By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Paul Wells eases the lever forward a bit and releases the brake button on his remote control. The train immediately starts rolling down the tracks toward a row of freight cars.
But this isn't in the basement of a model train enthusiast. Wells, a 34-year veteran with CSX, is controlling a 3,000-horsepower, 200-ton driverless diesel/electric locomotive at the company's Queensgate yard using the neon green "belt pack."
CSX remote operator Paul Wells moves trains remotely in the CSX Queensgate rail yard.
(Tony Jones photo)
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"They didn't have this kind of technology when I was hired, that's for sure," Wells said after passing off control of the train to his co-worker several hundred yards down the track.
But now, it's everywhere throughout the 160-acre Queensgate yard, one of the most important switching facilities in the Midwest's rail network. Such remote operators, who help shuttle cars from incoming trains to outbound trains bound for destinations to the south and west, control most of the engines at the yard located northwest of downtown.
It's one of the innovations and equipment investments that CSX in specific and the $36 billion railroad industry in general are making to boost safety and efficiency.
"The main reason we put it in was safety, but our competitors have put it in as well," said John Bradley, CSX's superintendent of the Cincinnati terminal. "To remain a viable transportation mode, we've got to stay on the cutting edge."
Experts say the effort couldn't come too soon. The nation's third-largest railroad with $424 million in profits in 2002, CSX also is embarking on a $42 million investment in its rail lines throughout Ohio, and spending another $8.2 million for upgraded train-splitting equipment for Queensgate.
Rail still is a mainstay for manufacturers. If you bought a General Motors car or a carton of Tropicana orange juice, chances are it came through Queensgate. GM is CSX's largest customer , while Tropicana is the railroad's largest customer at the yard. (AK Steel is its top regional customer).
Queensgate, which employs about 400, handles up to 600,000 tons of freight and up to 80 trains daily. It generated $51.5 million in revenue last year, when it processed more than 640,000individual freight cars.
CSX saw its profits rise from just $32 million in all of 1999 to $99 million in this year's first quarter.
But the mode that dates back to the 1800s has lost market share over the last 15 years to trucking, which promises a quicker delivery time and caters to companies using "just-in-time" inventory and manufacturing practices.
"We view the use of advanced technology in the rail industry ... (as) a strong driver to continued productivity gains," Daniel Hemme, a railroad stock analyst with Prudential Securities, wrote in a research note. "... The benefits of remote control/belt pack technology manifest themselves as long-term labor productivity gains and improved asset fluidity."
CSX officials stress the primary reason for the remote technology, which gained widespread use in Canada 10 years ago, is for safety. Bradley notes a 60 percent reduction in accidents since CSX began training classes last October. The company now uses the technology in about 75 locations, and plans to add remote control to engines in an additional 63 this year.
But those officials also acknowledge they will save money from the automation effort, although they won't talk about how much they have spent - other than it costs $80,000 to equip each engine - or what they expect to save.
Still, it now only takes two workers - both equipped with a remote control belt pack and standing on either end of the track - to operate a locomotive. The old system required a higher-paid engineer as well as two workers on the ground.
One Wall Street analyst has estimated CSX and Norfolk Southern, its major competitor in Ohio, could see savings up to $55 million each annually through automation.
Other experts say the effort may not be enough, because the industry needs to reach out to new markets other than manufacturing by combining rail with trucks for a complete "intermodal" package. Such an approach has been touted to reduce traffic on urban highways, but with little success.
"The automation processes are a way to make themselves more efficient for their existing customers," said Michael Gorman, a business professor at the University of Dayton, and an eight-year veteran of the railroad industry. "... They need to look at other initiatives such as intermodal products, which is the only way they can grow out of their dependence on manufacturers."
Then there are labor issues. The rail industry is one of the most unionized in the country, with those unions often fighting technological advances.
And Wells says many engineers are upset about potentially being replaced.
But an official with the United Transportation Union International, which represents most of the local ground workers, says the union took a different approach with remote control.
"We realized that technology can't be stopped, and so we negotiated a contract that is unprecedented in that it protects every one of our members from job or income loss as a result of technology," UTU spokesman Frank Wilner said. "And we've been involved in the implementation of this rather than having it crammed down our throat."
Bradley said no workers have lost their jobs because of the remote-control initiative, primarily because so many railroad workers are of retirement age, meaning the initiative is a way to replace workers lost through attrition. He says CSX plans to hire 45 people here this year, which would bring the total to about 100 positions filled in two years locally.
"There has been a lot of anxiety about this, but I'm here to say that this will work," Bradley said.
Wells, the longtime Queensgate veteran, agrees that the remote control could be safer.
But when it comes to running the train, he said, "this is still going to take a long time to get used to. And this will never take the place of an engineer."
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