New Handheld Technology Is Transforming My Father’s Railroad

By Jordan Turner, General Director-Technology

Large Retina | Inside Track Insights: Mobile NX Tech and Mike Oder inset

In 2022, all Union Pacific train, engine and yard employees will receive a Zebra mobile device. Inset photo, train service employee Mike Oder waves trackside back in Valley, Nebraska, in 2012.

Railroading is literally in my blood. I am a fourth generation Union Pacific employee with deep ties in Operating dating back to the early 1900s. My father, Mike Oder, retired in 2012 after over 40 years of train service. He is one of the hardest working people I know and taught me many great lessons before I even knew I would follow suit and work for Union Pacific. I recall many communications only railroad families would understand: “Went on a Dogcatch to Grand Island. See you tomorrow. Love, Dad,” or “I am 2 times out, we need to stay close to home.”

When I first started my career as a software developer, I was working long hours on a project and my dad could see the tension on my face. He said, “Let me tell you something, honey. My entire career at the railroad can be summed up with these simple words: Hurry-up and wait.” At the time, he was simply encouraging me to not sweat the small stuff.

Today, as I am part of a major transformation in our industry, those words mean so much. Technology is changing the role of the train crew and leading to a more reliable service product for Union Pacific customers. It’s also changing the lives of the people who run the trains.

In today’s railroad, a crew person arrives for work, goes to the crew room, does a job briefing, and prints A LOT of paperwork with very little valuable information. That information in their hands becomes outdated instantly as the railroad changes around them. If they are operating on foreign territory – a non-Union Pacific railroad – they are also obligated to get foreign road paperwork. This is neither easy nor fast, and often involves a fax machine. And there are countless other inspections, procedures and paperwork needed to perform their job duties.

When work is finally done for the day and a crew person has hit their hours-of-service limit, they may need to wait for a transport van and have little to no idea when the van will arrive and when they will be able to get home or to a hotel.

Soon, a crew person will come on duty at a terminal, acknowledge this on their mobile device, and receive their digital work instructions for the day. They will go to their work (i.e., to the train or engine), and verify the locomotives associated with the job they are assigned.

Crews will perform inspections and report any mechanical defects for locomotives or railcars on their handheld device, facilitating a real-time response. When setting out or picking up rail cars, the crew person will be able to check real-time for placement errors allowing for quick decisions. The crew will report real-time where they are placing cars in terminals and at industry, providing better visibility into inventories – this is a foundational piece to running an optimized railroad. If the crew runs into an issue at a customer facility or sees an unsafe motorist, they can take a photo or live stream a video to someone in the back office for support.

When done working and ready to head back to a terminal or hotel, the crew can check the status of their transport van on their mobile device, just like Uber on a personal smartphone. Finally, the crew can sign out of their work on the device, never needing to go back to the crew room. In addition to many work activities, crews will be able to perform off-duty activities like check when they will get called for work.

Our Technology group is working hand-in-hand with field operations and Workforce Resources on training and implementation as well as making sure the value and functionality of the new technology is communicated. Along the way, employees have provided feedback that is driving adjustments to improve the features and positively impact the transition for our employees.

For example, our Tech and PS Technology teams are working on an enhancement to allow crews to update work activity on the app throughout the day. This was a direct result of listening to crew feedback on suggested process improvements.

Our complex network of 32,000 miles of track, 337 terminals, and tens of thousands of team members – all needing to be interconnected in real time – makes this technology-driven transformation essential to meet our goals of making our work more efficient and safer, while providing a better service product for our customers.

What I have come to understand in the years since dad told me that railroading was a lot of “hurry up and wait,” was that he was really describing network variability. The secret to providing great service is reducing variability and dealing with it efficiently when it happens. Our new digital workforce, intelligent operations, and automation are ways to drive out that variability and improve our employees’ quality of life. The railroad of the future is not my father’s railroad. It is so much better.

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