Union Pacific gears up for technological revolution

One-man crews or autonomous operations may be on the horizon
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Union Pacific
OMAHA, Neb. — Union Pacific is responding to disruptive technology — including the potential onslaught of platooned and driverless trucks — with technological advancements that aim to make the railroad more competitive.

“The world’s changing pretty dramatically. We all see it,” CEO Lance Fritz told investors and analysts at the railroad’s Investor Day on Thursday.

Using just a few clicks or a voice command, consumers can buy practically anything online, schedule the shipment, and track it to their doorsteps.

“Our customers are expecting the same level of service for their several thousand dollars per car purchases that they make with us,” Fritz says of the so-called Amazon effect.

“Customer expectations are changing rapidly and they are changing radically,” he says.

Trucking is on the verge of a revolution, as well.

“Autonomous trucking and platooning are not some far-fetched dream,” Fritz says.

UP’s answer to these challenges is an array of technology that will make it easier for customers to do business with the railroad, increase automation and productivity, and improve safety and efficiency.

“We have awesome leading-edge technology,” Fritz says.

Some of the technology is currently being deployed in pilot programs, ranging from commercial applications that provide real-time car data to track-mounted sensors that can help detect problems and prevent derailments.

“But one-off pilots aren’t the end game,” Fritz says. “What we’re trying to create is a posture of constant evolution.”

Positive train control will make one-person crews or fully autonomous operation viable sometime after 2020.

“One employee per train inside PTC operations will be a longer-term initiative that Union Pacific has,” Chief Operating Officer Cam Scott says. “I think we feel extremely confident that the technology will work efficiently and safety to allow that to become reality.”

Scott has visited Australia, where mining company Rio Tinto last year began using autonomous trains, with an engineer on board for supervision, for 60 percent of its train-kilometers.

“There was nothing like seeing and touching and smelling to believe that it is possible. We were on board their trains,” Scott says. “The technology exists on our railroad today. It is not a brand-new technology that needs to be developed. The reliability of PTC has to be proven out first.”

Fritz emphasized two things about one-person crews and autonomous operation. First, neither is required for UP to reach its operating ratio goal of 60 percent by 2020 or an eventual 55-percent target. Second, the railroad doesn’t have a plan or timeline in mind.
Union Pacific
“We do not have an existing … timed-out plan to get to single-person crews or autonomous,” Fritz says.

Labor negotiations and regulatory approval from the Federal Railroad Administration would be required, officials say, and the ramifications and limits of one-person crews or autonomous trains need to be fully thought out.

“There are still a lot of moving parts in that, not the least of which is that most trains have to do some sort of work anyway,” Fritz says. “And so there’s going to be people doing some amount of work, whether they are in the cab of the locomotive or somewhere else.”

Ultimately, competition from platooned or driverless trucks — which have the potential to siphon traffic off the railroad due to their lower costs — may drive a reduction in crew size or a move to autonomous operations for main line trains.

Until that day arrives, UP’s 1,500-person in-house technology team is working on ways to make the railroad easier to deal with, safer, and more productive.

UP’s SmartETA takes real-time GPS data from the PTC system and then puts machine learning and algorithms to work to produce a far more precise estimated time of arrival than is currently possible. The information can help customers better plan for shipment arrivals and departures.

UP is testing SmartETA and expects to do a widespread rollout of the technology this summer, Chief Marketing Officer Beth Whited says.

The UP tech team has redesigned mundane equipment like locomotive radios to slash the cost by more than half, saving the railroad $10 million. But it’s also working on cutting-edge projects.

It has filed patents for its SensorX, an orange plug not much bigger than your thumb that is installed in rail. The device includes an accelerometer, strain gauge, and digital temperature sensor. It can take 40,000 measurements of vibration and rail movement per second, and send the data along for analysis through UP’s NetControl Internet of Things system.

The goal, says UP Chief Information Officer Lyndon Tennison, is to prevent derailments. The SensorX, currently being tested in Iowa and Oregon, can replicate the function of wheel-impact detectors, help detect broken rails in cold weather and sun kinks in hot weather, as well as detect loads that might be out of balance.

UP has other new systems in the works, as well, including mobile devices that will allow car inspectors to log defects in real time.
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