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Icons of Progress

The Optimization of Global Railways


For over a century, IBM has helped railroads around the world use information to better manage complex rail systems. Rail networks are also one of industry’s earliest examples of an interconnected system—made up of many critical parts. Managing and optimizing their network infrastructure is a complex process that requires innovative technologies and approaches.

In 1896, the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad became one of the first commercial users of the tabulating equipment invented by Herman Hollerith’s Tabulating Machine Company, a predecessor of IBM, to keep track of operations. It revolutionized the railroad’s ability to keep up with increasing volumes of data—especially statistics relating to freight traffic. The rail company could track the hundreds of tons of freight moving east or west; determine which of the hundreds of stations were profitable; and understand what freight agents were being paid. The railroad had much better control and visibility into its far-flung business.

In the United States, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company began using the tabulating machines in 1904 in the auditing of its merchandise freight receipts, and soon several railroads in the United States were using the machines as a quick way to compile reports and statistics around freight.

Outside the US, Italy’s state-owned Ferrovie dello Stato called on IBM, in 1928, to automate its administrative processes for the organization of spare parts, and the scheduling and allocation of trains. After IBM Italy installed the system for Ferrovie dello Stato, the railway was able to drastically reduce waste and synchronize its train schedules to meet its growing demand for train travel.

By the second half of the twentieth century, IBM was working with railways all over the world to help them transform the way they managed critical aspects of their business—from data center operations, to disaster recovery services, to equipment moves, adds and changes.

In the 1960s, IBM developed a computer system called Total Operations Processing System (TOPS) for the Southern Pacific Railroad in the United States, which enabled the railroad to keep better track of its locomotives, rolling stock and other assets, as well as manage all the associated paperwork, including maintenance histories. Beginning in 1969, the Missouri Pacific Railroad worked with IBM in the United States on a comprehensive system to manage traffic and maintenance scheduling and tracking, yard assignments, inventory control and billing. It was called the Transportation Control System (TCS) and became a foundation for Mexico’s modern rail system.

In 1993, in what was described as a “first” in the railroad industry, Southern Pacific Lines signed a 10-year, US$415 million technology agreement with IBM subsidiary Integrated Systems Solutions Corp. to provide the United States railroad company with information technology services and skills. And later that decade, Swiss Railways and the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory developed and introduced one of the world’s first online railroad ticket services, allowing travelers to order tickets through the Internet, pay for them by credit card, and receive them by mail.

By the twenty-first century, smarter railroads could be created when relevant information was sensed, analyzed and acted upon to allow for better planning, decision making and proactive execution. For example, new railroad networks containing millions of sensors could track everything from train speeds to when brakes needed to be replaced. Building these intelligent rail networks required a high-powered, integrated system that could collect, manage and analyze the enormous amount of data flowing in from the tracks, through the trains and stations, and across the maintenance process.

By 2010, IBM was working on building smarter railways in some of the most complex systems in the world, working with Russian Railways, KiwiRail in New Zealand, the Taiwan High Speed Rail Corporation, Netherlands Railways, Guangzhou Metro in China and other operators around the world. The goal was to bring the vision of efficient and convenient rail to reality, while also improving commutes of travelers, reducing urban congestion and pollution from transportation.

On June 11, 2009, IBM announced the opening of a Global Rail Innovation Center in Beijing, China, to serve as a forum for rail leaders worldwide to collaborate on the challenges facing railroads and help drive the co-creation of solutions in the pursuit of smarter railroads. Areas of focus included capacity and congestion, operational efficiency and reliability, and safety and security.

With the opening of the new center, it had become clear that what IBM had begun in the US in 1896, and in Italy in 1928, had stretched to networks of smarter rail systems all over the world.