Technology Has Changed Life on the Railroad

By John Turner, Vice President-Network Planning & Operations

Original | Inside Track: John Turner Insights main image

John Turner, seen highlighted in center, stands with the rest of the May 1998 new-hire Brakeman class inside the Boone, Iowa, railyard. 

Almost 23 years ago, I excitedly started my career as a brakeman at Union Pacific. Throughout that career, I’ve held every field operating position except locomotive engineer. So much has changed since I switched rail cars and rode trains for a living, and technology has played a big role in many of those changes.

I vividly remember carrying all the paperwork, rule books, timetables, hazardous materials guide and work orders when I went on duty. A work order is how a train person reports rail car movement into and out of our customers’ facilities. I lugged around so much paperwork, I can still feel the weight of it in my memory.

In addition to hauling around so much stuff, the paper-and-pencil process of keeping track of our work didn’t allow us to report car movements until the end of our shift. This delay sometimes could lead to headaches for the railroad and our customers.

Technology has had a big impact on how train personnel approach their jobs in these modern times. Thanks to mobile reporting devices, we’ve virtually eliminated the need for work orders, and can now report our activities in near real time.

Called “DigiCrew,” yard or local crews can use a smart-phone-like device to report the cars they're spotting, as well as look up any track, add extra cars, remove missing cars, and trace and resequence cars on a track. Instead of carrying around handfuls of paper, their switching instructions are consolidated on a convenient hand-held device.

This technology is making life better for our employees as well as our customers, who now see real-time information on the status of their rail cars. Future enhancements will allow the device to line designated yard switches, improving service, productivity and, ultimately, safety.

Another position I held during my career was an agreement supervisor called a yardmaster, the person in charge of the rail yard, who has among his or her many duties combining rolling stock into trains and switching trains from track to track.

One way we’re expediting the learning curve for yardmasters is through an initiative to develop a terminal planning tool that leverages in-house technology, utilizing algorithms to maximize car connections and throughput to improve service for our customers. This system allows supervisors to focus on executing the plan and leading people.

Another of our biggest technology initiatives involves Union Pacific proprietary train-builder software. It’s a decision tool that helps the UP team build complex train profiles, reducing the time needed to complete work events, and making it easier to build longer trains.

Our increased productivity related to building longer trains has been a significant driver of our success and will continue to be in the future. Extending train length reduces demand for resources and reduces the number of trains on our network. It generates capacity while improving service.

Our Central Corridor between Green River, Wyoming, and Chicago has multiple main line tracks. We’ve developed technology used to identify opportunities to combine manifest, bulk and intermodal trains where it makes sense.

To keep our system moving smoothly, we’re scheduling “train meets” to take advantage of long sidings or multiple main line segments. A train meet is a location where opposing trains can pass each other via an adjacent track. We’re continuing to invest in extending sidings on specific corridors so there are more opportunities for train meets. We’ve already added more than 40 sidings and plan another 60 siding extensions in the future.

Despite how technology has impacted the role of the everyday railroader, our company’s focus hasn’t changed over my 23-year career. We’re always looking for the best ways to use our franchise as our customers’ transportation needs evolve. We wake up every day with a relentless drive to improve service and productivity, ultimately leveraging both to grow our franchise.

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