13.4.15

THE COMPUTER DOES WHAT THE OPERATING TIMETABLE USED TO.

Norfolk Southern now have algorithms to assist the train delayers dispatchers in Centralized Traffic Control territory.
Movement Planner, currently used only in CTC territory, is tied in to [the algorithm's] Auto Router function, an execution tool that transmits train movement plans to the field, setting routes by lining turnouts and displaying the corresponding wayside signals. It looks at the railroad from the 50,000-foot level, crunching massive amounts of data on train count, freight volume, [maintenance permit] hours, horsepower per tonnage ratios, topology constraints, and many other factors when generating train movement plans. Those plans are in lock-step with NS’s business rules involving such factors as priority trains and on-time performance.

For example, intermodal trains, which must be precisely timed to the work windows of a rail-to-truck transfer terminal, have priority over general merchandise trains. There are financial penalties to pay if intermodal performance targets are not met. Movement Planner “knows” what needs to happen, and it can plan up to 12 hours out, “something humans really can’t do,” says [chief dispatcher Charlie](*) Turnipseed.

Movement Planner has proved especially useful in helping NS keep track of three key performance indicators: schedule adherence, crew expirations (“going dead on the law,” where a train must be re-crewed on line-of-road, at substantial cost and time), and network velocity. While dispatchers have the option of overriding what Movement Planner is telling them to do, it’s generally to their benefit to comply. “We’ve found that, as Movement Planner compliance increases, so do schedule adherence and velocity,” notes Turnipseed. “Crew expirations decrease.”

Movement Planner measures and keeps track of dispatcher overrides. For some of the more-experienced dispatchers, the moves it generates may seem counter-intuitive. Though for the most part it has been widely embraced, “our younger generation of dispatchers is more in tune with it,” says Turnipseed. “That’s because they have grown up having to rely on computers and software-driven technology.”
Or the younger set have not yet fully grasped that "to really foul things up takes a computer".  But algorithms making unintuitive moves is nothing new ... we've known that of chess-playing computers for years.  Sometimes, though, the algorithms come up with solutions that might not have occurred to humans, no matter how strong the human's heuristics, whether for keeping the railroad fluid or for checkmating the King, might be.

(*)I suppose a Manager -- Dispatch Planning Systems might have responsibilities different from those of the traditional Chief Dispatcher.

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