IBM: re-training for our future

IBM and railroads. This is not a non sequitor. I recently spoke with Keith Dierkx who works for IBM in their expanding business providing services for planning, construction and operation of high-speed rail.

IBM and railroads. This is not a non sequitor. I recently spoke with Keith Dierkx who works for IBM in their expanding business providing services for planning, construction and operation of high-speed rail. Dierkx is in the process of relocating to Beijing where he and IBM will play a major role in a new global consortium based there. The IBM global rail analytics center opened there in June. Their work: maximize the efficiency and capacity of high speed rail services. China? Yes, the government there has set aside a half-trillion dollars for high speed rail in the near future. That's at a rate of nearly $90-billion annually. Compare that to the U.S. government's program for 1/50th of a trillion dollars. Dierkx said it's clear the barrier to high speed rail in the U.S.and other places is political will. Current American financial support for high speed is not enough to accomplish much. Even the eight billion dollars in a California state bond issue is not likely to get a high speed rail line built there. China, Spain, Japan, France, Germany--they are investing in high speed rail which is more energy efficient than trucks, planes, slow rail. IBM's currently working with Taiwan on their high speed system. If the U.S. ever does get serious about once again using rail transit widely for passengers, we will be able to copy already-proven technology. Dierkx said the U.S. could learn from many under-developed nations that never installed copper phone lines but instead went straight to wireless and cell phones. Dierkx compared the current need for high speed rail n the U.S. to the Eisenhower plan for Interstate highways in the 1950s. There was no clear ROI for the highways back then, but they changed the way America lives and works. Clearly that is again possible with modern high-speed rail. Dierkx said the way to imagine high-speed rail in the first phase is to replace current costly and energy-intense short-haul airline runs of 500 miles or less. Some of those corridors like Chicago to Minneapolis, Dallas to Houston, LA to San Francisco have more than one airline flight per hour. Even the Boston to Washington Amtrak corridor has no true high-speed trains. China now runs trains at over 200 MPH, more than double America's best passenger train speeds. Here's a look at how hard China's government is pushing to complete high-speed rail systems. Dierkx said one elevated line he sees under construction near Beijing adds a new section every day. IBM'S RAILROAD ROLE What does IBM do? They've been working with railroads on schedule and rolling stock management since the 1960s. IBM is currently working with the Netherlands' national system which runs 5000 passnger trains daily. Dierkx says schedule optimiziation and constant recalibration of arrival and departures is done on a real-time basis. The passenger must meet as few barriers as possible, he says. Smart rail is the parallel of the smart electrical grid. The local commuter lines must co-ordinate with the regional high speed lines. That requires fresh data and analytics. In addition Dierkx sees IBM helping maximize security, sensor networks along the rails, contant masurement of rail and rolling stock wear and maintenance status, even real-time weather sensing. Passengers would get accurate, real-time data on train scheds in every station. Each engine would be equipped to measure the stress and wear levels of each bridge and underpass on every run. This would enable real-time, efficient and timely maintenance, not simply on an arbitrary schedule or after there's a problem. Finally IBM is working with numerous partners in the Beijing consortium to provide 24/7 live digital corridors. Every train would have non-stop digital connection to the Internet. Some of the other global players in the Beijing consortium include: GE, Siemens, ABB, Alstrom and universisites. One of those is Michigan Tech. Here's a video of how IBM's smart rail works. [poll id="118"]