Railroads were born from disruption in transportation in the 1800s. They were the Hyperloop of their time, bringing new industry and cities from the East Coast to the once barren Middle America and finally all the way to the West Coast. Fast forward 200+ years and we’re experiencing the same surge in innovation in transportation—this time demanding faster, more efficient travel and transportation of goods.

As evidenced by Elon Musk’s foray into electric cars, electric trucks, hyperloop technology, and even space, the way we travel and haul freight will look very different in the next few years. As Musk announced last November at the launch of his Tesla Semi, “It’s not just economic suicide to use one diesel truck, it’s economic suicide for rail. This beats rail.”

We don’t see the highways filled with pure electric Class 8 trucks yet, but this is coming, which means rail has to get back to its roots and innovate faster, more efficiently, and in partnership with others in the industry.

Rail has faced disruptions throughout its existence. This is nothing new.  The difference today is that rail companies have been slower to adopt the key technologies driving disruption transportation. In order to face this disruption head on, there are several critical steps we must take:

Maximize Efficiency

Freight transportation is experiencing some of the greatest forces of change that it is has since the Transcontinental railroad was completed. Consumer demands for customer service and transparency are being adopted in the business and supply chain world. In trucking, every company is keenly focused on efficiency: electric vehicles are changing the game in energy reduction and emissions, and autonomous trucks and platooning technology mean lower labor costs.

To compete, rail must also be razor focused on efficiency. Instead of doing things the way they have always been done, we’ve got to shift to out-of-the-box thinking. At Wi-Tronix, we like to consider Musk’s concept of “pallets of cash.” His goal is to minimize costs at SpaceX by creating a spacecraft that’s almost entirely reusable. When contemplating how to recover the fairings that make up the rocket’s nose cone—a particularly difficult task—Musk has challenged his team to imagine “6 million dollars on a pallet of cash falling through the sky.” Of course this sparked some unique ideas for ways to try to catch it.

For us, instead of problem-solving the traditional way, we consider, “is each function of the business being approached as innovatively as possible?” If not, the opportunity left on the table is essentially the same as burning an equivalent pallet of cash. For rail, those pallets could be:

  • Asset utilization
  • Network optimization
  • Fuel costs
  • Infrastructure inspections
  • Safety systems
  • Predictive maintenance

Unlock Your Data

To decrease cost and optimize ROI on each of the above, the first step is gaining full access to all of your data. Comprehensive data is the key to understanding your baseline and driving efficiency. While many locomotive manufacturers make it really hard to gain access to it, any data created by your diverse fleets, data sources (sensors, external/internal), or monitored within your rail systems is 100 percent yours. This has been a core belief at Wi-Tronix since we founded the company. We’re so committed to it that we will even reverse engineer systems to ensure clients can use all of their data to make informed decisions.

It is in your company’s best interest to unlock the power of those insights by bringing data from disparate systems into one unified platform so that you can take immediate action on it in real-time. It also lays the foundation for strategic management through advanced data analytics.

Accelerate Advanced Technology

Once you’ve gained access to your data, you need to apply advanced technologies to solve big data challenges and make your railroad smarter in real-time.

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI):  the science of making computers complete tasks or analysis that usually would require human intelligence. It can be used for fleet monitoring, discovering repair actions, establishing long-term performance patterns and more.
  • Deep learning: part of a broader family of machine learning methods based on learning data representations as opposed to task-specific algorithms. For instance, Wi-Tronix Violet has the capability to not only record high-definition video but also use deep learning-based visual intelligence to gain insights that help improve the operational efficiency, service reliability or safety of locomotives.
  • Edge & cloud computing – network of micro data centers that process or store critical data locally and push all received data to a central data center or cloud storage repository. It’s technology that is necessary for the Internet of Things (IoT) to work, but it’s often misunderstood. You can find a more thorough explanation in my recent post on edge processing.
  • Energy storage and electronification: improves efficiency and reduces energy costs. Using battery technology to store the kinetic energy of a 2 mile long freight train is the holy grail of efficiency that railroads have long been searching for.
  • Virtual reality (VR): simulation of 3D image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way. Wi-Tronix uses VR for virtual ride-alongs, wayside inspection, audio analytics, hard coupling, train handling, bad track detection and more.

Embrace Innovation and Agility

Adopting the technology is only the beginning. Using this technology enables you to move faster and innovate better, but it requires you to embrace a cultural shift that rewards out of the box thinking. At Wi-Tronix, we value lean-agile principles. Agile was first used in the software industry, but is applicable to industries as a whole, including rail. The foundation of the practice is the Agile Manifesto, which embraces four key principles:

  • Individuals and actions are valued over processes and tools
  • Working solutions are valued over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration are valued over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change are valued over following a plan

Engage In Collaboration

Lastly, cross-industry collaboration will take not only your company but the entire industry into the future. Railroads should team together to share best practices and define the innovation path forward. The supplier community must also partner and support railroad advancements. At Wi-Tronix, we strive to be a catalyst for all collaboration. We host industry roundtables and knowledge sharing and are building our “Works with Wi-Tronix” supplier collaboration program with auxiliary power unit (APU) suppliers, dispatch/train integration suppliers, control systems suppliers, Maintenance of Way (MoW) suppliers, and PTC suppliers.

From its inception, rail led the way in disrupting transportation. That same zeal has to be revived today in order for the industry to lead the charge into the future again. We have to go beyond efficiency to consistent experimenting and failing fast to drive breakthroughs in efficiency, speed, customer service, and customer experience. Moving away from the tried and true, years-long planning approach toward more consistent, incremental improvements using data insights is the way rail can once again take the lead and truly innovate.

Originally published on LinkedIn