April 1, 2012
Years ago [not really that many], even as a high ranking operating officer, especially as a high ranking operating officer, I was uneasy with the terminology that was [and still is] applied so readily to signal systems-- you know that old "vital systems" classification that was being used to describe, not generation of the movement authority, but rather the reliability of control mechanism and its capability of failing in the safe mode. There was vital this and vital that, and 2 out of 3 microprocessors agreeing etc. etc.
And I was confused. Where I came from, and how I was taught, the meaning of "vitality," of "vital process" on the railroad had nothing to do with reliability of function, microprocessor majority rules, or failure. Vitality was sum of the core operating principles of the railroad; those principles that kept me alert when at work (and sleepless when not) haunted by the possibility that I might some day issue the dreaded "lap order."
Vitality, then, meant the generation of authorities for train movement such that no authorities overlapped.
Of course years later, I didn't admit to my confusion, because I thought I was right and everybody else around me was wrong. But I had this doubt... like "what the hell are they talking about?"
I knew interlockings were vital, because the interlocking was designed where conflicting movements could not be authorized; the routing conflicting movements was logically excluded by a properly designed and functioning interlocking.
I knew CTC systems were vital, because again, conflicting authorities were excluded by the field apparatus.
I knew track circuits were vital, because they were the means for determining occupancy, and thus authority.
I knew that automatic block signal systems, rule 251 and 261 territory, were vital, because the operating rules made them vital: "On sections of the railroad so designated by the timetable, signal indication will be the authority for the movement of trains [with the current of traffic or in either direction]."
But I just had to unconfuse myself, and so.........
1. What makes some logic vital and some non-vital in railroad operations? There’s more to this than “I’m the operating officer, my logic therefore is vital. You’re the track supervisor. You’re logic isn’t so vital.” As a matter of fact, the more operating officers understand, and embrace, the vital logic at the core of railroad operations, the more the operating officers will, or should, understand their responsibilities to the track supervisor, the signal foreman, the car inspector.
Vital logic is the process by which overlapping authorities for train movements are prevented. More than prevented, such overlapping authorities allowing more than one train to be in one place at one time are eliminated. More than eliminated, such overlaps are logically excluded from the railroad’s operating environment.
Back in the day before “back in the day” was a phrase used by those too young to actually recall back in the day, the vital logic of the railroad was embedded in that quaint, prosaic pamphlet, the book of operating rules. Vital logic is still imbedded in those books, those rules, although those too young to recall back in the day think that vital logic is the god we’ve placed into a machine that makes everything fail-safe.
It’s a simple logic with a simple format.
Most complicated things start with a simple logic, the complications arising when we have to reconcile all the competing demands and needs of the operating environment with the vital logic.
The format is the familiar and basic logic of conditions: “If……., then…..” This logic governs everything from 26C air brake valves, to interlocking machines, to cab signal systems.
“If X……[train 1, HRC 2, MOW Foreman Smith] has authority, then Y…..[all trains not-1, HRCs not-2, MOW Foremen not-Smith] cannot have authority that overlaps with the already established authority.”
If… then. Everything we need to know about railroading begins with “if” and ends with “then.” Actually we only start knowing what we must know about railroading with “if” and “then.”
All the rules in our operating rule books are structured with this logic of conditions, from the general rules of conduct,
-- [If] governed by these rules, [then] employees must have a current copy they can refer to while on duty-- which establish the railroad’s pre-eminent authority over the conduct and condition of its employees, to those rule governing exceptions, such as malfunction of field a equipment
-- [If] a signal is improperly displayed or absent from the place where it is usually shown, [then] the signal must be regarded as displaying its most restrictive indication-- to those governing the issuance of written authority for the movement of trains
-- [If-or when] issuing a Form D,M, X, [then] the form must be legible without erasure or alteration.
The vital logic of all the railroad’s operating rules is organized around this core principle; the exclusion of unauthorized behavior, whether it be employee conduct or train movement.
While the book of operating rules reads as a system or requirements—what must be done, what is necessary—it is in essence a system of negations, determining through exclusion and elimination what can be done, and the “if” becomes to mean “before and after.”
If X movement is authorized… Before X movement is authorized, it is required that no other conflicting movement has been authorized.
If X movement is authorized… After X movement is authorized, no other conflicting movement may be authorized.
If … then; If 1….then 0. 1, 0… ones and zeros.
It all comes down to the 1s and 0s and our prosaic “analog” vital process is more than just compatible with a digital representation. It is, in essence, a counting process.
2. Human beings are funny creatures, to put it mildly. And railroad operating officers are funnier than most, to put it even more mildly. No sooner do we recognize the core to our vital logic, than we bridle against its restrictions. “If 1….. then 0? What about that other vital process, that other core principle of railroading, making money? If 1…., then more than 1, then n trains can be authorized. If n trains, then n+1 trains.”
When we encounter a restriction, a limitation, a negation, we are honor-obligated to overcome it, to figure a way to utilize the restriction itself to accomplish what we think it never intended—the safe operation of n+1 trains. We think we’re clever. We know we’re clever, otherwise we wouldn’t be operating officers, would we?
So what do we do? We confine, we think, the vital logic. We assign the vital logic to discrete segments of time and space. We segment. We separate. We sectionalize. We block. We sectionalize the railroad into blocks; into lines, branches, districts, divisions, regions, lines east, lines west. We design and install signal systems controlling the entrance, operation, and exit of trains in defined sections of track called blocks, with the definition being a section of track the use of which is governed by block signals, whether automatic or manual.
We classify our trains in blocks. We operate through blocks of space over blocks of time, or vice-versa. We’re so clever we think we’re overcoming the restrictions of the vital logic when, in fact, we are designing our operation to conform to the vital logic.
We measure; we meter—regulate the flow of trains. We meter the entire railroad, and this meter gives the railroad its rhythm. That rhythm, of course, is nothing but the schedule of railroad operations. We schedule.
Here’s the thing about scheduling. We break things, operations, systems, into discrete packages called tasks, components, items in order to provide a schedule for each such component, so that each component and the sum of all components, can satisfy, and conform to the vital logic of the railroad; so that every task can exercise, can assume an authority not in conflict with any other authorities at that time.
Everything that precedes, includes, supports, facilitates the movement of n+1 trains has to have a schedule that safely separates it in time and/or space from all the other things. For scheduling to work at all, it must work completely. For scheduling to work for all, all the schedules must be integrated into the schedule of the final product. So we break down, we de-compose all the facets of operations; we dis-integrate the tasks, so that we might recompose and reintegrate the results of those tasks in the final product. And this, this reintegration is precisely where the railroad operating officer fits in, or is supposed to fit in.
The reintegration requires oversight, and more than just over-sight, the reintegration requires supervision; the vision of more than just the individual tasks with their individual authorities; the vision of more than just the connections between and among tasks; a vision of more than just n+1 trains; a super-vision that understands and utilizes the vital process of the railroad to optimize the capacity of the railroad to accommodate the final product which is not n+1 trains, but service delivery.
The long and short of this story is that the apparent contradiction between the vital process of the railroad, safe train operation, and the increased, improved service is just that… only apparent. With the understanding and commitment to that vital process comes the ability to schedule, analyze, and improve operating capacity; to, in a certain sense, manipulate time and space.
The long and the short of it is that if we are “railroading,” then we are engaged in a calculus, a series of successive, self-reflective, approximations, each using the result of the preceding approximations to enhance and refine its estimation of maximum operating capacity.
In this calculus, technology is no substitute for supervision. In this calculus, supervision that does not employ all the means of communication, the streams of data, the technology, to develop its calculus, is not optimizing the resources of the railroad.
In this calculus, the conflict between safety and efficiency is eliminated as the unsafe railroad cannot be efficient; the unsafe railroad cannot operate at maximum efficiency. In this calculus, the vital logic of the railroad is the business of railroading.