Working on the railroad

by Array


Bob Moore and Mike Barnard take the CN yard operations course and share the experience.

Nothing brings home the sheer physicality of the freight rail industry as much as watching a massive wheeled crane pluck a 40-foot shipping container off of an intermodal train in less than 10 seconds and place it onto a waiting flatbed truck in about as much time. Thirty tonnes of steel and merchandise yanked into mid-air with precision and an odd grace by a skilled operator and a massive machine.

In November 2010 we had the pleasure of joining a group of three CN staff members and six employees from IBM at CN’s Yard Operations Course at CN’s Taschereau Yard in Montreal. Running for two days, the program included overviews of the systems used to view incoming trains and schedule work, along with visits to maintenance sites, the intermodal yard, the automobile compound and locomotives and trains in the yard itself.

The course reflects the CN vision and philosophy: every employee is a railroader first. The company’s management and non-unionized professional staff maintain a significant level of cross-training in running their railroad. Not only is this a necessity to understand the business, it is also a sign of solidarity with those who oversee running trains day in and day out. CN’s CEO and CIO are both certified conductors.

Gaining efficiencies

Everywhere we looked we saw evidence of efficiency innovations. Trains of fuel cars were hooked up into blocks of 16, so that filling and emptying was done with a single hook-up, instead of 16 individual hook-ups. Double-decker automotive trains were pulled into the automotive yard in groups of 25 cars, the ends of the cars removed and ramps put between them, so that automobiles could be driven all the way through the train and out the end, instead of each car being decoupled and unloaded on its own.

In the intermodal yard, cars were in blocks of three, four or five that were permanently linked. CN is still working out the kinks on a prototype container coupler—used at each corner of a shipping container to link it to containers above or below it—that is self-locking and unlocking with gravity. Currently, each coupler is put on top of a container by hand, then after a container is stacked on it a worker manually locks each coupler.

One of the key strategies has been to assemble groups of cars for destinations as early as possible so that they can be classified as a block in any given yard, or in some cases, bypass classification entirely. This has enabled the classification tracks at Taschereau to be reduced substantially over the past several years, freeing up valuable land for the intermodal yard, the automotive yard and office space for staff. Taschereau used to be a hump yard—a yard with a small hill in the middle over which cars are pushed to facilitate sorting—before the blocking of trains by destination reduced the need for very efficient switching of large numbers of individual cars. CN has optimized that system.

Safety saves more than lives

Before attending the course, we had to acquire steel-toed boots and CN provided us with safety goggles, hard hats and reflective vests. As we entered the yard, we were given a safety briefing and tested on it. Some things were obvious, such as look both ways before crossing track or don’t put your foot between switching rails. Others wouldn’t have occurred to us without the briefing, for example, step over the rails not on them.

Staff and contractors who ignore the rules face stiff penalties including being banned from the yard. Originally, these safety briefings were delivered on the shuttle bus on a large-screen TV at the front. However, experience showed that shuttle passengers didn’t pay attention, so safety briefings became live and frequent. These measures do serve more than one purpose: in addition to keeping staff safe, every avoided accident increases CN’s efficiency.

Of course, all of this big iron depends on big iron of another kind: mainframes, servers and applications that provide specific and integrated views of all of the rail assets, customers and schedules. With each passing year, the data is getting closer to real-time with increasing analytics that assist CN and other freight rail organizations to run even more efficiently. This is where IBM and CN’s other partners have been contributing, and continue to assist.

A new approach

The Yard Operations Course has helped CN office staff and vendors to gain increased insights into the real business of CN. CEO Claude Mongeau has a strategy of working more closely with customers to integrate with their supply chains. As one piece of this strategy, CN is now opening up the Yard Operations Course to its customers and their representatives, with the goal of finding opportunities for increased efficiencies through joint operations.

Training office staff, vendors and now customers in the fundamentals is not common in the rail business. This appears to be a wise investment of time and money as well as an innovative approach to developing best practices and being poised for growth.

Bob Moore is senior manager, IT business development & partnerships, Canadian National Railways ( Mike Barnard is innovation and modernization leader, distribution sector, IBM Global Business Services (