Getting Back On Track

By  Michelle Maisto — August 11, 2008

CSX Transportation, operator of the largest railroad in the eastern United States, is continually inspecting its tracks. It's a very complicated process, insists Larry Biess, Director of Advanced Engineering. "I know that sounds strange," he says. "You're looking at two rails, some ties, some spikes and some gravel, and you think, 'How hard can it be?'"

Track inspectors have to walk, measure and bend down alongside 20,000 miles of mainline railroad track; 17,000 miles of yard track; 720 crossing diamonds, where tracks intersect; 75 lift-rail pairs, where rails disengage near a bridge or turntable; and 31,000 switches, where a train glides from one track to another.

The work is performed in every kind of weather, once every 30 days but not twice within 20 days (as dictated by government regulation), by 326 mainline inspectors and 99 yard inspectors, the average age of whom is 52.

Before CSX deployed its mobile solution, inspector turnover was high, and it's easy to see why. The rule book used by inspectors was literally six inches thick. Remembering what needed to be inspected, and when, required exacting organizational skills. Missing an inspection, or failing to locate the paper that proved one had been completed, led to government fines.

In 2003, Mike McMaster, the railroad's Assistant Chief Engineer, approached Biess about creating a paperless inspection solution. The two agreed that the solution should free inspectors from the burdens of paperwork and scheduling, and put their focus back on inspecting tracks. Or, even more to point: back on ensuring safe conditions for the passage of trains.

For more than a year, Biess and Joe McMillan, CSX's technical director, threw themselves into understanding the work the inspectors did, consulting with exemplary workers and digesting the enormous piles of literature associated with the position.

During the process, Biess and McMillan were taken with Pete Silcox, a veteran inspector with excellent instincts and a career's worth of experience. They wanted the person using it to feel as though Silcox was with them on the job, "But without all the salty language," quips Biess.

Biess and McMillan presented a set of business requirements to track inspectors for comment, which was no simple gesture. For every situation, there are "several ways to skin the cat," explains Biess. An inspector uses his discretion to respond with a "recommended remedial action" that is either in accordance with federal law or with CSX's even more conservative standards. Dictating the correct response to an application meant "getting agreement on the way to skin the cat," says Biess.

When it came time to choose hardware, weight and size were top of mind; inspectors weren't going to walk miles of open track, under a broiling sun, with anything that was a hassle to carry. The two traveled to nearly a dozen locations with a variety of devices for the inspectors to try out. "The OQO model 01 won hands down," says McMillan.

The model 01 -- and now the model 02 that CSX is updating to -- weighs just a pound. While it isn't rugged, it is durable. Dennis Moore, CEO of OQO, says a number of features were added to address the needs of the field service market. These include:

> The ability for I.T. to do repairs.
> Solid-state drives, which are more durable than spinning media hard disc drives.
> A display that's readable in bright sunlight.

OQO also worked with a third-party, Elegant Packaging, to create a protective case that houses the device while it's open and in use, and can be tethered to an inspector's belt.

Basic Training
Although the device got high marks from inspectors, Biess and McMillan knew they were in for a challenge when it came to training: 40% of the inspectors didn't have a computer at home and weren't comfortable using them. "Inevitably, in every training session there was one inspector who said, 'Forget it! I'm not using this,' says McMillan. "In every case, though, the older inspectors came back to us later and said, 'Oh my goodness. If you'd only been able to do this 20 years ago, how much better my life would have been.' And the new guys take to this like a duck to water."

The application handles all scheduling, suggests a remedial action based on the situation, and incorporates all the data from those old six-inch binders into a searchable format. It also offers management insight into inspector compliance and the health of their infrastructure. Training was quick, says Biess, and the national roll-out occurred in six months. After inspectors had some hands-on experience with the solution, a second, less in-depth training session was held, which proved "very, very productive," says Biess.

The OQO device appealed to CSX because it runs on a Windows platform, instead of Windows Mobile. In addition to the 425 track inspectors on foot, CSX has 163 roadmasters who work from vehicles and are using Lenovo laptops. The ability to run Windows on the Lenovo and OQO devices enabled CSX to have just one development team and to deploy and support a single overall solution.

The solution has been in use for three years now, and the Federal Railroad Administration is so impressed that they now consider it the standard for all North American railroads. Additionally, CSX estimates a $600,000 annual cost savings in paper and filing and a $50,000 - $100,000 annual reduction in fines.

"We've also seen a 10% reduction in train accidents," says McMillan. "Not all of that is due to the fact that we've got tighter inspection processes, but we do believe that now that we've got our inspectors out doing more track inspection, as opposed to administrative work, the quality of our inspections, and therefore the health of our tracks, has improved."

Biess and McMillan are eager to collate inspector comments -- impossible in their old, paper world. "We see an opportunity to take what the track inspectors are telling us and really move into a pro-active maintenance that is truly health related," says Biess. "And we think that's going to be a huge benefit for us."

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