How PSR and Automation are Enhancing Train Operations

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How PSR and Automation are Enhancing Train Operations

It’s a time of progress for railroads as Precision Scheduled Railroading, Positive Train Control, and automation technology are transforming operations at intermodal terminals.

Widely adopted by North American railroads, asset-efficient PSR operates trains on fixed schedules with more direct routing. Unlike traditional practices, it is not unusual to see general merchandise cars running as a part of an intermodal stack train.

"Implementation of PSR has resulted in more predictable and reliable service schedules for customers," said Robyn Tysver, a spokesperson for Union Pacific, the largest western U.S. railroad. "Most intermodal services now run seven days per week, providing customers more service options than they had prior to PSR. A greater focus on train length results in more capacity on each train to handle a greater number of containers."

In the past, Union Pacific advertised its modern freight network by applying the slogan "Automated Rail Way" to its freight cars. Today, it is again looking to new technology to help reshape an old one.

"PTC implementation," Tysver said, "has increased the safety of train operations but also offers future opportunities to enable more automated operations, greater visibility to intermodal shipments, and more network capacity."

Union Pacific sees technology curing an assortment of process maladies at terminals, where wait times, a key source of revenue for draymen, have limited turns, or the number of trips a driver can make in a day.

"At times, drayage drivers can experience delays at intermodal terminals due to causes such as gate congestion, inaccurate inventory, billing problems or due to a lack of familiarity with ramp-specific processes," Tysver said. "Technology can address these problems. Solutions include a higher level of gate automation to reduce or eliminate waiting time and better yard inventory management systems."

The late Hunter Harrison first introduced Precision Scheduled Railroading as chief executive of CN. While the system has been widely adopted, the Canadian carrier has continued to innovate with Digital Scheduled Rail-roading, or DSR.

"DSR strategy is the strategic evolution of our operating model positioning CN to take full advantage of emerging and future technologies that will benefit our business and our customers’ success," said Mohit Bhat, vice president, Innovation Platforms & Data, for CN. "At the heart of DSR is data and it is our most strategic asset. Unlocking and exposing data enables us to make better, faster decisions, ensures safer operations and speeds operational efficiencies.

While blending new technology with legacy systems, CN is prioritizing customer engagement in order to make the transition as seamless as possible. This helps maintain the operation of a busy, high-throughput terminal while simultaneously integrating new processes.

The goal - provide more consistent service for pickup and delivery and shrink appointment windows while better communicating ETA notifications. CN’s Smart Terminal, for example, aims to improve on-time performance and ultimately, the safety, reliability, and carbon efficiency of operations.

"Having a real-time inventory with container location to help manage movements within the terminal reduces the need for drivers to exit from their vehicles and look for their container, which adds a layer of safety for drivers and terminal equipment operators," said Dan Bresolin, vice president Intermodal for CN. "When used in conjunction with our mobile driver app drivers can accelerate the in-gate and out-gate process, which enables our partners to better plan and schedule their appointments."

North-south carrier KCS, the U.S. railroad specializing in cross border traffic with Mexico, also has a customized version of PSR.

"KCS decided early on to develop its own unique approach to PSR implementation that is based on our CEO’s [Patrick Ottensmeyer] belief that "good service begets growth," said Doniele Carlson of KCS. "That’s why KCS’ approach is different. It is focused on how to improve customer service through faster equipment turn times, more fluidity, and better customer communication."

The greatest benefit PSR and PTC hold for intermodal operations, the carrier believes, include on-time service, in-gates and out-gates. The greatest benefits to intermodal from PTC are better tracking and tracing.

Amid a severe shortage, KCS said it has recently deployed technology specifically focused on better chassis management. "This has increased our capability with managing this key asset to ensure our customers containers are ready to move from rail car to final street destination."

At KCS PSR emphasizes terminal throughput with the aim of eliminating dwell.

"This applies to intermodal, too, but we’re not just talking about rail cars," Carlson said. "We are adding containers, chassis and dray partners into the mix. Advances in terminal process automation are an opportunity for growth and additional volume with better throughput. The challenge is to bring all this together into a contiguous terminal operations process that will have a strong business case with the underlying goal to increase total terminal throughput – train arrival/departure to out-gate/in-gate to the customers’ final destination."

"To KCS, waiting drivers means terminal congestion, which increases the potential for accidents. Train processing is definitely key, but it is much more when we consider driver terminal dwell, which translates to an increase in customer wait times.

While railroads can be challenged by portions of the shipment cycle outside of its control, Carlson said if KCS is consistent with train pro-cessing, for example, consistent on-time arrival equates to consistent on-time de-ramp. "And, if within that de-ramp expected timeframe, we are as efficient as possible with making that shipment available, ready for roadway movement, there should be fewer driver delays. If we do see delays in train processing with better data and communications, we can provide a specific container’s availability so the driver can better schedule his/her activities and avoid contributing to terminal yard congestion."

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