KCS CEO hints at autonomous operations ahead thanks to PTC

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KCS CEO Pat Ottensmeyer
TRAINS: David Lassen
LOMBARD, Ill. — In a conference that — like most most rail gatherings these day — had a great deal of focus on PSR, Patrick Ottensmeyer was thinking and talking about PTC.

That’s not to say Precision Scheduled Railroading wasn’t part of the Kansas City Southern CEO’s Wednesday presentation to the Midwest Association of Rail Shippers. It was, mostly to explain ways in which the KCS version of PSR might differ from that of other railroads.

But Ottensmeyer also had on his mind positive train control, what it could eventually mean for his railroad in terms of autonomous operations.

Trucking, he noted, has most of the buzz when it comes to autonomous operation.

“You could pick up a hundred research papers on autonomous transportation,” he said, “and 95 or more would be about trucks. But rail is moving in this direction …

“Positive train control has provided a good springboard. We all probably would have done it differently if it had been left up to us, but it is a good springboard to moving further down that path toward an autonomous rail network.”

Ottensmeyer was quick to say he was not talking about driverless trains, but about “technology to dramatically improve and increase capacity. The old-fashioned way of spending billions of dollars on track and ties and ballast is not the right path.” Increased use of autonomous technology, he said, would improve consistency and reliability of service, while also opening up more capacity.

Ottensmeyer declined to go into detail on exactly what technology the railroad might be pursuing to create that capacity, stressing that the railroad remains focused on meeting the PTC mandate for interoperability, which “is not going to be a layup by any stretch of the imagination.”

But where KCS is ready to invest on expanding what PTC can do, he said, it would be in “pieces that would have stand-alone value if it didn’t result in a move toward a more autonomous railroad. There are several pieces that need to come together to take it to where we’d like to take it.”

The KCS CEO also said there is an opportunity to expand the technology of PTC, and those potential future benefits in efficiency and autonomy, into the Mexican portion of its cross-border network.

“We’ve started to have more meaningful discussions with [Mexico’s] regulatory agency … about our plans” he said, “and hope to avoid a similar situation where have this unfunded mandate.” He envisions working with the government and “bringing some of the same ideas and conceptions from the U.S. from the standpoint of public safety and efficiency,”

Even more than in the U.S., Mexico has challenges with its highway infrastructure, but trucks still have a larger market share than in the U.S., he said. “So social policy seems to be on our side in terms of doing things that encourage the truck-to-rail conversion. We think elements of PTC and automation will help that, so we’re trying to get ahead of that … and trying to define that path instead of waiting for someone to say, ‘This is how you have to do it.’”

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