Tom Forbes, CEO of Biarri Rail, was interviewed by Joanna Marsh of FreightWaves, for her recent story “How can railroads and shippers use technology to bolster service and capacity?” The article notes that while much of the industry has been focused on the technological change associated with the implementation of PTC, the railroads also have near-term options for using technology to enable more efficient responses to rail service and capacity needs.
In the light of the extended downturn in freight volumes for the North American Class Is, it’s important that the railroads look to technology to counter this macroeconomic environment. Most are also in the midst of developing precision scheduled railroad (PSR) plans, which could reduce operating costs. But if the current depressed volumes continue, the railroads must develop more aggressive strategies to manage their assets to reduce operating costs and increase capacity without large capital expenditures.
In the article, Tom said that using technology to improve rail operations gives “me the ability to ask new questions that I didn’t even have time to consider because it just took me a long time to come up with any plan, let alone a very efficient plan. Technology can enable a more holistic approach to address capacity needs, by allowing a railroad to see where capacity demand rises or falls within a network so that the railroad can determine how best to deploy nearby assets – locomotives, rail yards and crews – to meet that capacity need. Technology can also help the railroads move more freight without spending huge amounts of money for new equipment or locomotives.”
Biarri Rail has had the opportunity to see the results of applying technology, including big data analysis and powerful algorithms, to the planning and operations of freight railroads. Kansas City Southern has deployed Biarri’s Boss Loco Planner to optimize locomotive planning, allocation and balancing. In another case, TasRail, of Tasmania Australia, has implemented the full suite of Boss Rail Planning for service design and the scheduling of the railroad. Boss includes tools for optimizing trains, blocks, locomotives, capacity, wagons, and crew rosters and schedules.
For more information on using technology to improve rail planning and operations, please contact Tom Forbes.
Melbourne, Australia – July 29, 2019 – Biarri Rail and TasRail have jointly announced the completion of implementation of the Boss rail planning software system at TasRail’s headquarters in Tasmania, Australia. Boss is an algorithmic service planning system, using optimisation for service and train design, locomotive selection, rollingstock utilisation, crew scheduling and rostering, and train path planning.
Biarri Rail and Boss were selected by TasRail in a competitive bid in 2017. The two organizations have worked very closely over the past 18 months to extend Boss to fulfil TasRail’s master planning requirements. Boss includes a suite of optimisation algorithms that quickly generate feasible and efficient plans for all TasRail’s services.
George Bradley, COO for Biarri Rail, noted that in any freight railroad, master service design development is a complex task. “Service planning requires the planner to consider various resources moving through a network over time, which need to be considered holistically with an integrated solution. Boss accomplishes this by concurrently considering all demands, resources and physical network constraints,” Bradley said.
According to Matthew Patten, TasRail’s General Manager for Freight Services, “Boss enables more effective and efficient planning to meet our customers’ needs.” It dramatically reduces the time needed to produce a train plan. “It would previously take our staff several months to develop a complete master service design, which gave us no flexibility to test incremental changes such as new business or equipment. These new tools allow us to understand the economics and service impact of our decisions.”
Railroads have traditionally developed their master service designs using generic tools such as Microsoft Excel, pencil and paper, or basic drawing software, according to Tom Forbes, the CEO of Biarri Rail. Forbes stated, “Boss will quickly enable TasRail to better understand and improve planning the railway, increasing efficiency across locos, wagons, crew, and fuel, ultimately lowering its operating costs while improving customer service.”
Biarri Rail is a global leader in planning and scheduling software for freight Railroads. Through AI techniques, automation and optimisation technologies Biarri Rail works to improve service delivery and reduce costs through the smarter utilisation of critical resources. Biarri Rail is a part of the Biarri group of companies, who provide commercial mathematics for many industries, including manufacturing, transportation, fibre-optic cable network planning and airport staff rostering.
Tasmanian Railway Pty Limited (TasRail) is a State-owned Company established in December 2009 by an Act of Parliament. TasRail is Tasmania’s trusted provider of safe and dependable logistics solutions. Based in Tasmania, Australia, TasRail moves approximately 3.5 million tonnes of freight annually. TasRail conservatively estimates that the freight it transports by rail each year effectively removes the equivalent of more than 140,000 B-Double truck movements from the State’s road network.
For more information on Biarri Rail or Boss, contact George Bradley at George.Bradley@Biarri.com or Tom Forbes at Tom.Forbes@Biarri.com. For more information on TasRail, contact Kirsten Woolley at Kirsten.Woolley@Tasrail.com.au
June 18, 2019 – Biarri Rail and TasRail have been selected to jointly present a paper at AusRAIL PLUS on December 3-5, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. AusRAIL is the largest rail event in Australasia and is hosted each year by the Australasian Railway Association. Presenting will be George Bradley, COO for Biarri Rail, and James Macartney, Commercial and Business Planning Manager for TasRail.
The presentation will outline the success that Biarri Rail and TasRail have had in deploying an algorithmic service planning software system. TasRail selected Biarri in a competitive bid in 2017 to deliver an integrated and optimization-based planning system for train services, meet/pass planning, locomotives, wagons and crews.
It’s important to note that this is a joint presentation, since Biarri Rail and TasRail have worked very closely over the past 18 months to configure the system for TasRail, so that the application is integrated with their planning and operational processes. The system is now in production.
The solution delivered to TasRail is Biarri Rail’s Boss Rail Planning system, designed to meet the process requirements of TasRail and other railways that operate based on a repeating weekly master service design. Boss is also designed for the service planning needs of North American railroads and other large freight operations globally.
The cloud-based Boss is equipped with a suite of optimization algorithms that is able to quickly generate feasible and efficient plans, including specialized algorithms for integrated customer service design, wagon planning, locomotive planning, crew car balancing, train path conflict resolution, crew shift planning and crew rostering.
In any freight railroad, service design development is a complex task. It requires the planner to consider a diverse set of resources moving through a network over time, constrained by many network requirements and business rules. The AusRAIL presentation will describe the development and implementation of a set of algorithms to optimize the planning functions within this integrated software system.
Railroads have traditionally developed their master service designs using generic tools such as Microsoft Excel, pencil and paper, or basic drawing software. It would often take a railway several months and many specialized staff members to develop a complete master service design across a series of tools. To minimize planning effort, a new master service design would frequently be an incremental change upon a previous plan rather than “clean slate.”
Once completed, management would have little understanding of the relative efficiency of the plan and it would also be prohibitively time-consuming for a railway to model the efficiency of new business, planning decisions or constraints. Service plans that are developed with decision support systems, such as Boss, allow the railway to understand the economics and service impact of their decisions.
Rail planning is a true network problem, which needs to be solved with an integrated solution that concurrently considers all demands, resources and physical network constraints. Boss will enable TasRail to better understand and improve a master service design’s efficiency across network access, rolling stock, crew and fuel, ultimately lowering its operating costs.
March 8, 2019 – In our last post, I stated that you can’t effectively operate a Precision Scheduled Railroad without an integrated operating plan. All major railroads have an operating plan, but I contend that you need to re-think your planning process if you are embracing PSR.
For most railroads, starting a PSR implementation means building a clean-slate, or zero-based, plan that must start with the analysis of customer demand. Remember that a core tenet of PSR is car velocity, and a plan that is focused on moving the cars (and reducing dwell) will necessarily be built on the demand, or traffic.
I can’t explain the complex steps of an integrated development of a new operating plan in a brief article. Experts spend decades refining their understanding of building operating plans. But, it’s worthwhile to review a summary of the key components:
- Customer demand – Demand is at the core of precision scheduled railroading, since block and train design must be based on the projected traffic movement across the rail network. Railroads need to process and analyze their traffic records and waybill files to prepare an historical or projected set of data that can be used for developing blocks and trains. This is frequently the most difficult stage. You can’t run a scheduled railroad without knowing your demand.
- Blocking – Most large freight railroads have computer-based blocking tables or algorithms, to help them allocate the projected freight to appropriate blocks. However, many of these same railroads are deficient on tools to help them optimize the creation of blocks that will reduce handling and ton-miles, and improve car velocity. Block design is critical.
- Trains – Train schedules should never be developed until the traffic and blocking are well understood and modeled. As with blocks, most of the large NA freight railroads have many software-based tools for designing trains, but there are few deployed solutions for optimizing the block to train assignments. Once again, the key metrics are reduced handlings and ton-miles, using train constraints such as train capacity, power, crewing, and yard and network capacity.
- Shared Data – The operating plan uses a set of shared data, of which the most important is the rail network. The network not only includes the characteristics of the route (lat/long, distances, speeds), but it can also contain key variables such as traffic restrictions, physical track characteristics (grade, curvature, etc.), yard capacities, and locomotive HP requirements (load tables).
It is important that all aspects of the operating plan are developed as an integrated whole. A freight rail operating plan is a network problem and you can’t solve for a portion of the network, or for a class of traffic, without impacting the balance of the operating plan. The best way to accomplish this is to develop your plan with an integrated set of automated planning and optimization tools. With these types of tools, it’s also essential to have robust data integration to and from the railroad operational systems.
Asset planning and optimization are also needed to fine tune the operating plan. Locomotive optimization can be used to determine how a fleet of locomotives will be deployed to power trains in a train schedule, balance locomotives, and meet other locomotive demands, such as light engine moves and yard switching. Optimization techniques should also be applied to the other assets such as train paths, car fleets and crew schedules.
Lastly, it is important that the railroad has tools to make incremental changes to the new plan and to develop relative costing for plan scenarios. Quick analysis of planning scenarios can be evaluated using factors such as trip plans, ton miles and handlings, but the ability to examine multiple cost factors (crew, fuel, yard, etc.) with each plan iteration is invaluable.
February 22, 2019 – Precision scheduled railroading, or PSR, is the most-discussed strategy in North American freight railroading today. The concept of scheduled railroading (versus tonnage railroading) has been around for some time, but the specifics of PSR have come into focus due to the vision of the late E. Hunter Harrison. As the CEO of first Canadian National, and subsequently Canadian Pacific and CSX, Harrison restructured these railroads based on his PSR operating strategy.
While controversial, mostly due to some negative impacts on customer delivery and service reductions, all three of the railroads saw significant improvements in their operating ratios and stock prices. In the last 18 months, most of the other class I railroads have committed themselves to developing operating plans that put PSR at the core of the operation.
Much of the talk about PSR assumes that we know what it is. To make a complex concept simple, I suggest that precision scheduled railroading can be described in four bullet points:
- Trains are operated according to their schedule and not held in yards to add more cars.
- Car velocity is more important than train velocity; origin to destination car trips take precedent over train performance.
- A railroad should run more manifest trains, mixing merchandise, auto, intermodal and other classifications on the same trains; reduce the number of unscheduled unit trains.
- Maximize asset utilization, including network, locos, cars and crews.
To put the idea into a single sentence, PSR seeks to provide customers a more reliable, predictable and cost-effective shipping experience by creating train operating plans that seek to speed cars through the network, with the most efficient use of assets.
Not all aspects of PSR are without controversy. There are shipper and regulatory concerns that in their efforts to reduce assets, the railroads will apply too little to capital spending. Other concerns relate to quality of customer service and responsiveness to shippers. I also see a disconnect between the elimination of hump yards and the focus on car velocity. If an operating plan is properly designed (with a reduction of car handling in mind), hump yards are not, in themselves, an impediment to the goal of dwell reduction. Yard operation to a better plan is needed.
But my core message to you is – You can’t adhere to a PSR operation without an appropriately designed operating plan. Sometimes called a train plan, the PSR operating plan must be designed from the ground up, and as an integrated plan.
In our next post, we will discuss the key elements of an operating plan, the types of tools needed for your Service Design group, and how this approach can lead you towards a well-planned PSR operation.