American Railways Chug Toward Automation (#GotBitcoin?)
U.S. rail-freight companies say automating tasks once handled by crew will create fluid networks more akin to a model train set. American Railways Chug Toward Automation
Mining giant Rio Tinto PLC calls it the world’s largest robot: mile-long driverless trains traversing the sparsely populated Australian Outback on roughly 1,000 miles of track. American railroad companies, seeking to boost network efficiencies, call it the future.
U.S. rail-freight operators say greater automation will make their networks safer and more productive. They point to railroads owned by Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto as a blueprint for the 140,000-mile private U.S. network that moves vast quantities of everything from cars to corn.
A decade in the making, Rio Tinto’s driverless train system, called AutoHaul, now manages roughly 200 locomotives that move iron ore from inland mines to coastal ports in Western Australia. The trains are operated hundreds of miles away, in an office block in Perth.
Rio Tinto’s network, which began formally operating in driverless mode late last month, is the first fully autonomous, long-haul freight railroad. Rail-company executives from countries including the U.S. and Canada have visited to see the technology in action, said Ivan Vella, Rio Tinto’s head of iron-ore rail services.
American companies say automating tasks once handled by crew will create fluid networks more akin to a model train set. Around 5 million tons of goods are moved daily on the U.S. network, which freight operators share with passenger trains, generating more than $70 billion in revenue annually.
Drivers have variable skills, so a generous distance is kept between trains. In doing so, companies sacrifice valuable rail capacity. Also, the different ways that drivers run locomotives lead to inconsistent wear-and-tear and fuel use, while human error accounts for more than one-third of accidents, according to the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group.
Last November, miner BHP Group Ltd. was forced to derail a 268-wagon runaway train in Australia’s Pilbara region, the origin of half the world’s iron-ore exports. The train rolled away after its driver disembarked to inspect a wagon and failed to secure the brake.
Labor unions and some lawmakers worry about risks to public safety, cyber threats and job cuts from increased automation. Rail-freight companies have typically offered some of the nation’s best-paid jobs, with an average annual salary of more than $125,000, said the AAR, which represents most major railroads. The country’s biggest Class I railroads employed roughly 147,000 people in 2017.
“Americans want a rail network and a transportation system that serves the people, not one that simply makes money for stockholders by eliminating good jobs and quality rail service,” Railroad Workers United, a coalition of unions, said in a statement submitted last year to the Federal Railroad Administration, which was seeking comments on the future of automation in the industry. RWU opposes crews of fewer than two people.
Reaching a consensus among companies, unions and regulators on how many drivers, if any, should remain on board will likely take a long time, said CSX Corp. Chief Executive James Foote.
U.S. rail-freight operators, whose trains are typically staffed by a conductor and engineer, say the goal isn’t to do away with drivers immediately. They contend there are many steps to reach the sort of driverless network Rio Tinto has created, although a shift toward more one-person crews is anticipated as new technologies are implemented.
“The lack of certainty makes investments in technology and innovation cautious endeavors that result in small gains, not leaps forward,” the AAR said in a filing to the Federal Railroad Administration last month.
Today, efforts to advance automation are being held back by regulations that haven’t kept pace with technological change, executives say. They fear falling behind as vehicle makers develop self-driving cars and autonomous trucks.
The Transportation Department released guidelines on autonomous vehicles in October, but didn’t address autonomous trains in detail.
Existing regulations typically dictate that tasks such as track inspections be conducted by people. Operators say this could be done better using an automated system.
The AAR has urged transport officials to grant waivers on what it says are outdated rules and allow railroads and manufacturers to create voluntary standards for safety technology, where possible. The Federal Railroad Administration was unable to comment because of the continuing government shutdown.
The 200-year-old industry has spent most of the past decade developing positive train control technology, designed to automatically stop a train to prevent collisions. That system, which uses GPS information and track data, has created a platform to operate trains more independently.
“The Rio Tinto example clearly shows the technology is here,” said John Scheib, chief legal officer at Norfolk Southern Corp. “It shows that our regulator needs to move more quickly to open the doors to such technologies,” he said.
Rio Tinto’s trains complete an average return journey of 500 miles in 40 hours. Previously, the miner had to shuttle nearly 100 drivers around these scrubby outlands to switch train drivers three times for each journey. That totaled almost a million miles a year and the changeovers added more than an hour to each return train trip.
Today, a train controller at its Perth operations center sets the route, then computers both at the center and on-board take over to make decisions. Before the system was set up, the miner faced repeated setbacks. The project ran three years late and to almost double the original budget.
“What AutoHaul does,” though, “is drive it better than the best driver, every time,” Mr. Vella said.
Of course, there are many people in Australia “who love driving trains [and] they are disappointed they don’t get to drive trains anymore,” he said. “We are trying to give them alternatives.”
Railroads Bolster Case For Slow Revolution
Implementation of new operating plan yielded benefits for Norfolk Southern, others in latest quarter.
Norfolk Southern Corp. became the latest U.S. railroad to show that a slower overhaul of its system can still yield immediate benefits, including higher profits, faster trains and speedy recovery from weather disruption.
The railroad, which operates in the Eastern U.S., on Wednesday reported that trains ran 14% faster on its network and railcars spent 23% less time idling in terminals in the first quarter compared with the same period last year. The company said steps to unclog rail yards helped move cargo quicker toward its destination, and the cleared-up yards and fewer railcars also meant the network rebounded faster from severe winter weather.
Norfolk Southern’s first-quarter operating profit rose 16%, while revenue rose 5% due to higher shipping rates.
“We are finding that the more we adopt new practices and ideas, the more we can drive bottom-line growth and shareholder value,” Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Jim Squires said on the company’s earnings call.
Norfolk Southern, along with rivals Union Pacific Corp. and Kansas City Southern , are all in the midst of implementing new operating plans modeled on the late railroad executive Hunter Harrison’s “precision-scheduled railroading” principles. That approach calls for fewer, longer trains that move faster across the network, and for initiatives to cast off any assets, including locomotives and railcars, that are no longer needed.
After streamlining operations at two major Canadian railroads earlier in his career, Mr. Harrison had moved to Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Corp. two years ago to put his ideas to the test in the U.S. He acted quickly to overhaul operations by closing yards, idling locomotives and railcars and eliminating thousands of jobs.
The moves initially were widely disruptive but CSX’s service and financial performance have vastly improved since.
The other railroads are executing their plans under a more watchful eye of federal regulators. Thus far, they have avoided any of the severe service issues that plagued the rollout at CSX.
Union Pacific, which operates west of the Mississippi River, did face struggles from harsh winter weather and widespread flooding in the Midwest during the first quarter. But with fewer cars on its tracks after streamlining, the company was able to reroute much of its traffic to other terminals and recovered quickly.
Union Pacific is also closing some yards that break down trains and sort railcars and pausing construction on another major facility because the changes it has made have eliminated the immediate need for the yard.
The Omaha, Neb.-based company reaffirmed its outlook for the year, including at least $500 million in cost savings even as it took on extra costs to respond to natural disasters.
The industry’s improvements extend beyond the networks where changes are being made. Keith Creel, chief executive of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. , which underwent its network overhaul under Mr. Harrison earlier this decade, said he is encouraged by the new strategies and results from the other railroads as the improvements help the broader rail network. He said that the more efficient networks help create more capacity to move cargo.
“I continue to be their biggest cheerleader and encourage each one of them to individually and collective stay the course,” Mr. Creel said Tuesday on the company’s earnings call.
Next-Generation Acela Rail Cars Taking Shape in N.Y. Factory
Amtrak’s new $2 billion fleet of high-speed trains, built by France’s Alstom, will enter service in two years.
The future of American high-speed rail is sitting in a building older than the Battle of Gettysburg: a cavernous factory that holds the first shells of a $2 billion fleet of Amtrak Acela trains due to begin running from Washington, D.C., to Boston two years from now.
Even as Congress moves toward renewed debates over the future of both Amtrak and high-speed rail, the first of 28 new Acela train sets are starting to take shape here. They are the first new generation of passenger trains on the railroad since the Acela’s debut in 2000.
For Amtrak, that means a chance to relaunch a service that has been both a commercial success and a procurement headache—and still the nearest approximation in the U.S. to the high-speed trains that whisk travelers among major cities in Europe and Asia.
Amtrak is buying 28 new sets of power cars and passenger coaches from French manufacturer Alstom SA, which is assembling the trains at its complex of plants in New York’s Southern Tier. The train model, known as Avelia Liberty, is from a family of trains already in use in France and Italy, Amtrak executives say.
The new trains will be slowly entering the existing Acela service and will have a top speed of 160 miles an hour, up from 150 miles an hour on the current fleet. The trains will be built to tilt up to 6.3 degrees, allowing trains to run faster in curves and save energy by avoiding braking for some turns.
Average speeds will be much lower, since the Acela will still run on the Northeast Corridor, whose curves will limit trains to top speed in just a few spots. And unlike high-speed trains in Europe and Asia, the Acela shares tracks with commuter trains and freight lines, requiring it to reduce speeds. The new trains will be capable of going up to 186 miles an hour if tracks are later upgraded, Alstom says.
The new Acelas will be just one meter (about three feet) longer than the current trains, but with shorter power cars and redesigned passenger cars. Amtrak says they will carry one-third more passengers with a maximum capacity of 378, up from the current 304.
Amtrak says the new trains will have upgraded interiors, including outlets and USB ports at each seat and wheelchair accessibility in every restroom. The railroad also said the lightweight design will improve efficiency by 20%, while a regenerative braking system will return some power to the overhead catenary wire system. Track improvements and the new trains’ suspension system will allow for a smoother ride, Amtrak says.
The first of the 28 new Acelas is scheduled to enter service in summer 2021, replacing the existing fleet of 20 trains by the end of 2022. Amtrak says the larger fleet will allow more frequent, half-hourly Acela service at peak periods.
Eventually, railroad officials say they could offer limited-stop and nonstop service between Washington and New York.
The railroad is hoping for a smoother launch than the first time around. The first Acela train set was delivered to Amtrak in October 2000, more than one year late, by a consortium of Alstom and Canada’s Bombardier Inc.
Amtrak pulled Acela trains from service in 2002 after cracks developed in critical shock absorbers. Amtrak and the consortium filed dueling $200 million lawsuits, which were later settled.
In 2005, Amtrak pulled the trains from service again after cracks were found in braking equipment. The trains returned to service after the trouble was traced to a supplier.
Despite the complications, the Acela became a success. Even without meeting the target time of two hours, 11 minutes between Washington and New York, the railroad succeeded in peeling passengers away from airline shuttles. Acelas carried more than 3.4 million passengers in fiscal 2018, and Amtrak said adjusted operating earnings for Acela trips was $318.8 million, more than 60% of the $524.1 million Amtrak earned overall on the Northeast Corridor.
For its new Acela fleet, Amtrak selected Alstom alone, using a $2.45 billion federal loan from the Federal Railroad Administration. Amtrak says it will pay back the loan entirely with revenues from its Northeast Corridor operations, with no need for federal grants.
Roughly $2 billion of the loan will pay for the 28 train sets, spare parts, management and contingency costs, and service upgrades, an Amtrak spokeswoman said. Other funds will go toward safety improvements and upgrades to tracks and stations.
Rolling On Out
A new fleet of Amtrak Acela trains is scheduled to begin entering service in 2021. The $2 billion, 28-train fleet will enable Amtrak to run more frequent peak service on the Northeast Corridor.
Alstom says 95% of the trains’ content are produced in the U.S., in keeping with the Buy America provisions of Amtrak’s loan. But the railroad did receive a waiver to import the extruded aluminum shells of the passenger cars, whose honeycomb structure helps limit the trains’ weight and improve efficiency, from Alstom’s factory in Savigliano, Italy.
In Hornell, the Amtrak contract is changing the face of a factory complex that dates to the dawn of the railroad age. Hornell has been a center for railroad manufacturing, and the boom-and-bust cycles of that industry, since the New York and Erie Railroad opened a locomotive plant in 1850.
One April morning, workers in a massive plant built in 1860 were working on an overhaul of a light railcar from Baltimore, while an adjoining building held the final few double-decker commuter coaches from a fleet Alstom is refurbishing for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.
Alstom is the largest employer in town. Its three plants around Hornell employ about 800 people, of whom about 250 are working on the new Acela fleet, a company spokeswoman said.
Alstom recently broke ground on a new building to house Acela equipment for its formal acceptance by Amtrak, bought a new shunter locomotive capable of pushing around the million-pound completed trains, and doubled the length of an existing test track, to 1.4 kilometers (just under a mile), including a new bridge over the adjacent, flood-prone Canisteo River.
At peak capacity, the Hornell factories will be producing a passenger car a day, one power car every five days, and one cafe car every 10 days, said Michael MacDonald, the company’s managing director for high-speed trains in North America.
Amtrak and Alstom officials both say they hope that the railroad’s big investment will help foster the growth of an American supply chain for high-speed rail equipment. The absence of such a supply network raised costs and limited design choice for the original Acela, and railroad officials blamed reliance on a narrow, specialized supplier base, in part, for the 2005 disruption in Acela service.
Alstom says the Amtrak contract is helping seed new expertise in their industry.
Mr. MacDonald noted the example of TTA Systems LLC, which has worked with Alstom in Hornell for years. TTA Systems is now building the tilting “bogies”—the crucial assemblies that connect to train cars and carry their wheels.
“They’ve overhauled 30-year-old bogies for years that are on a metro car that’s going 30 miles an hour,” Mr. MacDonald said. “This is going to 170 miles an hour, and it’s going to tilt. It’s a different animal.”
Amtrak, Seeking to Break Even, Sees Some Light at the End of the Tunnel
The passenger-rail operator cut losses as ridership hit a record 32.5 million trips in 2019 fiscal year.
Amtrak inched closer to breaking even last year, the company reported Friday, as rising ridership and cost cuts continued a multiyear improvement in the railroad’s financial performance.
Amtrak reported an adjusted operating loss of $29.8 million across the entire national railroad network, significantly beating a previous target of a loss of $75 million in the 2019 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Its operating loss in fiscal 2018 was $170.6 million.
Operating revenue rose to $3.3 billion, the company said, an increase of 3.6% over fiscal 2018.
The railroad’s fortunes were boosted by rising ridership in a strong economy. The railroad recorded 32.5 million customer trips, a record that surpassed the previous year by 800,000.
Ridership on the premium Acela service on the Northeast Corridor grew more than 4%, and was up almost 3% on Northeast regional trains. Ridership on long-distance trains—which have been plagued by delays and unreliability—also grew by almost 1%, the company said.
Amtrak Chief Executive Richard Anderson has told Congress that the railroad will break even on the operation of its rail network—not counting the significant amounts it spends maintaining physical infrastructure such as trains, tracks and tunnels—by next summer.
It would, if achieved, be the first time in Amtrak’s nearly 50-year history that the national passenger railroad has reached the break-even point in the traditionally money-losing business of moving people by rail.
“The best five years of Amtrak’s history have been the last five,” said Anthony Coscia, the chairman of Amtrak’s board of directors, in an interview. “We’re within visibility of earning a profit for the first time in the company’s history.”
Mr. Coscia credited the leadership of Mr. Anderson, previously the CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc., and his predecessor Charles “Wick” Moorman, the former chief of Norfolk Southern Corp., for helping the railroad grow its operating revenue while cutting costs.
The company said it had boosted its capital investment by more than 9% to $1.6 billion in the past fiscal year. The company goal is to eventually spend $2 billion annually on improvements to Amtrak-owned tracks and trains, relying on a blend of funds from ticket sales and grants from the federal government.
Amtrak is a private corporation, chartered by Congress to operate the national passenger rail network, and almost fully owned by the government.
Critics of the railroad’s management have long challenged Amtrak’s accounting.
The company says it makes money on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, and loses money on long-distance routes that crisscross the rest of the country. Supporters of the long-distance routes, which Mr. Anderson seeks to overhaul or cut, say that Amtrak understates the expense of maintaining the rail corridor in the Northeast, and inappropriately attributes costs of the corridor to the long-distance system.
Amtrak highlighted the money it has spent on the rail network in the 2019 fiscal year, saying it has improved performance and helped to drive ridership.
Amtrak spent $713 million on infrastructure improvements, such as new concrete rail ties, helping to improve travel speeds and ride quality in the Northeast Corridor. The company also introduced a safety-management system that was influenced by the airline industry—from which Mr. Anderson has recruited top executives—and finished installing a federally mandated anticrash signal system, with the exception of a small section of low-speed track in Chicago.
Amtrak has also upgraded the interiors on regional and Acela trains, started construction of a new Acela fleet, launched a procurement process to replace cars on the regional train fleet, and awarded a contract for 75 new diesel locomotives for the national network.
In the interview, Mr. Coscia said the improving financial performance at Amtrak would help the railroad as it prepares to approach Congress, and possibly private investors, to support its enormous capital needs, including new tunnels in Baltimore and New York and major upgrades along the entire Northeast Corridor.
“The stronger we become as a company, the better we are at convincing people that we have ability to take their capital and invest it in a way that’s good for the company and good for the country,” he said.
Banks Own Thousands of Railcars but Don’t Know What to Do With Them
Wells Fargo and other banks lease out railcars that carry coal, grain and other commodities; the business is becoming a weak spot.
Railcar NOKL 3013 has spent decades hauling grain across the country. Its owner: Wells Fargo & Co.
Banks including Wells Fargo, Citigroup Inc., PNC Financial Services Group Inc. and CIT Group Inc. own hundreds of thousands of railcars that carry coal, grain and other commodities through North America. It is an unusual line of business for lenders, which typically focus on more traditional loans and deposits. Now the niche has become a headache. Tepid railroad demand and changes in commodity markets have made it a rare weak spot in commercial lending.
Banks got rid of many of their esoteric business lines after the financial crisis but largely hung onto their railcars, leasing them out for a variety of commercial purposes. In return they get a steady stream of revenue, though that has taken a major hit.
“The industry is suffering, there’s no two ways about it,” said David Nahass, president of Railroad Financial Corp., which advises railroads and lessors. “Lease rates are down and there’s not a source of hope about when it will start to improve.”
CIT has estimated that lease rates will fall between 10% and 15% in 2019 from last year. GATX Corp., a nonbank lessor, said rates on certain cars fell about 20% in the third quarter from a year earlier.
Large railroads are trying to use fewer trains to save money, and nearly 400,000 railcars are in storage, according to the Association of American Railroads, or AAR.
The downturn has been particularly acute for certain types of railcars. Coal shipments have fallen since 2011, according to the AAR. Energy companies involved in hydraulic fracturing have started using a different type of sand, rendering thousands of sand railcars obsolete, said Patrick Mazzanti, a railcar appraiser and former banker. New regulations mean many oil cars must be retrofitted, said Mr. Mazzanti.
“It’s the worst market I’ve seen in my 30-plus years in the industry,” he said.
Rail-leasing units at big banks are typically a tiny part of a massive balance sheet and their performance isn’t broken out in public filings. Their relative size also means that even severe distress would be unlikely to cause a serious problem.
Wells Fargo inherited its rail unit from its crisis-era purchase of Wachovia. It was long called First Union Rail, a reminder of Wachovia’s predecessor, but Wells Fargo greatly expanded the business a few years ago.
In 2015, Wells Fargo was awash in cheap deposits it needed to put to work. General Electric Co. was selling off most of its financial business. Wells Fargo struck deals to buy billions in assets from the industrial conglomerate, including 77,000 railcars. It says it is the largest lessor in North America with more than 175,000 cars.
The business could sometimes be an awkward fit inside a highly regulated bank, especially one under fire since its fake-account scandal came to light in 2016. Bank compliance staffers, for instance, closely scrutinized the railcars owned in Mexico, a person familiar with the matter said.
Overall, the unit hasn’t performed well, people familiar with the matter said, in part because a significant number of its cars are older or built to transport coal. The company unsuccessfully tried to sell the unit last year, they said.
While railroads are in charge of moving the cars from place to place, banks often cover the cost of maintenance. Wells Fargo even counts a chief railcar mechanic among its 260,000 employees.
Success depends on getting the mix of railcars owned just right. Jack Thomas, who ran Wells Fargo’s rail business until 2013, said he would often turn to economic data on new-home construction or auto sales to help manage the fleet.
“With mortgages you’re dealing with one aspect of the economy,” Mr. Thomas said. “With railcars, it’s every aspect.”
Surging Amtrak Seeks Green Light From Congress
Railroad saw its best financial year ever but still faces lawmakers skeptical of its profitability-focused strategy.
For a company coming off its best year ever, Amtrak faces a strange challenge in 2020: convincing its owner, the federal government, that the railroad is running in the right direction.
The national passenger railroad reported an adjusted operating loss of $29.8 million in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, the best financial performance in Amtrak’s nearly 50-year history. While the railroad still faces a backlog of capital investment worth billions of dollars, the earnings show it moving closer to the goal of Chief Executive Richard Anderson : breaking even in the typically unprofitable business of moving passengers by rail.
Skeptical lawmakers say Amtrak’s pursuit of profitability has caused its overall service to suffer. And the railroad’s financial strategy will face scrutiny this year as Congress takes up a new multiyear highway bill, which includes reauthorization of the federal grant programs that subsidize Amtrak.
Some on Capitol Hill have objected to Mr. Anderson’s goals of maximizing ridership and revenues on shorter routes between population centers—while seeking to rein in costs by reducing service on money-losing long-distance train routes in rural parts of the country.
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has questioned Mr. Anderson’s profit-focused philosophy altogether, arguing that is more appropriate to the private sector than to a government-owned company like Amtrak.
“I think part of the problem we’re dealing with is the original mandate from Congress, which said that this is supposed to be run as a for-profit corporation,” Mr. DeFazio said. “I think they should think about efficiency but not profit…Amtrak is a service, and it can be a better service.”
The railroad’s leaders reject that notion.
“Amtrak wants to grow and do more for the nation,” Anthony Coscia, chairman of its board of directors, said. “The single best way to do that is to run the company well—and we have been doing that.”
Amtrak’s steadying financials have helped it make passenger improvements, like renovating the interiors of passenger cars and replacing aging track and the overhead catenary wire system to improve train speeds on the Northeast Corridor line.
Amtrak is also planning to bolster service along its busiest and most profitable corridor with the procurement of new passenger cars to replace the Amfleet I, the workhorse steel carriages that have run on the corridor and adjacent routes since the late 1970s.
Mr. Anderson and Mr. Coscia say their stewardship of Amtrak’s annual federal subsidy, which totaled $2.2 billion last year, gives the company credibility when it seeks funding for large capital projects, like new tunnels at two critical chokepoints in the Northeast, one beneath downtown Baltimore and the other under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York.
Potentially adding to Amtrak’s uncertainty in the coming year is the possible departure of Mr. Anderson, the former CEO of Delta Air Lines Inc. who has run the railroad since 2017. While there has been no public announcement, some at the railroad are bracing for his exit.
Mr. Coscia didn’t comment on that possibility but said Amtrak “takes succession planning very seriously, and its ability to attract world-class CEOs also brings with it the responsibility to assure there’s continued leadership at that level.”
Also unknown is how Washington politics might shape Amtrak’s future. Mr. DeFazio’s committee is one of two House panels that will begin work on the reauthorization bill to replace the FAST Act, a five-year surface transportation bill to fund road, rail and transit programs, which expires in 2020. Some doubt Congress will manage to craft and pass the bill in an election year, especially since its funding will turn on an unpleasant question: whether lawmakers will raise the federal gas tax, the primary funding source for highway grants, for the first time since 1993.