US railway integrates applications in drive to use train network more efficiently

US rail transport company Norfolk Southern Railway has begun an ambitious project to integrate 400 software applications it uses to control and monitor its rolling stock, trains and freight containers

US rail transport company Norfolk Southern Railway has begun an ambitious project to integrate 400 software applications it uses to control and monitor its rolling stock, trains and freight containers.

The project will give the $10bn company a clearer picture of the state of its railway network, allowing it to use its rolling stock in the most efficient way.

Better asset utilisation is a priority goal for the business, said Robert Miller, manager for enterprise architecture at Norfolk Southern, in an interview with Computer Weekly.

“We can’t really build lots of new track to get from A to B faster. We are restricted on how we can move trains through the network,” he said. “But what we can do is create as many asset utilisation improvements as we can. We can know things quicker and determine opportunities and threats in a more timely fashion.”

Interconnected software

The company is using middleware, supplied by Tibco, to create an enterprise service bus that will enable hundreds of software applications to communicate with each other to build an overall picture of the state of the network.

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The applications help the company to manage over 20,000 miles of track, 4,000 locomotives, tens of thousands of containers and seven container freight yards that deliver rail freight for commercial clients on the east coast of the US.

The service bus will make it possible for software applications written in different languages, with different data formats, to seamlessly share information with each other by converting data into standard protocols.

And it will make it easier for the company to upgrade its IT infrastructure, making it possible for the IT department to add in new applications and data sources and to retire old ones.

Until now, the transport company has had to create customised interfaces to link applications together, creating an infrastructure that Miller says resembles spaghetti.

“By creating this abstraction layer, we can create new and better sources of data. The applications don't care where the data comes from. They don't need to know we got old source through one feed and new source through another,” he said.

Productivity gains

It took Miller three years to convince the company to fund the project. Part of the problem was there was no simple way to show how the project would affect profits and turnover.

“You can try to come up with hard dollar return on investment, but you can’t really prove it. It’s not about hard dollars, it’s about productivity. All our development costs will stay the same, so it’s really about how much more we could produce with the same results,” said Miller.

But Miller was able to show that the work would lead to savings in IT integration costs of at least 50%. “If you look at the number of integrations a corporation does in a year – that is a big saving,' he said.

Testing and implementation

Norfolk Southern bought the Tibco software in 2011. Creating the production environment has taken a lot of work and testing, said Miller.

It’s not about hard dollars, it’s about productivity

Robert Miller, Norfolk Southern Railway

“We are now just getting to point where we can certify our platform as production ready. We have done that, and we have feeds from five or six different applications and we have created five or six services,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges has been to work out how to test disaster recovery planning, with so many different sources of data in the system, said Miller. “We have had to go through many tests and break the problem down into smaller stages,” he said.

The platform is already helping the company in ways it did not expect. Miller has built a model that shows the state of each train in a part of the business that was previously lacking hard data. Norfolk Southern Railway now plans to use the information to improve customer service.

“No one knew this was something we would want to do, but by capturing these events, it opens your eyes and your thinking to the opportunities,” he said.

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