This author recently had the opportunity to speak with Lilee Systems, a provider of advanced wired and wireless communication products and services for the transportation industry. Our interest was prompted by learning of a relatively new product termed locomotive messaging and application server (LMS) that provides freight and passenger railroad operators the ability to achieve Positive Train Control (PTC) compliance. Beyond our cool impressions of this technology, our conversations focused on the potential other customer service focused opportunities that such technology can provide not only to railroad operations but other transportation services as well.

Our readers may or may not be aware of the term Positive Train Control. Wikipedia cites The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) as describing Positive Train Control as having the primary characteristics for:

Train separation or collision avoidance

Line speed enforcement

Temporary speed restrictions

Rail worker wayside safety

“A train receives information about its location and where it is allowed to safely travel, also known as movement authorities. Equipment on board the train then enforces this, preventing unsafe movement.”

In September 2008, the United States Congress passed a new rail safety law, The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which sets a deadline of December 15, 2015, for implementation of Positive Train Control (PTC) technology across most of the U.S. rail network. Thus far, many class 1 U.S. railroads and passenger rail operators have communicated challenges in meeting this December’s deadline for PTC.

Lilee Systems can best be characterized as a silicon valley technology start-up serving a classic, conservative transportation business culture. Lilee was founded in 2009 and its founders feature extensive wireless telecommunications, network and software defined radio backgrounds. Lilee’s customers and partners include 5 of the 7 Class I North American railroads as well as technology partnerships with Cisco, redhat, Siemens, Alstom. Herzog and Parsons.

The bulk of our briefing focused on Lilee’s recently launched TransAir LMS-2450 server developed for enabling PTC compliance at the train level. This hardware’s design goals include long durability, modularity, and scalability with the ability to fit into a small space. Locomotives produced many years ago did not include space considerations for on-board electronics. Today’s newly designed locomotives however include provisions for more extensive on-board electronics.

Any of our readers who have ridden on a train, bus or in a moving car with Wi-Fi or Internet enabled capabilities may have wondered how the technology operates when moving among various cellular or telecom regions. That is where this type of technology emanates from. According to Lilee, some of its technology was piloted among corporate sponsored bus services offered by certain Silicon Valley tech employers, where hour plus commutes need to be productive, and Internet connectivity is mandatory. An extensive on-board communications server afforded the opportunity to add other customer and operator focused services needs.

One of the coolest features of LMS-2450 is that in addition to supporting multiple cellular, telecom and GPS enablement connectivity needs to monitor track status, the product includes an x86 based application server.  For non-technical readers, that equates to the ability to support other business or administrative support applications such as helping in communicating a train’s real-time location, expected arrival time or even maintenance status. The technology further supports interconnections of equipment such as trains being able to communicate with one another as well as operations control centers.

In our briefing, I wanted to further explore why railroad operators were having difficulty in establishing plans and resources to meet the year-end PTC conformance deadline.  The reasons vary but the common theme often comes down to viewing PTC compliance as yet another, non-revenue producing expense, perhaps one that is viewed as very expensive as well. Railroads themselves have core competencies in operations and managing transportation and not necessarily advanced information technology deployment.

Our interviews with shippers along with observations of both rail and ocean container transportation providers clearly reinforce notions that timely and responsive customer service is currently not a core competency for many such carriers.  While today’s Internet-enabled apps allows us to track the arrival or departure status of most any airline flight that is not the case in other commercial transportation segments.

Our takeaway message is therefore directed to executives, operational and organized labor teams of rail operators and other transportation providers. The tendency to context regulatory mandates or requirements as an added burdensome expense or additional work rule for conducting ongoing operations can be viewed in a far different context.  It can present an opportunity in the ability to electronically and digitally enable equipment to communicate more proactive customer and shipment focused status information as well as more predictive insights to pending problems. When did a train depart and arrive or what is an expected departure and arrival?  What specific railcars are included in a designated train and where are they destined? When will a train crew time-out in hours of service and can that be weighted in track scheduling and shunting?

The return-on-investment now takes on a far different dimension, compliance with regulatory safety requirements as well as infrastructure to enable more proactive customer service and added revenues. Work rules anchored in the pre-Internet era no longer cut-it in today’s online, seven by twenty-four world of supply chain operations and business.

We conclude this commentary with the Wikipedia extract for glass half full:

Is the glass half empty or half full? is a common expression, generally used rhetorically to indicate that a particular situation could be a cause for optimism (half full) or pessimism (half empty), or as a general litmus test to simply determine an individual’s worldview.[1] The purpose of the question is to demonstrate that the situation may be seen in different ways depending on one’s point of view and that there may be opportunity in the situation as well as trouble.”

Within the broadened horizon of today’s online digital business needs, regulatory compliance should also be viewed as opportunity.

Bob Ferrari

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