Victim of Their Own Success

We recently returned from the 2017 Railway Interchange gathering. A spectacle of all that’s new in the rail industry. But, it also highlights what is very, very old in the industry.

I came across a couple of attendees who were wandering the show, glancing up and down the endless aisles of exhibitors, and asked what they were looking for.

“Oh, we’re just seeing what the show is about.”, they replied. “We’ve historically done work in the rail industry and are thinking of jumping back in.”

I asked what they do and found they create braking mechanisms for rail cars.

“Why now?”, I asked.

“We received a service call request for a replacement part a few months ago.” They almost sheepishly continued, “We went out to look at the failed part and discovered it was installed in 1953.”

1953, they hadn’t been back in touch with the client since 1953.

That exchange is a testimony to the incredible quality of their products, but also highlights a glaring aspect of the rail industry: The business of running a railroad is very old school.

In how many other places do railroads conduct business-as-usual, because that’s how it’s always been done?

While there are pockets, or silos if you are a business analyst, of high tech in rail, much railroad activity is business as usual. Most other industries have interconnected the complex facets of their businesses with technology. Railroad operations, even vendor/supplier relationships, have largely not participated in the huge optimizations that a technically integrated enterprise and industry excel with.

The last railroad to recognize this little fact could be the first railroad in big trouble.

What might this look like? Wayside devices that not only gather wheel and axel information, but then have that information processed with predictive analysis, preemptively taking cars out of service for maintenance work.

But wait, there’s more. This information can also be automatically fed into maintenance shops scheduling software, evening out workflows and personnel usage, reducing unscheduled overtime or, keeping cars out of service longer because of backlog. All this would reduce unscheduled, expensive failures. The trains keep safely running without unexpected downtime, customers are happy and incremental loss is reduced or eliminated. Automatically.

This is what airlines have been doing for years, along with major manufacturing.

And, that’s just a simplistic view of what’s possible. Crew Management, Payroll, Yard, Fuel Management, Track Inspection, all these things are fundamentally interconnected and begging for optimization in the rail industry.

Changes are coming, fast.

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