordable costs for their customers. Cutting out locomotives, building longer trains, and reducing the use of railcars drive down equipment needs and staff costs. Whereas, safety measures for staff include:

  • Pre-shift screening of workers, remote entry of records, avoiding face-to-face briefings
  • Tele-work option for non-essential staff, and only allowing critical/essential staff, for example, in operations and dispatch centers
  • Activating second dispatch and operation locations and limiting movement of employees around the network
  • Restrictions on domestic and international air travel for employees

Considering impact on certain operations such as testing, inspection and certifications, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has provided waivers to railroads to meet social distancing guidelines. These include:

Precision-scheduled railroading (PSR) makes it easier to quickly react to swings in volume, thereby enhancing operational efficiency and lowering transportation costs.

Positive train control (PTC) has led to dramatic improvements in safety. In the US, it was successfully implemented in 2020, and the new set of data opens opportunities for automation and increased efficiency. For instance, in train planning, it is now possible to schedule moving block instead of fixed block. Geographic Information System (GIS) data will enable real-time train location details, thereby reducing the need for train siding.

Autonomous rail cars provide unmanned remote-controlled track inspection to detect and access the severity of issues and keep the assets safe and operable.

Enhancing BCP planning provides better response to crises through further enablement of cloud for managing data and systems, providing flexibility for secondary dispatch and operations centers.

Innovation in operations and safety testing and inspection activities makes use of augmented reality and virtual reality (AR/VR), drones, ultrasound and smart sensors machine learning for testing and inspection activities.

The future is intermodal

The rise of global commerce presents an opportunity for railroads to invest in growing intermodal by increasing the efficiency of the terminals using automation, such as hi-tech cranes, automated gates and terminal operations. Visibility and sustainability have become standard expectation as opposed to an exception in logistics operations. Providing end-to-end visibility, especially in the multimodal logistics supply chain, translates to better customer experience, and improved network planning and operational efficiency. Likewise, improving fuel efficiency is an ongoing goal. Sustaining economic growth while significantly slashing energy consumption and environmental impact requires a transition to efficient, zero-emission vehicle technologies, renewable fuels, and alternate options such as hydrogen fueled or battery/electric operated locomotives. The use of technology can help companies in the following ways:

Automated and intelligent systems powered by IOT, AI and Machine Vision

Automated and intelligent operations would eliminate the need for manual control, thereby reducing errors, improving safety, performance, and asset maintenance.

Smart sensors, microprocessors, and adaptive control systems will enable vehicles to monitor their own performance, environment, and operators to avoid mishaps. Intrusion detection technologies will continuously monitor information systems and networks, warning operators and users of potential system problems or cyber-attacks before they manifest in system degradation.

Intelligent vehicles will be able to monitor and adapt to their environment, ensuring operator safety and comfort. Automated vehicle operations and decision-support tools will enable vehicle-centric route optimization, increasing system-level safety and efficiency.

High-performance computing

Development of large-scale models and simulations of the transportation system will help assess system performance, conduct trade-off studies, and define potential transition paths to an integrated system before developing and fielding operational systems.

Distributed computing techniques will enable system-level and in-vehicle real-time trip planning, tracking, and decision support systems to facilitate best-value decisions. High-confidence systems and high-bandwidth communications will ensure connectivity among all system elements, regardless of the environment or security threats.

Robotics and simulation

Robotics will reduce reliance on humans to maintain assets such as track, locomotives, yard, cars, bridges, or tunnels. Advanced instructional technology, such as computer-based instruction and simulation, will provide operators and users with the skills they need to operate safely in all situations. High-fidelity collaborative and engineering environments with human interfaces will enable the industry to simulate an entire product life cycle, sizably cutting development costs and schedules.

To meet the increased demand for reliable freight transportation, the railroad industry must become more resilient and adopt infrastructure and equipment resistant to extreme weather and natural disasters. Advanced planning and forecasting, high-tech equipment and systems, and simulations are critical to review plans, implement changes, and reroute traffic as needed. It is also essential to ensure that resources and procedures are in place to respond to each unique condition and challenge.

Varsha is the Domain Head, Travel, Transportation and Hospitality, TCS. She has 21 years of experience in the IT services industry, out of which 18 years have been with TCS. Her experience includes roles across car rental, hospitality, and logistics domains. Varsha is regularly called upon to present at webinars, innovation events and hackathons.

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