There’s an App for That: Union Pacific Railroad Digitizes Workflows

It wasn’t so long ago that the railroad ran on paper. Stacks and stacks of paper were used to keep track of the hundreds of thousands of rail cars that flowed through Union Pacific’s 23-state system. A slip of paper captured the customer’s property, each rail car’s schedule and final destination. It was the train…

Council Bluffs Union Pacific Yardman Jon Duysen uses a Mobile Terminal device.
Council Bluffs Union Pacific Yardman Jon Duysen uses a Mobile Terminal device.

It wasn’t so long ago that the railroad ran on paper.

Stacks and stacks of paper were used to keep track of the hundreds of thousands of rail cars that flowed through Union Pacific’s 23-state system. A slip of paper captured the customer’s property, each rail car’s schedule and final destination. It was the train conductor’s job to manually track the inventory of rail cars, notating them with pen on paper, and placing paper cards in a yard office’s wall of pigeonholes, each representing a train. 

With the advent of computer technology, the railroad began digitizing the inventory process, but until recently, there was still a lot of paper being shuffled around as conductors printed train line-ups to keep track of railcars.   

“I had to manually walk the tracks and transfer all of my handwritten notes to the computer,” said Union Pacific’s Josh Wood, a conductor based out of Spokane, Washington.

“The second a piece of paper is printed off, it’s inevitable that there will be an unaccounted change,” said Union Pacific Director Craig Coyle in the IT Department. He manages a team of experts at Union Pacific responsible for building the computer application digitally capturing real-time events in a rail terminal.

The application, called Mobile Terminal, was rolled out across the Union Pacific system in 2019. It prompts employees to report the precise whereabouts of each rail car on a mobile device so they can keep their managers updated on each yard’s status without having to make a phone call.

“We’ve all played the telephone game and can recognize the redundancies and inefficiencies that result when things aren’t properly recorded,” said Union Pacific’s Heather Falkner, an IT systems consultant who is part of the team working on the Mobile Terminal project. “Now, we’ve taken the most important element of the process – communication – and made it seamless so all parties receive the same messaging.”

Here’s how it works: users enter their location and receive a customizable list that allows them to view track equipment and their attributes, such as car type, weight and length. Then, they can adjust the equipment sequence, add equipment to a track, report equipment as missing, or switch cars to another track by tapping buttons on the screen. When the user saves their changes, the inventory is updated.

“With these mobile devices, employees can access the most updated terminal inventory and keep their colleagues informed,” Coyle said. “This eliminates unnecessary checkpoints and reduces potential errors.”

In addition to more accurately tracking terminal inventory and improving down line processes, Mobile Terminal has drastically reduced reliance on paper.

Productivity also is accelerating. Union Pacific’s terminal in Spokane, Washington, recently tripled the number of cars it processes daily, and train crews utilize the app to accommodate the growing volume. “The technology is here and advancing every day,” said Union Pacific’s Eric Powell, Spokane’s manager of terminal operations. “We’re proud to embrace it.”

The local team estimates they save up to four hours of productivity daily on a 12-hour shift thanks to the streamlined process.

“These devices have been a dream,” Wood said. “They help us more accurately manage inventory and are very user-friendly.”

Those are words the IT team loves to hear.

“It’s all about managing our inventory and making sure operations run as smoothly as possible,” Coyle said.

This was a sponsored post by Union Pacific Railroad.

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