Follow the LEADER

LEADER Boosts Fuel Economy

In 2003, Norfolk Southern began testing a new train-handling technology on locomotives that moved coal on a 105-mile stretch of hilly, curvy track in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills between Roanoke, Va., and Belews Creek Steam Station near Winston-Salem, N.C.

In mid-2013, the railroad reached a milestone: Every division on the network had the ability to run locomotives outfitted with LEADER, our flagship fuel-efficiency technology. LEADER – or Locomotive Engineer Assist/Display Event Recorder – is helping the company reduce locomotive fuel burn and carbon emissions.

The fuel savings achieved vary depending on train makeup, track profile, and speed. On average, an approximate 5 percent fuel-efficiency advantage has been achieved when a LEADER-equipped locomotive is used as the lead unit in a consist of locomotives. Coleman Lawrence, senior director process engineering, shared results with the industry at a November 2013 conference hosted by New York Air Brake, which developed the LEADER software with input from Norfolk Southern.

“With average fuel savings in the mid-single digits and an annual fuel burn approaching 500 million gallons, 5 percent saves NS 25 million gallons of diesel fuel,” Lawrence said. “At today’s prices, that is nearly $75 million a year.”

Reducing diesel burn by 25 million gallons would equate to lowering CO2 emissions by about 277,500 tons annually.

By end of 2013, LEADER was installed on 63 percent of the railroad’s road locomotives. The GPS-based software that powers LEADER processes train-operating conditions in real time – including track topography, curves, and train length and weight – and calculates optimal speed for those conditions. A LEADER monitor in the locomotive cab offers visual and audio cues that alert engineers to opportunities to save fuel. During 2014, we expect to finish training all of the company’s approximately 7,000 locomotive engineers on the use of LEADER.

“Conserving fuel has a positive impact on the corporation’s bottom line and it reduces our greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts,” Collins said.

“From a sustainability perspective, we need to continue looking for ways to operate more efficiently and reduce our impacts on the environment. The more we can be self-sustaining from a fuel-conservation perspective, the better it is for us as a company and for the industry and the country.”

Employee’s Ingenuity Speeds LEADER Rollout

Call Jonathan Collins a computer geek, and he will laugh. He’ll also agree with you: In his job as Norfolk Southern’s manager of locomotive systems and special projects, the moniker comes with the territory.

Since early 2011, Collins has managed the development and deployment of LEADER. Thanks in large part to Collins’ technical ingenuity, the railroad in 2013 rapidly accelerated the territories capable of supporting LEADER-equipped trains, going from 2,500 track route miles in 2012 to 14,500 route miles – all of the railroad’s line-of-road territories.

In his role, Collins helped Norfolk Southern customize LEADER to software developed by industry partner New York Air Brake. While the onboard LEADER system is easy for locomotive engineers to use, there’s a lot of complexity behind the user screen. That’s where Collins made his mark.

LEADER, Collins said, essentially is a physics engine, powered by algorithms that calculate optimum train speed based on track topography and dynamic train forces. For LEADER to work, Norfolk Southern first had to digitally map its rail network to collect the track topography information. In 2009 and 2010, the company deployed helicopters outfitted with infrared laser technology and precise GPS systems to do that. This aerial “fly-mapping” generated a series of latitude and longitude points along with elevations, accurate to within an inch. The infrared lasers and GPS-based camera systems recorded data points every three feet over roughly 16,000 route miles of track, generating a massive amount of raw data.

Collins and his team had the challenge of figuring out how to efficiently convert all those data points into information that could be integrated into LEADER. Before LEADER could accurately prompt engineers on train handling, the software had to be able to identify the precise location of curves, for instance, and the track elevation as a train passed over the rails.

“Accurate track data is the core of LEADER,” Collins said. “We needed to match the latitude and longitude data with precision to every curve, railroad crossing grade, and turnout.”

Collins’ solution combined technology and innovation. It involved hours of feeding the fly-map data into database management systems such as ACCESS and linking them to Web-based geographical information systems and GPS-based maps, including Google Earth. Collins also meticulously matched the data to Norfolk Southern’s timetables – the “bible” for locomotive engineers. These timetables list track speeds and mile posts that train crews use for reference while making freight deliveries. Collins worked with road foremen of engines across the network – around 110 of them – to accurately match the fly-map data to the timetables.

An extensive review followed to verify the accuracy of the work. In addition to collaborating with railroad operations and information technology groups, Collins served as liaison to New York Air Brake. Even now, Norfolk Southern is continuing efforts to advance LEADER’s capabilities.

“We want to be forward-thinking in how we do business,” Collins said, “and we’re looking at tools and techniques that might be introduced and leveraged with LEADER to advance fuel conservation and train movements.”

Collins said he gets personal satisfaction from his LEADER work because the outcome has environmental, economic, and social benefits.

How a Locomotive Engineer Uses LEADER
to Do His Job Better

Locomotive engineer Raiford Wilson has operated trains for 27 years for Norfolk Southern. Before using LEADER for the first time four years ago, he was skeptical. “I felt that I knew how to run a train, and I didn’t need something to tell me how,” said Wilson.

After only a few road trips with LEADER, however, he began to recognize the value of the train-handling technology. “I learned that it’s more of a tool to help you do your job better, rather than telling you how to do your job,” he said.

Initially, the most difficult thing for Wilson was when LEADER prompted him to do things that contradicted the way he normally operated a train – such as when driving one up a steep grade. Typically, Wilson said, engineers would run the locomotive’s throttle on maximum power to reach the top of the grade and begin braking or notching back on throttle speed after cresting the hill. LEADER, however, prompts engineers to reduce speed before reaching a hilltop, letting the train’s momentum carry it over. As it turns out, that technique burns less fuel and reduces use of dynamic brakes or air brakes, which helps reduce wear and tear on the track.

In another example, while engineers might run their trains at the maximum allowable track speed, LEADER might prompt them to notch back based on track elevation or curvature.

“LEADER shows that you can reduce the throttle at points where you really hadn’t programmed yourself to do so, and that’s where the fuel savings are,” Wilson said. “It’s trying to help you run a more conservative train and still let you make on-time performance. You have to kind of retrain your brain. After a while, it becomes almost like second nature.”

Now that he recognizes the benefits, Wilson and other engineers he knows work to outsmart LEADER. During road trips, they try to adjust speed or braking before LEADER gives them a prompt on the cab monitor, such as “Fuel Conservation Opportunity – Reduce Throttle.”

“Once you’ve run a route a few times, you can figure out where you’re going to get the prompts, and it’s a challenge to try to ‘beat’ LEADER,” he said. “It’s really helping to refine everybody’s operating techniques to get the best fuel savings possible.”

Wilson operates an intermodal container train between Crewe, Va., and Norfolk International Terminals, a one-way trip of about 135 miles. Wilson said he has seen fuel savings of 5 to 8 percent per trip with LEADER. He became such a believer that he was tapped in 2013 to help train other engineers on using the technology.

Wilson said he takes pride in helping the company save money on fuel while benefitting the environment by reducing carbon emissions.

“If you can improve the bottom line and be a green company at the same time,” he said, “I think you’ve really accomplished something.”