Handhelds, GPS Help Union Pacific Track Down Bad Ties

The railroad company, which spends millions each year replacing the wooden ties, has simplified the task of locating them with Symbol handhelds, GPS receivers and short-range technology from Bluetooth.

When it comes to transporting people and freight by rail, nothing rolls until the tracks are secure.

And for the Union Pacific Railroad, the largest railroad in North America, keeping track of its 33,000 miles of rail is a full-time, year-round, billion-dollar endeavor. One aspect of that maintenance monster is finding and replacing bad wooden railroad ties.

Of the $1.1 billion UP spends on railroad maintenance annually, about $4.5 million of it goes toward new ties.

But replacing bad ties is only part of the job. Locating and directing replacement deliveries to worn ties are also a challenge. That process involves sending teams of "tie spotters" onto the rails to report on the ties condition.

The spotters walk 10 to 12 miles of track a day (at times enduring extreme temperature and terrain), and until recently they scribbled their findings onto paper forms. At the end of day, the spotters would key all the data into a Web-based application on their laptop or office desktop.

"With the old system, once the fieldworkers got off the track, theyd have to head back to the office or hotel to enter in the data," said Jim Holder, director of engineering systems for UPs engineering department in Omaha, Neb.

UP typically assigns 12 teams of two tie spotters each to a specific territory along the rail lines.

"Sometimes the company will want to replace 1,500 ties in a mile, so workers will have to look for the worst 1,500 ties in that mile," Holder said. "Sometimes well want to replace all the bad ties in a given area, so theyll have to spot for all the bad ties."

Once that data is entered into the UP system, delivery freight trains carrying replacement ties use it to locate drop-off delivery spots. An unscientific process in itself, locating and reaching the drop-off spots can add time and cost to the repair work, depending on how far off the directions are.

For UP, the indicators were clear: The company needed to streamline the process of locating shoddy or worn ties and improve the drop-off directions—both of which ultimately would reduce inspectors time in the field.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read about how location-based services are boosting efficiency on a public transit system called BART.

To reach those goals, the railroad company about 18 months ago turned to one of its former tech suppliers, Symbol Technologies Inc. Symbol, along with one of its channel partners, LinksPoint Inc., recommended a mobile computing solution built around ruggedized Symbol handhelds and LinksPoints GPS (Global Positioning System) technology.

GPS played a major role in the UP solution, which LinksPoint has deployed in several other industries, such as utilities for tracking poles, said Greg Fucheck, vice president of sales for LinksPoint, in Norwalk, Conn. The company also implemented a solution in New York in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to aid in Fire Department New Yorks recovery efforts, Fucheck said.

Next Page: Using wireless short-range tech from Bluetooth.