The GBS Group provides technical services and products for mission-critical assets on commercial, government and industrial clients across the transport, defense, federal, maritime and telecoms industries at locations as diverse as passenger trains, complex oil rigs, missile defense platforms and even submarines and surface ships. Most recently, The GBS Group was selected to deliver passenger Wi-Fi on Utah Transit Authority’s FrontRunner trains, to design, install, and test a solution for services along a 90-mile corridor, centred in Salt Lake City and running as far as Ogden and Provo.
For this week’s 5 Minutes With…, SmartRail World caught up with Bob Golden, GBS’s chief executive officer, who has been with the company since establishing it in 2005. Bob generously gave his time to explain to Dave Songer how he has adapted to solve problems in his professional life, where he predicts the biggest changes will occur as far as technology is concerned and, of course, some more details on that Utah FrontRunner deal.
Dave Songer (DS): Bob, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to us. I’d like to start by asking what is it about the rail industry that you most enjoy.
Bob Golden (BG): I would have to say the passenger side of the industry because it has such a huge impact on the lives of so many people in the traveling public. Everything we do in support of trains actually affects our friends, relatives and associates, so there is an immediate reward for solutions we deliver: station announcements are more accurate; train and system health is reported immediately; Wi-Fi systems give passengers the connectivity they need. Our efforts matter, in real time. We all love that reality within our rail division.
(DS): How has the industry changed in the 12 years you have worked at the GBS Group?
(BG): The industry has changed a lot, as technology has changed. When I started at GBS, not one train in North America was truly ‘connected’ in an enterprise sense. Engineers and conductors had cell phones, and some had satellite radios, but passengers had no on-board Wi-Fi, operators had no GPS-based systems integrated with schedules or station and kiosk displays and announcements. Few trains were transmitting any real-time mechanical system health data into functional portals. It amazes us how all of these technologies and enterprise level software systems now exist – practically on every passenger train. And they continue to evolve rapidly.
(DS): What is the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced?
(BG): Good question. I think I'd say it’s been the ability to change myself. There are always 1,000 issues in the marketplace, or workplace, which present challenges, literally every day, but none of them are really as difficult as they appear – only the way in which I react to them. I have had to re-think my attitudes; manage my expectations, ego, fears, stupidity; I've had to study new business, personal and technical issues I never imagined; and, I've had to remind myself that I must rely on so many other people when I’m struggling – none more than myself.
(DS): What are GBS Group’s key business priorities for 2018? Are you able to give specific details on a project or target?
(BG): For 2018, it is to move into a larger headquarters building in Virginia Beach that incorporates a very large test centre and lab facility. The move is scheduled for late January and it’s essential to enable us to support the larger passenger rail Wi-Fi, health monitoring, and software system solutions that we design/install and support in our 24/7 office of strategic services OSS centre.
The centre is also critical for large control, monitoring and electronic systems we upgrade for large commercial vessels. A second, parallel priority is to continue organizing our growing detail design division and processes that make larger system developments possible. Thirdly, we’re going to improve our personnel and IT systems to help manage growth, career development, decision making, and to eliminate process errors and waste everywhere we can.
(DS): GBS Group also works across naval defense and maritime services; to what extent do they influence your company’s rail industry work?
(BG): It's impossible for me to overstate how much overlap there is in our maritime and rail engineering divisions. Technology advances that affect trains have almost identical effects on ships, office buildings and homes. The digital transformation affects us all, and our employees have knowledge and skills that overlap so much we hardly see the difference inside the company at times. For instance, when we designed software to monitor Amtrak Acela health in real time, we had four or five engineers working the design who had developed almost identical systems for Navy ships – the ‘tools and rules’ were highly transferable. The key is to assure the exacting standards affecting regulatory and safety issues are put first, and then the functional engineering is done in accordance with those industry-specific, exacting standards.
(DS): Software development is a key part of GBS Group’s business; what are the technological developments ahead for rail, as you see them?
(BG): Regarding software, yes this is a key field for us and always has been. We have developed custom, licence-free software for agencies for 12 years. The changes we see involve rationalisation first because almost every customer we support is looking to reduce ‘islands’ of isolated software that have developed to solve specific problems over time. Cutting costs is one very key driver of change. But that is married to consolidation of modules, retention of key function, eliminating conflicting subscriptions, moving to secure, cloud-based hosting, as well as improving ergonomics related to digital dashboards, user portals/GUIs, et cetera. Anyone can cut costs – winners find the perfect Ying-Yang. The best agency managers eliminate redundant systems, yet don't try to solve every business problem with one ‘enterprise magic wand’ that someone claims will solve every problem the business has. There are no magic software solutions, only brochures and salespeople on commission lying about software nirvana. GBS is first and foremost a problem-solving company, and software is a means to an end for us.
So, we are very comfortable helping agencies to go from ‘Here’ to ‘There’ thoughtfully, without falling in love with one-size-fits-all solutions. Most of the stronger agencies understand they need a technology roadmap, and stakeholder communities that can drive change without losing valuable perspectives from customers, employees, managers, and vendors.
(DS): Congratulations on the contract win on Utah’s FrontRunner trains; can you give us some details?
(BG): The UTA FrontRunner contract, and the Sonoma Marin Transit win behind it, represented many years of hard work. The message we have, if there is a simple one, is this: agencies and authorities need to hire system integrators to handle complex system designs, vendor selections, installations and support. We see too many contract problems occur when agencies select a technology original equipment original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to deliver some sort of system, but in reality they often buy a product that everything else must be forced to fit in with. The result is often unmet expectations; locked down, proprietary systems that don't integrate without high, post-production costs, for instance. Agencies have very complex systems and need to retain flexibility, while selecting the best products to fit into a larger system and technology roadmap. We were successful at UTA with the only system in North America that automatically switches from cellular Wi-Fi to trackside, tower-based RF radio within 12 months of the contract award.
Our technology vendors (namely 21 Net, Radwin and Huber Suhner) were extremely responsive and supported the overall system design that had to adapt to existing UTA tower positions, including network and internet service architecture, cellular contract desires and existing systems on-board the FrontRunner. As a systems integrator working with the talented UTA staff, GBS was able to design, procure, test and install the right subsystems and technology that fit the larger UTA systems and assure everyone involved that the subcontracts were in place to support this for UTA. We are not an OEM, we integrate the best-in-class solutions required by agencies and authorities.
(DS): What’s your favourite rail journey?
(BG): My favourite trip? I'd have to say it's travelling on Acela from New York City, Penn Station, headed north to Boston. I love the scenery along that trip, over bridges and water, through cities and countryside, especially in the fall when the leaves are coloured and New England is as beautiful as anywhere in the world. I used to travel to all those cities along the way, as a 20-something, fixing ships in Providence, Newport, Groton, Boston, and as far north as Bath, Maine. Usually it was freezing cold and I experienced it from taxis, cheap hotels, and in cold dry docks under ships. I never saw New England from a warm, cozy train until 12 years ago – it's very gratifying and brings back too many memories.
(DS): Thanks so much for your time, Bob.
Last week's 5 minutes with… Joseph Holmes, business strategy and insights at First Transit.
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, where they see the industry heading and of course their own favourite rail journey! Get in touch with Dave Songer: firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.