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For most people in the U.S.A., the car is an important part of everyday life, and the U.S.A. is a car-driven society. However, the nation’s railways are an important part of its infrastructure supporting the transportation of goods to its people, supporting the easy movement of products to consumers. In fact, over half of goods are transported by train, whether it is fuel, building materials, vehicles and consumer goods via intermodal. If the freight railroads were stopped, the impact on the American economy would be immeasurable.
After a major collision involving a freight train and a commuter train in 2008, the US government mandated the installation of a train control system called Positive Train Control (PTC) on thousands of kilometers of the rail, which would improve safety. PTC manage the operations of approximately 20,000 locomotives with computers onboard the trains, IT servers in the operations center, and wayside systems. One of PTC’s important roles is to prevent accidents by stopping trains if some kind of operational trouble should arise. PTC improves safety by monitoring the actions of the train, and if the train operators do not react in a timely manner, the PTC system will engage the locomotive brakes.
However, this train control system can have operational implications for the railways themselves. When PTC operational issues arise, it may take a railway a long time to get a train operational again. To restore operations, a large amount of PTC data must be analyzed to assess and narrow down the root cause. This can cause significant delay in trains and the delivery of critical goods to people across the U.S.A.
To help improve the operation of railways, a more efficient solution to analyze and diagnose PTC issues had to be developed. The Hitachi Group, with our long history of involvement in the railroad industry and our innovative focus, was determined to take on this mission. This large-scale project required a wide range of expertise in fields such as IT technology, analytics, and railway systems, which brought together our group companies, including Hitachi Rail STS, Hitachi Social Innovation Business, Hitachi Consulting, and Hitachi Vantara as “One Hitachi.” Experts from a variety of fields connected, setting off on a journey to develop a new solution.
“This project was something that had never been done before, so I knew it would be challenging.” An expert in railway systems, Miles Metschke (Hitachi Rail STS) said he knew these PTC operational improvements would mean grappling with big data on a nationwide scale, but he was prepared to take on the task.
There were two challenges the PTC analytics solution had to solve. The first was to collect and store the vast amount of data generated every minute from tens of thousands of the locomotive, wayside, and communications systems installed across the rail network. Since the beginning of the PTC system, that data had not yet been fully utilized in a manner that was scalable. “Our first order of business was to unify the data format and turn the data into something we could use.” This process called “data cleansing” that Miles explains is a task that requires great effort and patience. Those responsible for the job of data cleansing had to deal with each individual piece of data and repeat the elaborate task, day in and day out.
The second challenge with PTC was to analyze the data and determine the root cause of the problem, which then allowed for the correct solution to be implemented. Software tools did not yet exist, so the troubleshooting was done on a manual basis. “The root cause of a PTC operational fault had to be narrowed down from within a vast amount of operation data, and it could take hours for humans to do such extremely complex work, but analytics is able to complete this task in a matter of minutes,” says Miles. The PTC Analytics team was charged with finding a new way to automatically analyze the cause of the problem and arrive at a solution with optimal efficiency by utilizing analytics and AI.
“Introducing analytics to PTC was not an easy task. In the beginning, we worked closely with our railway customers to understand the challenges from their unique perspective.” However, once the team was able to have a deep understanding of the problems in analyzing PTC data, they were determined to overcome each of these challenges, one by one, until we completed a system that uses analytics to resolve PTC problems.
Miles confesses that it took some time for the team members from across the various Hitachi group companies to come together on the same page as a team. “We are all experts in the various fields of railways, analytics and AI with strong personalities. Everyone had different ways of working and thinking.” But as they understood the importance of what they were building and overcame various hurdles, repeating the process of figuring out how to solve urgent issues and then revisiting the discussions toward the goal over and over, eventually created the Harmony amongst the team members. “We realized that even though our fields of expertise are different, we all share the same passion. That passion is the ‘pioneering spirit’ for developing new solutions that have yet to be accomplished by anyone,” Miles states with pride.
Increasing the value of the team is similar to increasing the value of the data. It doesn’t matter how remarkable the people you have gathered are, if their vision is not aligned with one another, they will not function as a team much the same way that unorganized data holds little value. “There is only one way to shed light on the vast amount of buried data in order to generate value, and that is to adopt a sincere attitude and do all the work required, no matter how rudimentary, until the job is done. I believe that doing what is ordinary and repeating that process ordinarily will generate extraordinary value,” says Miles.
The safety and efficiency of the railways was always our focus. The project team managed to find a balance in this seemingly contradictory theme through analytics and AI. “You could say that the impact of this solution on society was very significant. I wanted to create innovative social change within the railroad industry by introducing analytics. It was the mountain of data that was spread across the various rail systems that made it possible. By harnessing the power of this data, we can make the world a better place.” Upon saying this, Miles heads off to his next meeting with a strong sense of mission. He believes the team’s success in America, this digital transformation created in cooperation with a customer, will have a positive impact on the rest of the world.
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