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1998-05-04 17:30:52


Railroad Switching Is Operated by Computer Only



Mainframe programmer Cory Hamasaki injected his two-cents' worth into a debate over the computerization of railway switching systems.

His point is the same one I have been making for over a year in this category: if rail freight goes down, we face a catastrophe. We need the rails to move grain to the cities, coal to coal-fired electrical power generation plants, and raw materials to chemical companies (and finished chemicals back out). The United States would collapse if the trains can't be run without computers. "Collapse" puts it too mildly. "Give us this day our daily bread" would cease to be a rote request at millions of dinner tables.

In the second posting (see below), he says that there are only 500 programmers who can fix this problem.

This was posted on May 4. I suggest that you read it at least twice.

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Robert Sturgeon wrote:

There are these two ways of marshalling trains and putting them together and running them. One uses a big ol' switchyard with a bunch of people to put the trains together. The other is to use computers to track the trains, engines, and individual cars and control the trains by adding and subtracting cars on the various sidings all along the Eastern Seaboard. The railroads have torn up the switchyards and now MUST depend on computers to control the makeup of trains. No functioning computers = no railroad deliveries. For a similar result, see the Union Pacific's disastrous takeover of SP/ATSF. . . .

Hamasaki added:

There was no alternative to switch yards until computers and reliable computer driven communication. That's why they used switch yards.

The Arlington-Alexandria (note it spanned two counties) switch yard was huge. It was next to extremely expensive office buildings and hotels, almost walking distance to the Pentagon.

All heavy freight on the East coast used to pass through this switch yard, it was like the Fed Ex hub except they were juggling freight cars instead of overnight letters.

The yard is gone, torn up, converted to stores and this just happened last year. It is physically no longer possible to switch freight cars without computers.

Match this up with Erich's reports on how rail *really* works. This one specialized program (it's a system) is the key to keeping the food, fuel, materials, products, moving on the East coast.

Sure, you can run a few trains manually, but at a fraction of the capacity of the current computer managed system. ...and please don't suggest that we can move freight by truck. I've driven the Washington Beltway, Wilson Bridge, I95, Route 50, I395, mixing bowl. That's not possible either. I95 is the major N-S corridor and it runs at capacity.

The distributed switching system is the only physical way to move freight. If it fails, it's milne-time in the big city.

As to what will happen? I don't know. They don't have the systems staff to pull 10 years of deferred maintenance and testing in 606 days. They can't do it by hand, they don't have the switch yards. If they try to do distributed switching using people, the trains and cars will get lost. Not that there are a lot of people around who understand trains.

Like everyone else, they've been dumbing-down, cheaping out the staff for 10-15 years. That game is over but the corps, horn-hairs don't seem to realize it.

The UP fiasco was just a taste of what's about to happen.

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He continued in this vein a different posting. He speaks English quite well, but sometimes he drifts off into original geek. I have not bothered to hire someone to translate it.

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Prior to 1990, very roughly, trains moving up and down the East Coast went to the big switching yard near Washington National Airport (now called the Ronald McDonald Washington National Airport).

Oops back up 10 years. In 1980, very roughly I saw the source code to a TCAM MCP that the AAR, the American Association of Railroads uses to keep track of box cars. At that time VTAM had been out for a while, and I was surprised to learn that anyone was still running TCAM. FYI, I am one of perhaps 500 people in the whole world who has written TCAM message handlers. First you need to crank assembler, know multi-programming services, TCAM internals... blah-blah. .not too many of us around... where was I?

Oh yeah, there's probably ten times as may CICS internals mechanics as TCAM mechanics. Am I nattering yet?

Anyway thoughout the 1980's and 1990's, I heard rumors of a plan to build hotels and office buildings on the railroad switchyard. Dummy that I am, I figured they would drive pilings and deck over the switchyard.

What's a switchyard? It's a place that trains decouple freight cars, switch -em around and reconstruct shipments, like planes going to a hub. Guys in towers see the trains, figure out how to re-jigger them, and someone pulls on levers.

In about 1995, they started tearing up the switchyard. It's gone now and there are a bunch of big-box stores there. The Washington Post reported that since they have computers, they can switch the trains on the fly all up and down the East coast and they don't need the switching yard.

Well, fiddle-di-di. since they have computers? Not anymore. Here's the convergence... I saw the source to the program. It was huge pile of greenbar fanfold assembler listings.

So here's the fun part, all heavy commerce on the Eastern side of the U.S. depends on a complex assembler program that is infested with dates, times, really odd macros and there are perhaps 500 people in the entire world who can work on it. There's probably 50-100 people with the skillsets in New York because TCAM runs the financial community too.

TCAM - Telecommunications Access Method, QTAM with reusuable disk queues.

MCP - Message Control Program

CICS - Customer Information and Control System, CICS started out using BTAM to drive terminals, later versions used TCAM and VTAM as TP access methods.

VTAM - Virtual Telecommunications Access Method.

Access Method, what PeeCeeWeeNee's call an IFS, installable file system.

Sidebar, TSO, the Time Sharing Option of MVT, MVS, (SVS), OS/390, etc. also used TCAM and VTAM as TP access methods. IBM distributed a 'canned' TCAM MCP for TSO. That's not what I'm talking about.

The MCP that I saw was clearly hand written for the application... and it was huge.

If they still had the switch yard, bks [railroad switching skeptic Bradley K. Sherman ] would be right. It's gone, Paul is right, they can't switch the trains without computers.

But there are still 607 days left. Maybe the railroads will outbid NY banks and financial companies for TCAM internals assembler programmers? Let's start the bidding at $500/hour...

I still have the full set of TCAM manuals that they gave us at TCAM Operation and Design class.

* * * * * * *

This was posted on May 4. The address is too long to fit into my software as a click-through, but here it is, if you want to verify it:


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