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3 Easy Ways to Use Your Data to Improve Rail Operations

Sep 19, 2019
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Imagine providing your railroad with data on the performance of your mainline switches through real-time, remote condition monitoring. Then picture augmenting that data with your scheduled maintenance plan, other scheduled track work, and weather data to identify trends. You’d be able to see issues related to battery banks (not just the switch) and predict when issues would likely occur based on those trends. Was your performance affected by recent tamping work done around the switch, snow or debris built up, or other conditions? You’d also see your top-performing switches and which switches were consistently having issues – giving you the insights and reasons to go back to your suppliers and work on enhancements or replacements.

Knowing these potential outcomes is incredibly valuable when you’re sitting at the management table.  Studying the data allows you to see the bigger picture, giving you better awareness of your operations. Awareness to make quick and informed decisions that will significantly benefit your railroad. Simply put, data is the most valuable asset you own.

With data, you can narrow in on a singular software or department to create more efficient regimens. It can integrate solutions and departments to pin-point operational inefficiencies for you to address so you can bring your costs down and keep service on the track longer. Or you can integrate outside sources into your software and operations to notice trends that have a detrimental factor on some of your key performance indicators, like on-time performance (OTP).

Single Software or Department

When dealing with a single software or department, it is easier to analyze data. You can pick up trends sooner because you can focus on a single facet of your rail operations. In your maintenance department, if you analyze the data from your asset management software, you can notice trends surrounding a faulty part.

Preventative maintenance is often based on the manufacturer’s suggested lifespan of an asset. However, let’s say one of the parts is failing quicker than the recommended timeline. Analyzing the data can help predict when the part is going to fail. Therefore, you can fix it ahead of time, decreasing the chance it fails during service. This enables you to keep your OTP up and passenger satisfaction high because you’re pre-emptively fixing a problem before it happens by predicting failure based on your data.

Integrating Multiple Software or Departments

Analyzing data from different software or departments becomes a bit more challenging but can be incredibly valuable if you can take the time to gather insights.

Keeping with the maintenance theme, let’s say one of your railcars goes into the shop for maintenance. You find it in the yard, get it into the shop, and do the scheduled maintenance. That might all sound fine – easy stuff. Nothing looks out of sort from your maintenance software’s data. But, in your yard management system, you are curious why certain railcars are out of the yard longer than others.

You can investigate via your asset management software to analyze the performed maintenance. Was it a cleaning? Fixing the HVAC unit? Or was it something more complicated onboard the railcar? If it is something complicated, then it might make sense as to why the railcar was out of the yard for such a long time. If it wasn’t, then there might be a further issue.

Through your maintenance or workforce management system, you can investigate the cause of the maintenance delay. These are just a few possible scenarios:

  • Were you short-staffed?
  • Was the person assigned to the maintenance taking longer than expecting? Do they need additional training?
  • Were you missing replacement materials or a part, and it wasn’t until after maintenance was started that it was realized that the proper materials were not on hand?

Sometimes you can’t just look at a single software or department. Looking cross-departmentally or through multiple software, you see trends from somewhere else unexpectedly and recognize an opportunity to improve within your rail operations. Again, it comes down to analyzing your data and figuring out how to leverage it to make your operations better and more efficient.

Leverage Third-party Data

It’s all fine and dandy analyzing your own data. But what about integrating and leveraging third-party data from outside your railroad?

Leila Frances, President Middle East and Hyderabad of Keolis and Chairman of Keolis Downer, recently discussed (on an episode of Transit Unplugged) how they used weather data to understand why, on certain days, their OTP was dropping. On rainy days in Melbourne, people would carry an umbrella while waiting for the tram (or streetcar) to show up. When trying to board the tram, they would take a bit of extra time to put down, shake off, and fold up their umbrella. All these actions added to the dwell time. This had a knock-on effect down the line, adding time to each stop and delaying service.

Additionally, the reliability of their real-time and vehicle location (another source of data used by your passengers) fostered passengers’ trust that the suggested arrival time was correct. Then Leila and her team were able to educate passengers to do these actions a few seconds earlier than when the tram got to the stop. Harnessing the trust of real-time info and realizing the impact of weather, they positively impacted their OTP through leveraging third-party data.

Don’t Live with Data Regret

It might seem overwhelming, but trust that this process will improve your rail operations. Leveraging data can start with very small steps to improve your department’s efficiencies and can become a powerful platform for decision making. To make it easier, have a data platform that can integrate different data sources – it’s better and easier than trying to integrate decentralized systems.

No matter where you pull your data or how small you start, you can use it to build internal understanding and buy-in of your rail operations. You can also use it to create a customer-centric mindset. These two things are fostered through continuous improvements because you’re always looking for the next trend, fix, or technology to further your rail operations. Whatever your reason, you won’t regret looking into all this data. But you might regret it if you don’t.

This is part two of a series on data in rail operations. Read the first part about the importance of owning your data when dealing with an O&M here. Additionally, if you want to know more about how to use data to create clear, actionable insights, check out this webinar.

Paola Realpozo is the product director for rail solutions at Trapeze Group North America. Paola is responsible for ensuring that Trapeze's enterprise rail solutions are continuously evolving to meet the changing needs of their customers and the market. Prior to joining Trapeze Group, she was director of marketing at LILEE Systems where she was responsible for LILEE’s global go-to-market strategy within the rail and bus space. Prior to LILEE Systems, Paola held various marketing, program management and product development roles within RailComm, Mexican Class 1 railroad Ferromex/Ferrosur, Mabe, and ITX Corp. Paola co-authored a paper, “Condition Based Monitoring for Mainline Power Switch and Interlocking,” that was presented at The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) Annual Conference. In 2010, Paola received an MBA from the Simon Graduate School of Business in Rochester, NY, and a Bachelor of Science in electronic and communications engineering from the Monterrey Institute of Technology (ITESM) in Mexico City, Mexico.
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