ZIFFPAGE TITLEProblems Around the Bend

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld  |  Posted 2005-04-06 Print this article Print

The freight hauler used to rely on masterly improvisers such as Roy Thigpen and Charlie Grady to get its trains through. Now, it has novices—and software.

Problems Around the Bend

Getting that kind of detail right is crucial, because CSX' corps of dispatchers is aging. Less rail yard experience is being brought to bear on the management of train movements.

Over the next five years, 70 of the 350 people working in the dispatch center will retire, according to director C. Brock Lucas. Only half of their replacements will have any prior railroad experience. They must take 12 weeks of classroom and 30 weeks of on-the-job training to get up to speed. And most won't have "the light go on" about how the job really works until they're in it for a year, Lucas says.

Some of the effect can be countered by higher productivity. Where determining the location of a train used to take 16 keystrokes, now it may take only four or five.

But regardless of which or how many keystrokes are entered, software will never solve problems that aren't built into its algorithms.

Which brings back to Triplett and his daily shuffle.

Every day, the 378 comes out of Chicago at 6:15 a.m. and heads to Buffalo. By 3 p.m., it reaches Willard.

But then it sits on the main track, blocking it. There is no further "call" for its services. Until hours later. If the "call" doesn't come until 7 p.m., the train will still sit there until about 8:30. The new crew has to come in, get its job briefing, check out the equipment, make sure it's got the proper blocks in tow and then take off.

Meanwhile, Triplett has to figure out how to move eastbound and westbound trains through Willard—and switch loads—using just two other tracks.

"This is nothing new," he says, out of frustration. "We run this train every day."

This is another problem not solvable by software. Software can't replace hardware like railroad signals or switches.

For instance, the day before Triplett ranted in Jacksonville about the Willard Shuffle, a 37-year-old man died on impact when he drove his truck across a CSX crossing in Pompano Beach, Fla. According to a law enforcement official, the guard gates were not down when the train came through.

In Willard, the culprit, according to Triplett, is a piece of equipment called a "hand-thrown crossover" switch that went out of service a couple of years ago. The crossover was torn up in a storm and never replaced, he claims.

Why is that important?

With the crossover switch, the 378 and two other trains like it, the 386 and 390, would not have to be parked in the middle of the main track. They could be switched into temporary storage on other rails in the yard.

Instead, Triplett continues to do the Willard Shuffle, as many as three times a day.

In the meantime, Ward remains "very optimistic" that shareholders can expect great results from the One Plan—at some point in the future.

Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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