Published: 8th September 2014
As today’s railroads strive to reinvent themselves and improve the efficiency of their operations, they are confronted with a unique set of challenges. A railroad company must determine how to move the greatest number of trains in a way that makes full use of its network capacity. It must operate in the most efficient manner to maximize throughput in yards and to keep locomotives busy. Using all assets most effectively is the key to these companies’ profitability. However, implementing new operational plans often involves large-scale capital investment decisions. As a result, companies need reliable guidance when making such changes in order to ensure they are minimizing financial risk and maximizing growth potential.
Following recent improvements in the development of advanced simulation software, railroads around the world have begun to improve the efficiency of their operations. Simulation techniques can guide them to make decisions that are logistically feasible and highly profitable, helping them reduce waste, save time and cost, and deliver reliable service to their customers.
In one such success story, simulation was used by CSX Transportation to ensure that a proposed expansion would have its desired effect. CSX had contracted an engineering company to design the layout for its newest intermodal yard, one which was projected to handle about 30 trains and process about 2,500 cars each day. Before investing in the yard’s $200 million implementation, however, CSX executives wanted to evaluate the layout for its efficiency. They wondered whether the proposed layout could meet the yard’s projected processing capacity, whether it was the best layout for the given budget, and if the yard’s capacity could be increased by changing the layout. In order to have confidence in the yard’s ability to process the projected number of cars, CSX hired Optym, a global software company that builds planning and scheduling software for the transportation and logistics industry, to create its own version of the best possible layout.
Optym spent several weeks visiting different intermodal yards to learn and document their processes. The team then built FlatSYM, an advanced simulation application, to model the movement of railcars in the proposed yard. This system used complex time-space-based algorithms to route trains in the yard so that conflicts and collisions were avoided. Optym validated FlatSYM by simulating an existing intermodal yard and comparing important key performance indicators in the system with those in the yard. After these values were found to be sufficiently close, Optym used FlatSYM to analyze the layout created by the engineering company.
Upon simulating the yard, Optym identified a variety of yard bottlenecks and repeatedly changed the layout to remove them. It also considered different traffic volumes and determined the maximum volume that could be handled at the yard. Ultimately, Optym created a unique and novel layout that improved the yard’s capacity by over 15 percent, offering the railroad a plan that would drastically increase its profitability and efficiency. CSX executives decided to build the yard as per Optym’s layout design, and it went into production in 2011. This intermodal yard project received the 2011 Arema Engineering Award and continues to be considered a great success story for the CSX Intermodal division.