A railroad finds its voice

Any casual shipper can tap into a FedEx or UPS Web site and determine the location of even the smallest of packages. But until recently, The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) tracked its trains the old-fashioned way, through two-way voice radios located in every locomotive cab.

Train crews dropped off cars and then radioed that information back to a dispatcher at BNSF's high-tech network operations center at the railroad's headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas. The dispatchers would then have to type these reports into DB2 databases running on IBM mainframe computers.

Though BNSF could communicate with train crews over engine-cab radios hooked into a private microwave system that spanned 14,000 miles in 27 states, the system provided "static information," according to John Hicks, BNSF's director of unified messaging. Crews would start their day with written work orders and turn them in at the end of the day -- with periodic calls to report cars dropped off or picked up. Jeff Campbell, BNSF's CIO, viewed this approach as outdated, cumbersome and incapable of meeting the demands of customers and railroad management for near-real-time data. Last year, BNSF launched a project to automatically turn those voice radio calls into data capable of integration into the company's computer systems.

Campbell says BNSF decided to use its voice radios as the interface to an interactive voice response system and tapped ScanSoft to provide it with speech-recognition software. ScanSoft had never integrated IVR with a radio system before, and the company found it a challenge, said Rob Kassel, ScanSoft's senior product manager for network speech.

That's because two-way radio systems have lower fidelity than the phone lines traditionally used with IVR. The fidelity problem was compounded by the noisy environment of a locomotive cab, Kassel adds. ScanSoft built the BNSF IVR application on its SpeechWorks software and added noise filters. ScanSoft also sampled engineer radio calls to teach the software to recognize speech generated in such a noisy environment.

Although this is an unusual application of an IVR, Dan Miller, an analyst at Zelos Group, says radio-to-data interfaces are the next frontier for IVR systems. There's a "huge growth potential" within many industries, including trucking, utilities and field service fleet firms, he says.

Once ScanSoft completed its work, Campbell says, BNSF integrated the SpeechWorks software with an IVR platform from Intervoice and a digital radio interface from Telex Communications. Beth Bonjour, assistant vice president of technology at BNSF, says the railroad then wrote the middleware to integrate what the company calls the Radio Telephony Interface (RTI) into its systems.

Dispatchers at BNSF's network operations center control the RTI through a phone icon on their screens, Hicks says. This shows all the radio frequencies as well as cell phone and landline connections. When a train crew calls in, the dispatcher clicks on the appropriate link, and the RTI takes the crew through an interactive audio menu with prompts for information such as car number and location.

BNSF rolled out the RTI in its Fort Worth division last year and plans to take it systemwide by 2005, starting with its Gulf and East Texas divisions this year, Campbell says. He declines to break out the cost of the RTI but says BNSF's IT budget will hit US$274 million this year, up $1.5 million from 2003.

The result, Hicks says, is a system that automatically integrates radio calls with back-end systems, providing BNSF with a level of visibility into its trains and individual cars it never had before. Campbell says this "improves customer satisfaction" by allowing BNSF to update its Transportation Support System in near real time. The RTI allows BNSF to provide customers with more frequent information on car moves "and closer expected time of arrival," Campbell says.

A big train set

Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) has started to deploy a wireless-LAN-based Remote Control Locomotive (RCL) system to all its switch engines, in hopes of boosting efficiency and cutting accidents.

BNSF uses the switch engines to make up trains in its rail yards. This involves coupling cars to the switcher, moving them from one track to another and then coupling them to the new train. This has traditionally been managed by a conductor on the ground, communicating via radio or hand signals with an engineer in the cab -- and it's a recipe for accidents, according to BNSF CIO Jeff Campbell. The conductors can't see the engineers in the locomotives and vice versa, a situation that sometimes results in bone-crushing injuries.

BNSF started last year to replace these two-person switch crews with one-person RCL systems, which consist of a belt-pack device worn by a yard worker that mimics all locomotive controls -- including the horn -- and is hooked up by a WLAN link to a controller in the unmanned cab.

BNSF uses RCL systems from CANAC and the GE Transportation Systems division of General Electric Co. The CANAC WLAN operates in the licensed 450-MHz band, while the GE version operates in the unlicensed 900-MHz band.

Though RCLs might seem hazardous, Campbell says that in 10 years of use on Canadian railroads -- which pioneered RCL -- yard accidents have dropped 40 percent. The RCL belt pack has built-in safety features, including a tilt mechanism that shuts down the locomotive if the operator bends by more than 45 degrees.

BNSF currently has 220 switch locomotives equipped with RCL. The railroad expects to have all its switch engines equipped with RCL by 2005.

Campbell says that, besides improving safety, RCL has already started to pay off on the bottom line. "We can build a train faster with one person than two, and we don't need switch engineers any longer," Campbell says. The switch engineers are all being offered jobs on long-haul freights, he adds.

-- Bob Brewin

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