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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Editorial: Freight train future lies in technology

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(The following story appeared on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Website. By Jeff Immelt, chairman and CEO of General Electric and Wick Moorman, chairman and CEO of Norfolk Southern.)

Recent reports indicate that manufacturing in the United States is ready to rebound. Factory orders in certain sectors are showing their sharpest uptick in almost five years. No doubt, this is a good sign for the economy's recovery. It is also a sign that now is the time to address America's growing transportation infrastructure challenge to meet these expected demands and spur new growth.

America needs more and better infrastructure to move the steel, coal, industrial equipment and products that we need for daily life. Experts say that over the next 25 years, the demand for freight-moving capacity will increase by more than 90 percent.

Anyone who has spent time idling on a clogged interstate will agree - adding more trucks to move freight over the highways is an unsustainable solution. But what is sustainable, and what is practical - both environmentally and economically - is using railroads to carry more of the load. A freight train can move a ton of freight an average of 480 miles on one gallon of diesel fuel.

Economists project that if just 10 percent of long-distance freight now carried on highways were switched to rail, the national fuel savings would exceed 1 billion gallons a year.

Fortunately, the nation's railroads are looking ahead. The improvement through a public-private partnership of Norfolk Southern's Crescent Corridor route, a 2,500-mile rail network from Memphis and New Orleans to the Northeast, is one example. But laying more tracks isn't the only solution. There are also answers in technology.

A breakthrough technology known as RailEdge Movement Planner can enable railroads to accommodate more freight faster without laying a single new track. We think this GE-developed technology - something like a next-generation air traffic control system for trains - is the future of railroading.

Simply put, it's about optimizing the railroad resources that are already in place. The RailEdge Movement Planner software processes train schedules, traffic control systems and train movements relative to each other - across an entire network - to create an optimized traffic plan, even down to the optimal speed a particular train should travel. Never before has it been possible to integrate so many variables into the "perfect travel plan."

An optimized travel plan increases on-time deliveries, since trains are specifically routed to avoid delays. It also translates into tangible performance benefits as it increases the average network train velocity speed by 10 percent to 20 percent, or 2 to 4 mph. One mph in velocity improvement can save approximately $200 million in capital and expense annually.

A two to four mph increase might not sound like a lot, but in freight rail it is a big leap forward. For example, without RailEdge Movement Planner, a freight train leaving Louisville, Ky., would typically arrive in Macon in about 27 hours. With RailEdge Movement Planner, that same train could arrive in 22.5 hours, saving more than four hours of travel. Having pioneered the implementation of the software on a 200-mile section of railroad in Georgia, Norfolk Southern will be implementing it on all its tracks nationwide over the next two years.

This is one technology solution to the infrastructure challenge. There will be others. We agree with Warren Buffett's observation that, "Our country's prosperity depends on its having an efficient and well-maintained rail system."

While the United States is focusing on an efficient passenger rail system through high-speed rail, the need for investment in new technology development to improve speed and efficiency in freight is equally important. Indeed, according to U.S. Department of Commerce, every $1 spent on investments in freight railroading yields $3 in economic output, and each $1 billion in rail investment creates 20,000 jobs. The American economy may be chugging back to life now, but over the long haul an investment in the development of more innovations like these will be needed.

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