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A Railroad Finds A High Tech Guardian Angel

A Railroad Finds A High Tech Guardian Angel

Cover Story: Information Technology Annual Report

When Charles S. Feld signed up as Burlington Northern Railroad Co.'s chief information officer in 1992, he found a networking nightmare at the Fort Worth-based freight railroad. There were incompatible systems for dispatching locomotives, cars, and crews, and no central oversight for a rail empire that stretches from Mexico to Seattle. If a flood or broken switch forced changes in traffic, isolated dispatchers in places like Alliance, Neb., and Springfield, Mo., simply had to adapt when extra trains unexpectedly poured into their regions.

The company is now two years into a four-year reengineering plan meant to change all that. The centerpiece is a $120 million state-of-the-art communications center opened in April. There, dispatchers can view up-to-the-minute status reports of the entire rail system and national weather maps on massive 18-foot screens. When trouble crops up, a wireless phone system lets them roam the 183,000 square foot compound at will. To get the information flowing into one central place, Feld installed computer hubs in eight cities that give dispatchers in Fort Worth direct control over the trains.

CARGO LOCATORS. Gains should be evident soon. In May, Burlington Northern published its first service schedule; before, customers had to wait for a train to become available. Burlington Northern expects to improve on-time delivery from 60% in 1994 to 90% by yearend. When its 70,000 cars are outfitted with radio ID tags this autumn, customers--some with their own in-house terminals--will be able to track their cargo 24 hours a day.

The former Frito-Lay Inc. CIO still has a lot left to do: Burlington Northern's network makeover is only 30% done. Once it's completed, the company should double its asset utilization. "The goal is to have all our trains moving all the time," Feld says. "If it works, it will mean the renaissance of rail." And replacing the iron horse with a cyber-horse?