Q&A with John Scheib, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, Norfolk Southern

As Norfolk Southern’s Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, John Scheib straddles the world of railroads and Washington D.C. He works closely with the company’s technology and operations teams to communicate to government the power of rail technology and how it can transform a 200-year old industry into a modern, technologically-advanced transportation powerhouse.

Scheib believes the future of railroads and rail tech is bright — and can be even brighter if the government enacts policies that encourage innovation and empower railroads to develop and deploy new safety- and efficiency-enhancing technologies.

We spoke with Scheib about the future of railroads, data lakes, Positive Train Control … and even Star Wars (a topic every tech-expert loves!).

We hear a lot about Big Data. But what exactly is it?

Big Data is exactly what it sounds like — a massive amount of information pulled from all corners of our railroad. Using advanced technologies integrated across our 19,500-mile network, Norfolk Southern gathers data in many different forms — numbers, videos, images — and collects it all in a data lake (a poetic way to describe a massive, unsorted grouping of data).

But these many terabytes of data wouldn’t do us much good without a team of rail-savvy data scientists who are able to turn a confusing sea of data points into amazing predictive tools. These tech gurus combine their knowledge of railroad operations with their expertise in data analysis to look deep into an existing data set and discern subtle but powerful trends that can literally predict the future. They really are real-life Jedi Masters, able to see things before they happen.

So, with Big Data you can predict the future?

In a way, yes. Thanks to the predictive models we’ve built, we have shifted from reacting to network and maintenance problems to proactively predicting and addressing them in a way that maximizes safety and minimizes impacts on our network and our customers. In other words, data analytics makes us a more nimble and resilient organization, giving us those lightning fast, Jedi-like reflexes to handle issues, often before they even occur.

There are lots of examples, but I’ll give you a few of my favorites. Just like your car, even the most well-maintained locomotives sometimes have service issues that can cause them to break down. Unfortunately, a locomotive breaking down somewhere out on the network can cause big delays, both for the train it is pulling, and all the others that it’s holding up. With our predictive models, however, we can now diagnose some of the most common locomotive-maintenance problems long before they occur. For instance, we can predict — with nearly 100% accuracy — cooling water leaks one week before they affect operations and locomotive battery failures a month in advance.

We also can now predict how rail will wear up to five years into the future. It’s exciting stuff. It lets us plan and budget for repairs years in advance and helps us more effectively maintain our tracks in safe-operating condition. Going one step further, we’re even starting to build predictive models specifically focused on providing a better customer service experience.

Perhaps coolest of all, these predictive models won’t become outdated if a train or rail receives new components or undergoes a design change. Our data science team has infused their models with machine learning, allowing them to adjust continuously and optimize decision-making. We’re not exaggerating when we say our models really are “learning” the railroad.

Going forward, what’s the biggest game-changer for rail tech?

Positive Train Control, or PTC, and the amazing data-collection and onboard computing capabilities it provides, has already become the next major catalyst for high-tech progress on the rails.  PTC is a system of technologies that can automatically stop a train to prevent certain human-caused accidents, which will make our safe network even safer.

But beyond this initial capability, PTC has opened the door to possibilities we couldn’t even envision a generation ago. For example, using PTC’s precise GPS information and highly detailed track data, another locomotive technology called Energy Management continually calculates the train’s optimal speed and then automatically adjusts the locomotive’s throttle and brake. It’s not a big leap to see that technology that controls throttle, speed and brakes for locomotives on a fixed guideway — our tracks — means that self-driving locomotives are imminently possible. Technology will not be an obstacle.

Looking longer term, PTC, when combined with other technologies like Big Data, is the key to even bigger safety-enhancing opportunities to automate various aspects of our network — from dispatching and network management, to yard operations and inspections. That’s why PTC really is the foundation for future rail innovation.

At NS you talk a lot about “reimagining possible.”  What does that mean to you, and how does it pertain to your work with government? 

Well, we’ve talked so far about some really visionary stuff. But there are so many more ways to leverage technology to make rail transportation safer and more efficient. At NS, we are really excited about the opportunities we have to develop new high-tech tools that will continue to improve the safety, reliability and efficiency of our operations. It’s clear to us that predictive and automated technologies will open a new frontier of operational enhancements, and we are keenly focused on realizing these benefits. This continuing commitment to tech is one of the key ways that Norfolk Southern is working to reimagine possible, both for the future of our company, and the entire rail industry.

Yet we can’t go it alone. Even with the best efforts of our most gifted innovators, we will not be able to fully unlock tomorrow’s technological potential without the federal government’s support. Many of the regulations that apply to railroads were written in an era in which technology was not so pervasive. And those regulations have not caught up. That’s why we are asking the government, and in particular, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), to also reimagine its approach to regulating and more robustly support technology efforts in our industry.

Rather than simply policing enforcement of prescriptive, often outdated rules, when it comes to technology, we need FRA to assume the role of industry visionary, both by publicly promoting the benefits of new rail tech and facilitating the industry’s development of that tech. With a recognition of rail technology’s value and the transformational role it can play, FRA can unleash a new age of innovation for railroads that will benefit our customers, the public and our national economy.