Dispatching system unifies NS network
For years, NS has described the Unified Train Control System as the “next generation” dispatching system. As of late October, that generation has arrived.
All 11 of NS’ operating divisions now are using UTCS, a sophisticated train dispatching system that enhances safety, operating efficiencies, and customer service – all benefits that will help the company reduce costs and grow business.
UTCS replaces a hodgepodge of legacy dispatch systems across the railroad that functioned differently and did not communicate with each other. Now, all across Norfolk Southern’s 22-state operating territory, dispatchers and other railroad employees are tied into a single, integrated system.
“Before, each division really was its own little railroad,” said Chad Hill, manager dispatch training and data, based in Somerset, Ky. “Once they ran the trains across their division, they were basically done with them. Now we’re one big network.”
“To have every division on the same system and to be able to share information helps us plan our work better and to coordinate our train movements much more efficiently,” said Dave Talley, Pocahontas Division superintendent. “It’s a great thing.”
Talley has a special distinction – he was division superintendent for three UTCS deployments, including the first and last NS divisions to begin using the system. The rollout began in 2004 when he was superintendent of the Georgia Division and was completed in October during his current watch on the Pocahontas Division.
UTCS still was a work in progress when it was introduced nine years ago on the Georgia Division, Talley recalls. At one point, the system had to be taken offline to work out bugs.
“Nothing worked quite the way we thought it was going to work,” Talley said.
Fast-forward to the Pocahontas, where the implementation was as “painless as the first one was painful,” Talley said. “The implementation was so smooth. It was the flip of a switch in the back room and we were live.”
UTCS represents an approximately $70 million investment for NS, said Dan Plonk, director transportation planning and operations systems, who has helped oversee the system’s implementation. NS has worked hand-in-hand with industry partner GE Transportation, the system’s manufacturer, to develop and refine UTCS.
Anyone who has UTCS software can view the location of any train on the system. Talley can access a “track line” view of the system from his desktop computer, his laptop, and his iPad.
“If a dispatcher calls me at home at night and says we have a problem on the Pocahontas main line, I can fire up my laptop or iPad and see exactly what he’s talking about,” Talley said. “I can’t make commands off of it, but I can see where every train is and what signals are aligned and which aren’t. There’s nothing like information – the more you have before you make a decision, the better.”
For example, Engineering Department track maintenance crews can use UTCS’ track view to identify windows of work time where train traffic will be light. As a result, maintenance crews are becoming more efficient and productive, while dispatchers are spending less time trying to coordinate track work with train traffic.
In addition to providing an integrated dispatch system, the four primary benefits of UTCS for Norfolk Southern employees and customers are enhanced safety, improved customer service, smoother disaster response, and access to Movement Planner, another NS operating system.
Enhanced safety: The system provides “pop-up” boxes to alert dispatchers to issues that need attention, such as information on authorizing track use, clearing train movements, and position of track switches. Weather reports are continuously updated and advisories of high winds, flooding, and other inclement conditions appear automatically on dispatchers’ screens.
UTCS automates many tasks that dispatchers once did manually and on paper. For example, UTCS automatically helps dispatchers manage slow orders – bulletins issued whenever trains must travel slower than the posted speed limit – and provides prompts to dispatchers while they remain in effect.
“It helps reduce the possibility of human error,” Hill said.
Improved customer service: Ultimately, customers will benefit as train traffic moves more efficiently and train delays are avoided. However, an increase in network velocity is not the only way UTCS will contribute to better service, said Rick Linebaugh, system manager transportation, Atlanta.
“We’ve got more insight into what is going on,” Linebaugh said. For example, UTCS gives NS detailed information about train movements, including how long it took a train to move over specific sections of track, the signals used, and where delays occurred. In turn, NS has more information to share with customers about shipments. Relevant UTCS data is fed into NS’ Thoroughbred Yard Enterprise System, which customers can access.
“By feeding this data to TYES, our industry is better able to give customers a concise view of what is going on with their cars,” Linebaugh said.
Teams of employees in information technology, transportation planning and operations systems, and other departments are analyzing data UTCS is making available for new insights into ways to improve NS’ business.
Disaster recoverability: Because UTCS is shared across the railroad, NS has the capability to dispatch trains anywhere on the system from any division office or from the company’s Atlanta command center. This arms NS with a huge advantage if a division office loses its ability to dispatch trains during a natural disaster or other emergency situation.
“Before UTCS, if you lost your division dispatch, you were done,” Talley said. “There was nothing you could do about it.”
Access to Movement Planner: UTCS serves as the gateway to Movement Planner, a software system capable of analyzing thousands of pieces of information and plotting the most efficient, cost-effective train moves across the system – not just across a single dispatching territory.
Currently, Movement Planner has been implemented on the Georgia, Central, and Alabama divisions and on parts of the Dearborn and Illinois divisions. The Lake Division will be the next division to start using Movement Planner.