16.1, PHASE 1, CAR RECORDS AND CAR TRACING
It is now time to leave the personal side of life to write up more about the major Traffic Reporting and Control System for which I had been selected as Project Manager. Once staff had been selected, office space created and Southern Pacific software procured as outlined in Chapter 14 it was necessary to consider the implementation and further refinement of this immense project which eventually cost $70 million in cash and 700 man-years of effort. Charley Armstrong had originally assumed that the S.P. T0PS System could be implemented in one package on C.N., but more detailed study by our computer experts, of which Al Pozniak most stands out in my memory, clearly showed the project with its needs for some revisions to the SP software, (such as including trailer and container records), plus the provision of some 300,000 circuit miles of communications to serve over 2000 field terminals and the training of about 11,000 field and office staff to utilize the new system, would need to be designed and implemented in stages which we called Phases. Also, those parts of the phases requiring field startup would have to be done in geographical steps across the railway.
Hence, for Phase 1 it was necessary to introduce the transmission on data respecting car movements from the field yard offices to the central computer files. This phase made it possible for anyone interested in a car location to put a simple enquiry into their computer terminal and within a few seconds get a message showing its last reported location and status whether in a yard, on a train, loaded or empty or on a repair track. We started implementation in the East, the first terminal to be done was Sydney Nova Scotia. Charlie Armstrong called out a headquarters business car so he and I could be on the ground for startup. At midnight on the chosen day it was necessary for the local yard staff to enter the current data on all cars in the yard into the system. When it was completed about 2.a.m. we were all amazed at how we could now get not only the data on an individual car but also a complete printed list of all the cars in the yard. The full import of what we were into only struck us when we saw the real list spilling out of the yard office terminal. To me I could now see that these car records could be on train consists as well and the old "train journals" or "wheelage reports" which were written in my dear old dad's copy-plate handwriting in Rivers Yard Office would henceforth be produced on the machine, provided of course that the basic location and data status keyboard entries were made in timely fashion. Moreoer, Phase 1 was psycologically important to the success of the project because it produced a useable and simple output that was available to staff in all departments, not only transportation, but also mechanical, sales and marketing. Customers could henceforth be given the latest information on their cars in just a few seconds while they held the phone while our clerks got the data from a simple machine enquiry! This had a very definite effect in getting everyone to realize that the system was worth having and that it could be done in manageable bites! If we had not been able to produce something useable in Phase 1 it is quite possible the system would have been derailed right there!
PHASE 1, COMPUTER HARDWARE AND COMMUNICATIONS
I will try in this section not to make it too technical, mainly because I never was a real technical expert, but more of a person who was responsible for directing the TRACS project from a user and administrative point of view. Perhaps it's just as well as the main frame technology on which the system was based is little mentioned in the ebullient media to-day (Feb. 2000). To-day's computer thrust is mainly in the field of the amazing proliferation of micro-processors into everybody's life--there is probably one of them in 50% of our homes in North America to-day, including the one on which this odyssey is being typed! Main frames are still very important in the larger corporate and government systems but one hardly ever seems to see or hear any reference to them in the public media. The fact is that the nerds have taken over and they are doing things for nerds and controlling the huge mass market for computers which generates most of the revenue and hence media advertising and interest in the microprocessor area.
However, TRACS, as a large on-line, real time transaction oriented system handling over half a million transactions per day and controlling the huge communication network had to be based on some of the largest main frames available. Large amounts of on-line disk memory was required to store the mountains of information as well as the operating system programs. For example we had one huge file called UMLER for Universal Machine Language Equipment Record which contained all the physical data concerning all of our freight cars plus all of those on of other railways because, as any of you who are train watchers would know, the 2,000,000 car North American fleet circulates on all of our railways.
Thus we had two IBM 370 system main frames initially based in Montreal and using IBM's standard operating system. Programming language for the user programs was called Topstran and was inherited from the Southern Pacific. It was basically a machine language with some built-in utility programs specifically designed for railway needs. It was slow work for our programmers, but it was very efficient in the use of memory and other expensive computer resources available at that time. For example, one megabyte of memory, which is much less than you get in to-day's desk top $2000 microprocessors, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Initially we ran the system on just 4 megabytes of memory--later on we had to increase it to about 12 megabytes when we changed from the DOS to the MVS operating system.
Because the glamour of computers so caught the public eye from 1950 onwards the importance of communications in this new world was often overlooked. Let me emphasize here that for large spread out systems such as TRACS communications was as necessary and as vital to the existence of these systams as were the computers. Consider first that Southern Pacific's initial try at TOPS development in the early '60's failed, chiefly because existing telegraph and telephone wire circuits were unable to support the needs of the system. They were only successful when they went to the use of Microwave radio. In the 1980's our efforts to get TRACS installed in India failed partly because their pole line based wire circuits were unreliable.
Fortunately, when we started implementation on the CN in the 1970's we already had a trans-continental Microwave system for all our long distance needs. It was partly a byeproduct of the needs for capacity to transmit television pictures so CN/CP Telegraphs could compete with Bell and the provincial phone companies for this type of business. I may have mentioned earlier in this chronicle (1953-54) that Bell had won the CBC television business away from CN/CPT at that time. At any rate CN/CPT's system proved to be great and the microwave in fact had a lower failure rate than the main frame computers! It only went down a few times each year when the Aurora Borealis was active during extemely cold early morning hours on the prairies. To ensure microwave reliability under normal conditions there was always one circuit available for fallback. To connect between our computers and CNT's communicatons centre in Montreal we had a muti-circuit cable supplied by CNT plus one supplied by Bell for backup; this one followed a different route under the streets so that if someone accidentally dug up the CNT cable we would not have our whole system down!
16.3, PHASE 2 GIVES EMPTY CAR CONTROL
One of the great problems in railroading which had bugged us from the earliest days was that of knowing when cars were made empty and then directing them to the optimum point for re-loading. Loads did not present a problem because every car was accompanied by a waybill giving the shipper's instructions as to where the car was to go. When railroads first started they were short lines only running from point A to point B and back so car control was then not a problem for loads or empties. However, as railroads grew and multiplied there were literally millions of combinations of origins and destinations with cars moving over long as well as short distances. Phase 2 of the TRACS system was developed so as to take in the information reporting a car's unloading and matching it against customers' car orders to find the optimum point to which to send that car. One of the key features in addition to customer priority was that the program was designed to search for the nearest point needing that type of car, going in ever widening circles until a hit was made. The effect of this was that empty car mileage was shortened because locally available empties could be used where suitable. the results of this empty car control system was that each car got to handle a new loaded cycle every 15 days instead of 19, and this meant the freight could be moved with about 20% fewer cars! The result was quite visible in that the C.N bought very few new cars in the 4 or 5 years following the implementation of the system. This represented a capital saving of several hundred million dollars in the car fleet and was the main identifiable financial benefit of TRACS!
16.4, PHASE 3, MEETING MARKETING NEEDS
Once the basic operational needs were fulfilled it became necessary to consider how the system could better serve the requirements of Marketing and Sales. Modern trends in railway thinking driven in part by highway trucking competition had started to place greater emphasis on these departments as distinct from operations alone. Thus the Marketing people worked with us and we with them to find what we could do to help them. This resulted from a broad study guided by marketing wherein they developed 22 separate strategies to improve their activities. Not all of these strategies were system related, but a number of them were. Empty Car Management, for example was number three on their list enabling them to make suggestions whereby that system could give better customer satisfaction re empty car availability. Encouraging direct customer access to the system for customers tracing their own cars was another. Concerning the improvement of efficiency in originating customer loads was achieved through setting up permanent waybill patterns in the local terminals for all regular movements of five cars or more in a year. All the customer needed to do was to phone in the number of the car he was loading and quote the number of the applicable waybill pattern and the machine would do the rest. The system also facilitated the notification of customers whose shipment might be delayed because the car containing it was "bad ordered". Through meeting their needs we got the support of the Marketing and Sales department without which the system would not have received continuing support from top management for the funds we required each year to build and operate the system.
16.5, FIELD IMPLEMENTATION AND TRAINING
Field implementation was mainly part of Phase 1, but it did carry on beyond that as various technical improvemets were put in place and other functions which were not in the original Southern Pacific TOPS system were added.
The main part of the Project was completed between Feb. 1971 and July, 1975. Field implementation started on the Atlantic Region in 1973 and finished up on the Mountain Region in Vancouver. At some point the field implementation was considered top priority and I was given the title of General Manager of Implementation. The continuing work of programming was given to Al Pozniak together with programming jobs for other systems.
The key field job was not that of installing hardware nor providing communication but was the training of yard office staff, yard engine crews and train crews in the use of the new system. The yard office staff training was the most intensive because they were the main ones who had the job of entering the data as well as making use of it; the real complexity of railway operation is in the yards, where trains are assembled or disassembled, not in the point to point movement of trains on the main lines. To do the field training we selected a group of 50 sesoned yard office employees from across the railway and gave them a month of intensive trainig in TRACS procedures. We then divided them into teams and sent them out to the field areas to train the people in every yard. These teams were leap-frogged across the country as one yard was completed and another started. We flew them from one point to another and they became known as the "flying 50". One young fellow from the B.C. area who was of Asian extraction, picked up the name of "China Clipper"! The teams were put up in motels and they worked rotating hours with all three shifts in the week when actual implementation was taking place. They would stay to back up the regular yard staffs until they were sure the regulars could handle it without further assistance.
For the pre-implementation training we had a number of special truck trailers fitted out as classrooms complete with data terminals. These vans could be handled to the next yard by piggy-back rail and spotted near the yard office for the duration of the training and implementation. When spotted they would be hooked up with a local drop line to the CNT so they could actually work with the main computer system which had a special training mode for the purpose.
To co-ordinate the implementation it was necessary to set up a "war room" in our Montreal Headquarters which had speakerphones connected to direct phonecircuits into the yard offices being implemented on that cut. Implementation day was always on a Sunday when traffic was light as the process was easier on a light traffic day where yard operations had to be put on hold while all the local car records were entered into the new system by the local yard staff. The main person in charge was the Regional General Superintendent of Transportation as he was the voice of authority to his own field people whereas they would not have known us project people in the same way. We of course backed up the Gen. Supt. in the war room with our senior implementation people and with technical programmers to handle any program problems. In any case the whole arrangement worked very well and in only one case across the country did we have an imperfect flow of data and have to send some field implementation people back to do some retraining.
The only other hitch we had did not delay progress but is worth mentioning. We had found that implementation and training went the slowest in the Southern Ontario District where traffic was most dense and train runs between terminals were short. We were trying to implement there before Christmas and the system seemed to get bogged down at times. Doug Fletcher was then the Operations Manager on that area so he and I agreed to keep plugging away with extra training help until the normal Chriatmas-New Year's season traffic slump. It paid off as the staff got hold of all the procedures firmly during the ten days of low traffic and never looked back when traffic rose to normal levels after NewYear!
However, that was not the end of it. The General Manager of the Prairie Region based in Winnipeg heard of the problems in Ontario and decided he would not allow the system to proceed west of Armstrong, Ont., where the Prairie Region began. So a message to this effect was sent to me through the medium of Johnny Clark who was the Prairie Region GST. My first reaction was to go to Jack Spicer, who, as Executive Vice-Pres. was my boss, and have him raise hell. Instead, after some thought I went to Ross Walker, the Chief of Transportation, who had a fairly cool head. We decide to ignore the message from Winnipeg and wait until the good news that the SOD problems were solving themselves to percolate, as it would be at least 6 weeks before we would have to go beyond Armstrong. The good news did its work and when we moved our implementation team into Winnipeg there was no opposition. Johhny Clark was free to give us all possible help and he and his local people actually cooked up some interesting twists to enhance the training. For example, they got us to liken the system to a football type training diagram showing how the data had to flow from the various players in yards, on trains, in depatching offices etc. which made it like a game thry understood. The moral is, "Don't start a war in high heaven if the problem can be solved by gentler means on earth!"
16.6, COAST TO COAST, TRACS ENDS IN VANCOUVER
So in July 1975, after almost five years with a caste approaching 250 people at its height, we were able to implement the B.C. area. We felt it warranted a bit of a celebration so we arran ged for a couple of business cars to be spotted at the passenger station and issued invitations to the media to come for lunch with the Regional Vice President, who by this time was Charlie Armstrong. We set up a couple of terminals in the cars and got some photogenic lady yard office staff as operators so that we could demonstrate car tracing, train journals, train times etc. It was the first time I had ever done anything that was worthy of press attention and I was proud of it. However, pride goeth before a fall and we only got one junior reporter--all the other invitees had gone out on a tour of Okahalla prison from where a dangerous murderer had escaped. While we did get a picture of one of the terminal operators in the newspaper there was no covering story to represent the immensity of the project and its importance to the railway and commercial world, just completed right here in Vancouver! In any case, it did drive home the media adage as a lesson to us all, "if it bleeds, it leads."
Anyway, we did have a great followup party that evening in the Vancouver Hotel for the benefit of our local and visiting team members. We had lots of merriment and I recall at one point the waiters carrying candles led us in a snake dance around the room! The other benefit for me personally was the opportunity to attend my son Jim's graduation from Simon Fraser University where he had completed his studies in Computer Science and Education! How he got that far is a story to be told in a later chapter where we will bring all our family events up to date.
16.7, SOME IMPORTANT ADDITIONS TO TRACS
We found out that a system as large as TRACS takes on a life of its own and requires maintenance and the ability to be kept up to date with technical or operational changes needed by its user departments. One of the early changes we introduced was to shift away from what had been the traditional punch card system for handling data to the use of intelligent input/output terminals which had some memory capability of their own. The terminal we selected was the Datapoint 2200 which served us well and permitted the elimination of card racks in each yard where each car in the yard had a card which had to be moved from one hole to another in the rack to reflect physical movement in the yard. It also permitted us to set up things like the waybill patterns mentioned earlier, as these could be stored locally and then called up on the datapoint screen to fill the blanks after which the data could be transmitted to the main system.
The TOPS system we got from SP did not allow for the handling of trailers and containers once they were off the flat car so we added to TRACS the capability to enter trailer events right to their final destination by road. With the continuing rise in intermodal traffic this added capability was quite important to the railway and its customers. In larger yards we found it advantageous to develop a yard sub-system running on its own mini-computer which would keep up to date on the yard switching movements in detail. Only when the car was placed on an outbound train would a report be sent to the main central system. The software for this internal system was developed by Bob ?
who was in charge of CN's Research Department. They demonstrated it on a pilot model and we took it from there after a successful field trial.
After operating the system for a time based on a backup computer in Montreal (which was used for batch processing which could be set aside if the machine was needed for TRACS) we decided that it was not secure enough to have both machines in the same computer complex. Our alarm was heightened by the event wherein a group of disaffected students trashed the Sir George Williams University computer room, even throwing some components into the street. After a survey and an examination of the data flows across the railway we found that the traffic centre of gravity was moving westward and the most favorable place to have a backup location was Winnipeg. So a new special computer building was set up off Osborne St. near one end of Fort Rouge Yard. As the time came to commission it we realized that having to have round the clock staff there and not much access to batch jobs as filler it made sense to run the main on-line Tracs system in Winnipeg with the system in Montreal to be the backup. We also enhanced Montreal's position by installing a quick-starting 1000 horsepower gas turbine to provide power in case of electric power system failures. I got a bit of a personal glow from realizing that as a native of Manitoba and a graduate of the University of Manitoba in Engineering I had been instrumental in establishing a key front line high-tech development in my native land!
There were over the years many more changes and additions to TRACS which I will not report here. They will possibly show up in subsequent chapters having career work references. Following the successful completion of TRACS I was given the task of planning what the future might hold for C.N. in meeting the growing computer system needs for all departments. I had hoped I might return to the Transportation department, but the open position of Asst. Chief for Car Service was denied to me. However, they offered me the position of Chief of Management Services, so with every Engineer's hope to become Chief of something I accepted. It was actually quite an important job embracing Operational Research, Industrial Engineering, and Office Building maintenance as well as all the major computer systems.
As for TRACS, it remained in its basic form for 20 years until it was supplanted the by a more modern software technology developed by the Santa Fe railway. This system is called SRS and has the important capability of being able to predict the schedules likely to be followed by each car and to make that information instantly available to customers as well as to railway staff! I can still take satisfaction from the fact that TRACS lasted as long as it did, as the life of any computer system in the last half of the 20th century was lucky to exceed 10 years.
And now dear reader, we are finished with the story of TRACS, which was easily the greatest of my working accomplishments in life. Now it is time to step back and fill in the equally important events of personal and family life which I have neglected to record in passing through the five years of TRACS!