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.
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.
-Range Bluetooth”> The UP solution comprises Symbols 8100 ruggedized handheld computers, which are equipped with Bluetooth CompactFlash cards and LinksPoint Bluetooth GPS receivers.
Tie spotters now use the GPS receivers to mark the locations of bad ties. Once that data is captured, it is automatically transmitted to the handhelds via Bluetooth wireless short-range technology.
Because the precise location for bad ties is now available, the process of determining target locations for unloading replacement ties is much easier and far more accurate, said UPs Holder.
Typically, a GPS point is marked when a tie-spotter team counts its 15th bad tie. The locomotive carrying replacement ties arrives and, via crane, unloads 15-tie bundles. UP fieldworkers on the ground then replace the ties in the locations marked with GPS.
In addition to location information, the handhelds allow spotters to download project information at the work site and answer questions about the project in the field, said Holder.
Its an important aspect, considering there is no formal science to inspecting ties, Holder said. “What you might think is a bad tie, I may not,” he said.
Generally, however, spotters are on the lookout for signs of plate cutting, tie deterioration or hollow ties, he said.
Before the mobile system was implemented, bad ties were marked for replacement with flags or paint, said Holder. “Now the system automatically does that; it takes a GPS reading,” he said.
From start to finish, it took LinksPoint about four months to implement the solution systemwide, Holder said.
“First, we identified small groups of three or four people to implement the system for about four to six weeks to test for issues or problems,” Holder said.
UP experienced minor software problems, but they were quickly rectified, Holder said. In addition to the mobile system, UP worked with Symbol to develop a special “ticker” to help tie spotters count bad ties, which resulted in a couple of months of extra development time for Symbol.
But that kind of support left UP and Holder with a positive feeling.
“Symbol even had special case manufacturers come in to develop cases for the workers,” Holder said. “And LinksPoint developed special drivers because of the Bluetooth.”
The mobile system is saving UP time and money and improving safety.
And as for the tie spotters, at the end of their 12-mile hikes, the whistle blows. “Now, when they get off the track, theyre done for the day,” Holder said.
The solution has been so successful that the railroad is now exploring other ways to make use of the technology. For example, Holder is looking for the company that unloads the ties to implement a weight-based sensor on its cranes that will automatically drop ties 15 at a time, without the ties having to be bundled first. UP currently spends several million dollars a year just to have its ties bundled with heavy metal banding, said Holder.
The added savings would make any old hand proud.