Playing Trains as an Adult is about Big Data

Reading Time: 2 minutes

When you think of railroads, do you think of high tech? Maybe you’re like many who think of trains as a quaint, lingering sign of a simpler time. Rusted iron meets rusted iron.

The reality is that railroads are a far cry from the business of even a few years ago and require a serious back-end of integrated systems to deal with the massive amounts of data produced and consumed today. Railroads are as much a big data and integration story as retail.

Technology and Trains

While their paths may be predetermined by rails and switches, there are a host of other factors that affect the value proposition of running a railway. From the planning phase to actually under way on the tracks, these factors show up as events that need to feed both automated and human decision-making.

It gets complex quickly. Some things are scheduled, like crews, locomotives, freight cars, tracks and terminals. But once things get going, the plan can quickly go “off the rails” if there isn’t a real-time system in place to handle all of the things that can go wrong, like schedule changes, breakdowns, unplanned maintenance, weather and accidents. Take the example of Union Pacific Railroad who manage an automatic rescheduling system built on TIBCO technology that keeps over 8,000 trains running on time, all the time.

“Our work with TIBCO on event-driven architecture is one of the most exciting things we´re doing in IT. With it, we can correlate raw events from multiple sources [a hot-bearing detector, a GPS reading] to derive filtered intelligence on the business event of a train location.”

-Martin Malley, Assistant Vice President of Information Systems, Union Pacific Railroad

With so many challenges, a railroad needs to see things happening in the moment, while lower cost choices can be made and rescheduling can happen automatically with minimal disruption. They rely on events streaming in from places like:

  • Sensors in the rails, switches, power plants, brakes, bearings and couplings
  • RFID in terminals and at points along the rails
  • GPS units on trains that provide speed and arrival times as well as separation between trains and closing speed
  • Employee clock-in and -out versus schedule
  • Unplanned maintenance on the network, accidents and other delays
  • Customer commitment subtractions and additions
  • Weather forecasts and actual conditions

It quickly becomes apparent that something as timeless as a railway has the same vulnerabilities and opportunities as any business in our modern world.

Solving the Problem

Doing things right within an event-enabled business means managing the many hand-offs, moving pieces and financial transactions that occur within and across business boundaries. It means using the same technology as an airline or package-delivery company.

The gains are remarkable when old-school industries turn to event processing. Velocity of shipments increase, customer commitments rise, and operational cost goes down significantly. Trains can be fun for adults, too.

For more on the role of integration in big data, listen to this webinar featuring Forrester Research principal analyst, Mike Gualtieri.