Exploring technology solutions to the US rail labor shortage.

16 December 22

Can rail automation benefit both workers and railroad operators?

The aversion of the first national strike by railway workers in 30 years has dramatically highlighted the scale of the labor relations challenge in the sector.

Long hours and trying conditions have long been part and parcel of working on railroads, but the pressure on operators to do more with less as a result of the current economic climate has made recruitment of skilled workers even more difficult in an industry integral to keeping America moving.

Respected logistics company M.E. Dey & Co., which won the 2021 President’s E-Star Award for its contribution to the expansion of US exports, is concerned that major railroads have cut their combined workforce by 29%, or 45,000 employees, over the past six years, at a time when rail freight tonnage is predicted to continue to increase.

In an article on their website, the company raises the question: “It’s safe to say that this decrease in personnel isn’t due to breakthrough technology or automation. So, what’s going on?

“According to the Surface Transportation Board, the cut in the workforce is attributed to streamlining operations and “precision scheduled railroading” (PSR). The goal of PSR is to overhaul current rail networks to run fewer trains, with tighter schedules, and with fewer employees...

Unfortunately, working on the rail isn’t a glamorous job making recruitment a difficult task. On top of that, while the pay is decent, the hours can be grueling. Many veteran railroad workers cite the fact that most new hires will leave weeks after starting. This is clearly a predicament that railroad companies need to solve.”

Railway tracks.

Rethinking railroad automation: why it’s not the enemy of the workers.

One of the key reasons to adopt better railroad technology is efficiency – but it’s a mistake to view digital transformation through the simplistic lens of a better deal for employers and a worse one for employees. Automation can be a win-win, improving efficiency and worker safety, while enabling engineering and maintenance managers to operate more strategically, deploying scarce resources more intelligently and spending fewer hours on less skilled, less gratifying work.

Given the challenge posed by the US labor shortage combined with the sheer scale of the freight rail network, optimization of the labor force is critical. Freight rail accounts for around 40% of long-distance ton-miles — more than any other mode of transportation.

Taking into account the enormous geographical scope as well as exposure to extreme temperatures, Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM) is one significant example of how railroad technology solutions are saving money and time while also improving staff safety.

Remote Condition Monitoring (RCM).

Smart railroad solutions harnessing the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) are providing rail operators with a level of asset visibility that would have been considered science fiction 20 years ago.

The benefits of RCM are twofold and felt across both the operations side of the business and the insight and data analytics areas of the business.

Operational data is captured from rail assets and processed in the cloud to provide actionable information which identifies faults and predicts failures before they happen, resulting in a reduction of expensive and time consuming manual maintenance inspections.

Insight wise providing a wealth of compelling data that allows the business to future plan and future proof resources, giving intelligence-led insight and information.

Here are some of the ways that RCM increases efficiency, improves safety and saves money:

1. Assurance

Did the grade crossing gates come down in time or was the road driver at fault? America’s freight rail networks spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to improve grade crossing safety, yet, despite significant progress, someone is hit by a train in the US every three hours on average. Most of these accidents are preventable and due to human error. Being able to playback and review asset behavior after incidents can ensure railroads understand the detail of these incidents and related near-misses that are reported.

2. Failure investigation

Signaling engineers are able to track down the source of failures more quickly, reducing time to repair, reducing delays, and saving money.

3. Predictive maintenance

Rail operators can make strategic maintenance decisions by tracking failures that appear to be developing before they cause problems. The ability to track asset usage over time allows the operator to strategically plan renewal processes and optimize their assets based on usage rather than age.

4. Remote maintenance

Chronic skills shortages make it even more important to realize efficiencies in maintenance. Maintenance staff can conduct work off-site, reducing the need for site visits and reducing the costs and time required for physical inspections, allowing scarce resources to be better utilized elsewhere on the rail network.

Tracsis is the leading provider of software-based rail automation. Contact us to find out how we can help your company save money, drive efficiencies and improve staff safety.