By John Dodge
Posting in Government
Railroads are not the first industry that come to mind when the subject of smart technologies comes up, but you'd be surprised. One nifty software app...
Railroads are not the first industry that come to mind when the subject of smart technologies comes up, but you'd be surprised. One nifty software application known as SmartYard is shuttling freight cars more efficiently through switching yards at the Canadian National Railway Co. (CN), whose 20,421 mile network stretches across Canada and deep into the U.S. midsection.
Using realtime data fed from points throughout CN's vast track network, SmartYard sequences freight car processing to lower the dwell (or languish) times in switching yards.
"It continuously adjusts to constantly changing conditions of the yard inventory and CN's network using preset parameters and rates to predict when processes associated with classification and train make-up will start and end. When the start or end time of a process conflicts with or does not support the yard's overall plan, alerts are displayed," according to CN's web site.
SmartYard suggests how cars should be "blocked" into outbound trains to get them on their way as fast as possible, lowering average dwell times at one yard from 27 hours to between 18 and 19, according to a feature story about CN in the August TRAINS magazine. "To take eight or nine hours from the dwell of 2,700 cars every day - that's powerful," one CN executive is quoted as saying in the story written by veteran railroad writer Fred Frailey (who I know and like me is an incurable railfan.).
Tools like SmartYard have helped CN has achieve the lowest operating ratio (65.9 per cent) of the seven largest railroads in North America.
Railroading is an exceptionally capital intensive business so asset utilization is the critical challenge. Frailey's story captures how CN CEO E. Hunter Harrison ripped up the `how to run a railroad' playbook and "finetuned [CN] for efficiency" by intensifying the use of the systems assets. Indeed, cost control and asset utilization make up to the CN's five core prinicples.
Railroading is legendary when it comes to resisting change so Harrison's gameplan has not come without a price. Some shippers are unhappy because CN dictates when the train will be there to load when the trend has been toward customer service. Employees must learn all facets of railroading and are disgruntled when they spend weekends learning new skills.
For his part, Hunter is a one of kind expert in all facets of running trains, which is rare among railroad execs. He started his railroad career in 1964 as a "carman oiler" or laborer. Later this year, he hands the reins to the company's CFO.
What makes the CN story more remarkable is that a decade ago, it was owned and sluggishly run by the government of Canada. Now after spending more than $5 billion acquiring several major railroads, CN is the most efficient major railroad in North America.
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Jun 30, 2009
I appreciate your good wishes Mr.Dodge. And I will make it a point to purchase the magazine that published your article about CN Mr.Frailey. Implementing technological change ? Handling in excess of 11,000 feet ? Two man train crews ? It' s all part of railroading as I know it today compared to how it was when I started in 1975. It' s just how they go about demanding it ALL .......whether you like it or not. ( BC Rail ? ) The ideal job ? Not when you spend time away from home. Fight with them over legitimate work claims. Or get involved in suicides or level crossing accidents. No thanks. Working for a fear driven company ? If you accomplish your profession to the best of your ability there' s nothing to be afraid of. I am far from being either pro union or pro company. And I can well understand where they' re coming from. But sometimes....... Ken W. the biggest train I ever handled........12,800 feet.....and I got a knuckle !!
Yeah, Dietz made most of the hand held lanterns out there, going back to before the turn of the 20th century. The Star company I mentioned made more in the line of switch stand markers and the types mounted on cabooses. Last one of the switch stand lanterns I saw of the kerosene kind (like mine) for sale at an antique store was going for $150 and that was a decade ago. It was also in much worse shape that the one I have or presumably could have had for free. Grandpa saved the old NYC a few tons of money. Whatever he wanted (that they could provide w/o losing skin) they gave him. BTW my favorite building on this entire planet is the NYC tower east of Buffalo. Art Nouveau to the extreme, like the central building in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis." Great story behind it's location: the NYC thought cities everywhere were going to explode in size and population back in the late teens when the building was being contemplated. They built it three miles east of Buffalo's downtown proper, thinking it wouldn't be long and it would be in the center of the action. I had the pleasure of going through the place in 1979 as a passenger, on my way to Brandon, Manitoba by rail to see the last total eclipse of the sun on this continent probably for the remainder of my life. I was 19 at the time. BTW Robbie Robertson of "The Band" fame put the Buffalo station/office tower on the cover of his 1987 self-titled solo album, though the image is intentionally distorted. Nevertheless the building is unmistakeable. Robertson wrote many famous tunes recorded and made popular by other more famous artist. This album with the Buffalo NYC building contains his original versions of a lot of them and is well worth having for more than having a NYC rail road asset on the cover! (eg "broken arrow" and "fallen angel") Keep writing, and I'll keep reading, and thanks!
A lot of CN employees would say the same thing as CN Ken just did. By and large, Hunter Harrison is respected by them but not beloved. Employees seem to have a relatively low opinion of CN management as a whole. Fred Frailey
Dear Rat Fink, Thanks for your comment. I have a Maine Central and PRR lanterns...made by Dietz I believe. They're not handy at the moment. Man, if you had taken those 500 lanterns, you could retire early. I'm sure they are worth a lot. You sound like a true railfan. I'll have to check out Star Lantern. One of my favoite railroad things out in your neck of the woods is NY Central Terminal in Buffalo. A shame it's being left to rodents and vagrants. Just heard Frontier Yard nearby is shutting down. Another lantern goes out in the universe! Best..JD
Mr. Dodge, To say I'm a rail fan is an understatement! My house is filled and surrounded with tons of iron I obtained from my grandfather, who was rights of way manager for the central division of the New York Central (Chicago to Buffalo, based in Cleveland) until his retirement in 1964. He started out throwing tie plates in gondolas in Amsterdam NY in 1916, but came up with so many cost cutting innovations he was swiftly promoted. By somewhere around 1924 he had an office. When I was little he had the opportunity to give me kerosene fired switch stand lamps that had been replaced with electrics. He asked me how many I wanted and I said "five hundred," and he said "OK..." But my dad jumped in "hold on now! Just where do you think you're going to put 500 lanterns in this house!!" I ended up with one. (looking at it right now) Later my dad regretted not letting me at least have a dozen or so, as he realized the antique value as technology swiftly advanced. (he also chewed me out once for paying $3 for an 1879 Morgan silver dollar in 1966... "It's a G-D dollar!!!") Anyway, I am pleased CN has innovated as they have. I see them running through Elmira New York on what are now (thank God) Norfolk Southern tracks. (the hideous CSX took over the NYC main line, gramps has to be rolling in his grave) Rail activity is way up here since the NS takeover, and they have been investing heavily in the rights of way, very nice to see. Kudos to Mr. Harrison, and to the workers I say be thankful you have a job, and a railroad job at that, one that will be around for a while. Thanks for the well written article. I'm off to read your work on the 787 next. Ironically, because the railroads died in my youth, I went in to aviation instead, and ultimately ran a corporate flight department for 11 years. Now I am in IT... I found your article round-about through zdnet. PS, in the small world department, I grew up in Honeoye Falls, New York. For over 40 years my grandpa bought lamps of various types from Star Lantern based there. The company is still in business.
Dear Ken of CN, Fred Frailey did a pretty good job of telling both sides of the story. In fact, we have exchanged e-mails and he said how he over-reported the story. Fred's a pro. I think your observations are spot on. I've worked for fear-driven companies and it's not fun. There's a element of that in very company. Only way around is to be your own boss which introduces another equally challenging set of problems. But you had the job I always wanted - locomotive engineer. And if you got to haul 100+ grain trains w super jumbo hoppers through Kamloops and Redpass, I have little sympathy for you-:). Congrats on your retirement and thanks for the comment. --JD
This article well explains just how much technology and smart railroading have turned things around at CN Rail. Both Tellier and Harrison have made remarkable achievements in transforming this company. And I' m proud to say that that I' ve been part of it for the last 34 years employed as a locomotive engineer. But everything has a flip side to it. Ask the average employee what he thinks. The fear managemernt style that pervails generates a lot of poor morale with younger employees. A kinda do it or else attitude. I am about to retire and have been lucky enough to beat the odds. But sometimes new work processes get pushed a little too hard.
We have been living in Montana for the past 5 years and I am not suprisexshopto find it #3 on the "worst" list. Considering asexy shopmove to Idaho to escapthe high cost of living a low income in MT. There may not be a sales tax here but they get you if you own property!