Timely research for on-time trains
Missouri’s first railroad, constructed between 1849 and 1851, consisted of five miles of ties and rails, both hewn from oak. The train that traveled the timber rails relied on horse power and was more of a stagecoach than a train.
Today, the St. Louis and Kansas City rail hubs are the second and third largest in the nation. Only the Chicago hub is larger. According to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT), 60 percent of all freight to enter the state does so by rail.
Up to 60 freight trains per day make their way along the Union Pacific Railroad line linking the state’s largest cities. The tracks also host four Amtrak trains. Amtrak has provided passenger service to Missouri since 1971 when the National Rail Passenger Service Act went into effect. Heavy traffic along the corridor and corresponding maintenance of the tracks has negatively influenced on-time passenger service and also increased freight delays. As the passenger train becomes less punctual, fewer people opt to ride the rails, making the state’s considerable subsidy of the service — $7,400,000 in 2007 — a harder sell each year in budget negotiations.
In order to knowledgeably approach the railroad capacity situation and to make appropriate recommendations for improving the operation of Amtrak, MoDOT awarded a research contract to Mizzou Engineering’s Industrial and Manufacturing Systems Engineering Department. Researchers were charged with development of a prioritized list of rail enhancements to increase freight and passenger performance on the Union Pacific line from St. Louis to Kansas City.
“We in Missouri are at a crossroads with our rail system,” explained MoDOT’s Multimodal Operations Director Brian Weiler in reference to some tough decisions the state legislature will be asked to make in the future. “Up until now we have provided assistance for passenger services, but we are at a point where we need to make a decision about possibly investing in infrastructure for the future.”
Jim Noble, industrial and manufacturing systems associate professor and director of the University of Missouri Center for Engineering Logistics and Distribution, acted as principal investigator on the project. He explained that Amtrak punctuality issues are primarily the result of two variables, the first of which is quantity and type of freight being transported over the railroad tracks. “There are over 60 trains per day on the track from Kansas City to St. Louis and they are predominantly transporting coal. Coal is a heavy freight that beats the tracks and moves relatively slowly, causing increased delays as a result of frequent maintenance and congestion,” said Noble.
The other variable relates to the fact that while the track between Jefferson City and St. Louis is a double track, except for two bridges, the track that runs between Kansas City and Jefferson City is a single track, but is used bi-directionally by Amtrak. In order to share the track, either the Amtrak train or the freight train, which is often too long to do so, must pull off on a siding — a loop line off of the main rail line — to let the other pass. Additionally, a train with a large load of coal requires a lot of energy to start and stop, further complicating the process.
Noble used the theory of constraints to determine capacity restrictions and congestion factors on the track. To assist him in the study, he recruited industrial engineering student Sean Carr to be a part of the study team through Mizzou Engineering’s undergraduate research honors program.
“Dr. Noble knew that I had entered a couple of simulation competitions with the Institute of Industrial Engineers, the industrial engineering professional society,” said Carr explaining the connection.
“In addition to my class work, I spent all summer researching the rail project, sometimes spending 30 hours a week on it,” said Carr. “We traveled to visit the train companies to collect data and do interviews. We also took a trip on Amtrak to see how their operations worked.”
Noble noted that the data provided by Amtrak for the project was the most usable data he’d received in 15 years of work.
Developing a computer simulation model was a challenge. “A valid simulation model requires careful attention to detail and must be developed based on appropriate assumptions in order to be effective,” observed Carr discussing the probability and variance of train traffic on the corridor in the simulation. “The base model, using the data Dr. Noble prepared, was a snapshot view of how the system is working now,” he added.
“It was cool the first time I got it going to see all the trains running on the tracks,” said Carr of the computer model that can simulate six months of rail operations in ten minutes. “I combined Dr. Noble’s Amtrak data with the Union Pacific data within the simulation model to pinpoint problem areas. I could then make slight changes to the base case and rerun it to gauge where changes would make improvements.”
“There is a siding every ten miles,” said Noble explaining how the Union Pacific tracks are laid out. “We measured how long both Amtrak trains and Union Pacific freight trains were delayed by the interaction between them on the tracks. We looked at it from an overall congestion point of view.”
When the pair finished, aided by Charles Nemmers, director of civil engineering’s Transportation Infrastructure Center, graduate students Stella Zhang and Andres Gomez, and consultants from Hanson-Wilson, Inc., they had come up with a total of 15 alternatives. They then ran them through six months of simulated operations to see how each would perform. In the final report presented to MoDOT, nine options were profiled. Selected alternatives were based on the percentage of delay saved to both Union Pacific and to Amtrak measured against the amount of money invested.
Noble’s report highlighted three of the alternatives as having excellent return for required investment. Key recommendations include extending a specific siding, joining two additional sidings to create a longer loop, and adding a second line to a specific bridge.
In May, Noble joined Weiler to make a presentation to the Missouri House of Representative’s Transportation Committee in advance of the next legislative session when railroad funding issues will be on the table. “Dr. Noble’s analysis was very eye-opening,” said Weiler. “We’ve never had this type of data before.”
Rodney Massman, MoDOT’s administrator of railroads, points out that many states are seeing an increase in passenger rail use, for a variety of reasons. “An aging population, increases in gas prices, and frustration with increased security at airports are causing people to move back to trains as an alternative,” he noted. “Rail travel is a pleasant way to get where you’re going with large, comfortable seats and the ability to move around.”
Massman believes that an increase in passenger rail travel might occur in Missouri if the state legislature chooses to fund the analysis recommendations. “It all comes down to our on-time performance,” he said. “I think people would be accepting of an occasional small delay, but not when you have ongoing problems and can’t guarantee reasonable on-time performance.” He added that increased rail travel also means increased income for Amtrak, which would offset some of the costs.
Weiler also noted that the work done by Noble and his students has implications beyond the next legislative session. “This capacity analysis actually fills a need we had to take us to the next level.” He points to a nine-state Midwest rail initiative aimed toward the future with 3,000 miles of high-speed rail service, admittedly a long-term plan.
“This report will not sit on the shelf,” said Weiler. “We intend to use it to advance rail in this state.”