"The biggest challenge with PTC is that it is overly complex and extremely expensive, and even when it’s fully implemented it will address only 35% of rail accidents."
To monitor the condition of trains there are increasingly sophisticated technologies on the market that enable rail operators to know about problems on their rolling stock before they get out of control. One such company developing those technologies is Wi-Tronix, which provides Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity that allows rail companies real-time access to data that allows them to take immediate action to improve safety, efficiency, and reliability.
Larry Jordan, the president and CEO of Wi-Tronix, joins SmartRail World for this week’s 5 Minutes With… and he explains what’s changed in the rail industry since he joined Wi-Tronix, the limitations of positive train control (PTC) and, of course, what his favourite rail journey is.
Dave Songer (DS): Good to have you on-board this week, Larry. What do you most enjoy about being involved in the transport industry?
Larry Jordan (LJ): The pragmatic implementation of technology to drive the industry forward and make it stronger in the face of imminent disruption is something I find incredible. By using technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning it’s possible to determine how those technologies can provide immediate impact on safety and service reliability, which in turn makes it more efficient.
(DS): You’ve been at the helm at Wi-Tronix for around 14 years now, what have been the biggest changes in the field of transport since then?
(LJ): Transportation is in middle of one of the most rapidly accelerating, disruptive times in the market –much different than when I began. The acceleration of technologies like electrification and autonomy has been so rapid that even the most forward-thinking technologists of 14 years ago wouldn’t have imagined we’d be where we are now. Even Elon Musk’s SpaceX project is fundamentally a transportation company, and we weren’t seriously thinking about private companies leading space exploration back in 2004.
(LJ): With remote monitoring, I started with the idea that it could only work with simple things such as location, fuel levels, updating and downloading data remotely. Technology wasn’t really even on the priority list for the rail industry. Now we’re helping them manage their locomotives and trains remotely, but back then trains would run out of fuel often leaving operators with no idea where their trains are.
(DS): What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
(LJ): Convincing my peers in the rail industry to not reinvent the wheel and instead leverage the technologies being developed in other industries as a foundation for rail solutions. It’s fair to say there has been something of a ‘not invented here’ mentality, which has resulted in standards that aren’t sustainable in terms of helping the rail industry to maintain a strong market position in the future.
The dead man’s switch posed some problems because different timing logic was required by different rail operators when a standard would have been much more efficient and less costly for the industry. And also positive train control (PTC), the basis for which doesn’t use Internet Protocol (IP) and instead utilises a proprietary radio frequency, something that won’t support video transmission – a critical technology being employed by the rail industry to drive safety.
(DS): What are Wi-Tronix's business priorities for 2018? Do you have specific details on a project or target?
(LJ): We will be continuing to extend our technology into a fully-fledged IoT platform, utilising AI and deep learning, and are expanding our visual intelligence, using video and image data to identify potential safety risks. This includes detecting at-risk behaviours such as mobile device usage in the locomotive cab or recognising issues with track or wayside infrastructure that currently require costly, and sometimes dangerous, work by rail employees.
And because we provide real-time access to this data and insight, rail companies can take immediate action to manage issues that may put safety at risk. The application of these technologies is enabling our customers to improve safety immediately, even if they have not fully implemented PTC. We are also expanding into the light rail vehicle (LRV) market and are using agile methodologies to enable our team to rapidly experiment and iterate solutions.
(DS): One of Wi-Tronix’s main areas of business is working with PTC systems, which have received a lot of press in the US of late. To what extent is the company involved in its roll-out in the US?
(LJ): @WiTronix is providing real-time, actionable information about the performance of PTC. We have a comprehensive set of information on the root cause and visual intelligence and virtual reality enables us to see how crews are interacting with PTC, including what’s working and what isn’t. This highlights human factor issues that impede PTC implementation. We’re working with other countries where PTC is not mandated to implement similar ‘safety net’ technologies that improve safety faster and more cost-effectively.
(DS): What do you think are the main challenges of introducing PTC?
(LJ): The biggest challenge with PTC is that it is overly complex and extremely expensive, and even when it’s fully implemented it will address only 35% of rail accidents. This may come as a surprise to the American public, many of whom perceive PTC as a panacea for ending rail accidents. There is a lot more required to address the accidents that aren’t prevented by PTC and technological innovation is what’s needed to address those.
Rather than commissioning safety improvements in the same manner as the automotive industry, PTC is a mandated one-size-fits-all solution that was conceived at a time when key technologies like video analytics and artificial intelligence, which can help significantly improve safety, weren’t considered. Where the automotive industry has used innovation to meet their mandate, the rail industry has not.
(DS): What do you think will be the biggest differences between the passenger journey today and in 10 years’ time?
(LJ): In 10 years passenger rail travel will probably be much faster and driven autonomously. Technology is rapidly moving towards automation across the transportation sector, so for rail it’s not a matter of if, it’s simply a question of when. Also, Hyperloop technology faces a lot of cynicism but Elon Musk is a pretty determined guy, so it will be interesting to see how that goes.
(DS): And finally, what your favourite rail journey and why?
(LJ): This may sound a little pedestrian, but I frequently commute by train between Washington D.C. and New York, and I really enjoy it - especially in the fall. It takes you through a variety of sceneries, from quaint north-eastern towns through industrial areas, to wooded areas. When the leaves turn and change colour in the fall, it’s beautiful.
(DS): Thanks Larry!
Last week's 5 minutes with… Ajit Kumar Mishra, chief project manager at DFCCIL.
Would you like to get involved in 5 minutes with…? This fun, informative feature gives our readership the chance to get to know more about the personalities behind the industry, what it is that inspires them and where they see the industry heading. Get in touch with Dave Songer: email@example.com to find out more.