BNSF’s Rose presses need for rail automation

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BNSF Railway Executive Chairman Matt Rose speaks to an audience at the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers conference in Lombard, Ill., on Jan. 16, 2019.
TRAINS: David Lassen
LOMBARD, Ill. — Matt Rose has a lot of things on his mind as he nears the end of his tenure as executive chairman of BNSF Railway. Speaking Wednesday at the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers conference, the ability of railroading to remain competitive in an automated environment was one of them.

“If there’s one regret I have, it’s that we haven’t made more progress in automation in the cab and the crew,” Rose says.

The last major step in that regard, was the 1986 agreement that allowed reduction from five-man crews to the current average of 2.2 crew members. Railroads, he said, must be able to achieve the same level of automation as trucks.

“We’ve got to be able to achieve those same levels of productivity on the railroad, or else our spread between the highway and the rail will get narrower and narrower, and we’ll lose more traffic to the highway. … In the trucking industry, it’s a ginormous opportunity, so they’re going to invest a lot to facilitate the automation,” Rose says.

Such automation, he noted, will come in steps: first through platooning, with trucks with drivers operating closely together.

“That’s worth 6 to 8 percent of fuel savings,” Rose says.

Next will come platoons with drivers in the lead vehicle and attendants, rather than full-fledged drivers, in the following trucks; followed by platoons with a driver in the lead vehicle and fully automated vehicles following.

“Each one of those stair steps down takes away our spread between us and the trucking industry," he says. "And that’s why we’ve got to stay with them one by one. And yet, the perfect place to do automation in our surface transportation industry is the railroad industry. It’s a private industry. It doesn’t have the amount of stuff that the highway does, in terms of people walking in front of cars and things like that.

"And yet, literally, in D.C., our favorite place, you’ve got people that are running two-person-crew bills, to require each railroad to maintain two people in the cab of a locomotive. It’s insane. We’re going to pass trucking regulation … to facilitate the advent of autonomous trucks, and then we’re going to then require the railroads to have minimum staffing? It makes no sense.

“So we’ve got to keep working on automation.”

Trains editors are covering the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers conference from Lombard this week. More information on the conference is available online.
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