Analyze: Making sense of your crew data with advanced analytics and BI

Unify your crew data, conduct intelligent testing, and predict demand surge and crew shortfalls

Note: This blog post is Part 2 in a 3-part series of blog posts around how freight railroads can unify crew and safety management under and integrated cloud-based platform. If you missed Part 1 on how to connect your crew and safety systems, you can read the blog post here. If you’re on the for the long ride, stay tuned for Part 3 in the series, which will dive into how to act on your crew data for predictive crew scheduling and intelligent, proactive testing.

You have to make sure your train runs on time. It’s critical that your crew are scheduled at the right place for the right time for the right job, that your training is on-time and compliant, and that testing quotas are met. All without compromising the safety of your workplace or your workforce.

Yet, the world is a changing place. How can you anticipate the needs of tomorrow within the realities of today?

The role of analytics and business intelligence (BI) in the world as we know it

It’s a question that leadership in the railroad industry and in the supply chain itself are asking themselves often in the face of a new reality: transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic. At this junction, railroads are being forced to further optimize their workforce to avoid mounting expenses, while simultaneously improve their operating ratios, provide a safe workplace for their employees, and ensure business system continuity so that our nation’s networks maintain velocity.

Results from a recent survey conducted by Dresner Advisory Services reveal new findings on how COVID-19 impacts businesses, budgets, and projects. The results reveal a riveting story, showing how enterprise leaders are acknowledging the role of business intelligence and analytics to help reduce costs, increase service excellence, and drive revenue growth. Interestingly enough, the drive to adapt and implement BI and analytics strategies is increasing in the midst of the global pandemic. Not surprisingly, then, self-service BI’s importance has grown from 25% in February to 34% in April. And 49% of enterprises are either launching new analytics and BI projects or are moving forward without delay on already planned projects. They are taking a data-driven approach to navigate through the crisis.

Where does this leave freight and passenger rail?

That’s a great question. But before we dive any farther into how modern railroads can leverage advanced analytics and business intelligence to optimize crew scheduling, create test plans, or identify upcoming licenses expires, let’s first bring the data-related challenges facing railroads today into the open, and briefly walk through the current move towards predictive analytics.  

What to do with these mountains of data?

With many freight railroads still storing data in legacy or on-premises data management solutions, visibility into all your crew-related data quickly becomes more of an optimistic wish than a realistic possibility. This is because the data is siloed by department, line of business, or job role. To consolidate it and get a more clear, comprehensive picture of anything from crew availability to testing program success requires wading through data stored in paper files, Excel worksheets, or emails, only to have to correlate the data, make sense of it, and combine into single reports.

At that point, the time has been wasted. Resources used. And the data may not be the most up-to-date. This means that your window into crew management, testing, training, and qualification tracking isn’t clear. You’re left with little wiggle-room to respond to surges in demand, potential safety risks, or upcoming expiries of license ahead of time.

In other words, crew and safety management is reactive, not proactive.

Predictive analytics for freight railroads today

To conquer their biggest challenges—downtime, crew dwell time and deadheads, or equipment failure—railroads are turning moving away from reactive responses through advanced analytics. This approach paves the way for predictive analytics, analyzing large datasets to forecasts issues or safety risks before they happen, anticipate demand surges, keep locomotives moving and avoid dwell times, and better prioritize tasks and workflows. At a macro-level, you can see this in the recent return to the Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) methodology, a methodology that may be helping railroads better weather the turbulence of the supply chain right now. Predictive crew scheduling is one example of a subset of PSR that empowers proactive crew planning and scheduling to optimize people along with equipment and other assets.

We’ve developed and deployed CloudMoyo Crew Analytics (CCA) to empower our customers in taking apply predictive analytics in crew scheduling. You can check out this customer success story to learn more about our customers are benefiting from predictive crew scheduling.

The ability to get real-time, accurate view into crew-related data is not to be underestimated. It is, in all respects, a powerful, not-yet fully tapped resource. So railroads are accelerating IT modernization, moving to the cloud which offers the power, scalability, and security required to handle large datasets and apply advanced analytics and data visualization at a reduced cost.

Bringing your data to life with data visualization tools

Remember the days of stagnant data sitting in departmental silos, buried in email threads, or accessible only after hours of combing through information?

You’re not alone.

Advanced analytics is just one piece of the picture when it comes to making sense of your crew-related data. The next step is to identify how to make your data understandable, digestible, and informative.

The answer is through business intelligence.

Intuitive, engaging BI dashboards help you spend less time collecting data and more time analyzing it. Analytics dashboards for executive views are especially powerful in their ability to allow you to drill down into key metrics, while admin and other individuals managing crew scheduling, safety testing, or on-the-job training can analyze program metrics to better inform your crew and safety initiatives organization-wide. We opt for Power BI as our data visualization tool of choice since it has a natural integration with the Azure cloud and can enable self-service reporting for an organization.

Bringing together decision analytics for unified crew and safety management

Anticipating crew eligibility ahead of time. Responding to changes in crew availability when making allocations or scheduling. Mitigating crew fatigue or breaches of Hours of Service (HoS) rules. Putting together a formal incident management process. Compliance with Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), GCOR, and other regulatory guidelines. Implementing an on-the-job training (OJT) program that meets 49 CFR Part 243 requirements and deadlines.

These are just a few of the various metrics and parameters that you’re most likely measuring, tracking, and analyzing to determine how to optimize rail crew management and safety-related functions. Yet it’s not enough to isolate your analytics strategy by department or function. In a way, it defeats the purpose of making data-informed decisions across your enterprise.

Both advanced analytics and business intelligence play a critical role in bringing together your crew and safety systems together, piecing together disparate data and making it accessible in a cloud-based environment that acts as a single source of truth.

We recommend the Azure Data Platform for this. The platform enables you to deploy a cloud-based data analytics system on top of the core crew and safety-management systems, providing a single source of truth for accessing the latest data. You can then utilize Azure Storage with the Azure Data Factory to consolidate data from various sources and feed it into the Azure SQL Data Warehouse. From there the data is ready for Power BI analysis and visualization which power role-based dashboards for the railroad. And from that moment on, tracking of critical KPIs with real-time insights is just a couple clicks away.

We set up a BI Center of Excellence (CoE) for one of our rail transportation customers. The CoE was a formal organizational structure staffed with employees from business and IT sides of the business, all with defined tasks, roles, responsibilities, and processes that support the effective utilization of BI and analytics to drive business strategies. Once the BI CoE was deployed, critical data was no longer siloed within a department or function.

Applying advanced analytics and BI to crew management   

Here are some outcomes of analytics and BI for crew management:

  1. Minimize the number of dead runs taking place
  2. Maximize your resources (crew and locomotives)
  3. Predict demand surges (analyzing historical data)
  4. Avoid crew shortfalls
  5. Anticipate crew availability along with influxes of new crew and upcoming retirements
  6. Analyze metrics like train velocity, on-time departure and arrivals, on-time shipment arrivals, and dead-heads, and dwell time by location, station, or yard

Applying advanced analytics and BI to operational testing

Here are some outcomes of analytics and BI for operational testing:

  1. Conduct trend analysis by department, crew, location to determine which are likely to be involved in a safety incident (then adjust your testing accordingly)
  2. Avoid quota shortfalls for testing like drug and alcohol tests
  3. Analyze pass and fail ratios

Is your interest piqued? We dive much deeper into intelligent testing in our article published in Railway Age, which you can read here.

Applying advanced analytics and BI to on-the-job training and qualification management systems

Here are a few outcomes of analytics and BI for on-the-job training and qualification tracking:

  1. Anticipate future qualification validity
  2. Measure the effectiveness of your training program
  3. Identify the availability of crew by licenses, status, and expirations

Outcomes of unifying crew and safety management under one analytics and BI strategy

Unifying your crew management, operational testing, on-the-job training, and qualification tracking systems promises to provide a more agile, flexible, and intelligent approach to managing your workforce in what can be a volatile and what will definitely be a changing environment. Responding to changes in priorities, customer needs, and expectations of your workforce while maintaining operational velocity, reducing operating ratios, and driving revenue growth is no easy task.

An innovative, integrative approach is required to proactively predict and avert safety risks, ensure on-time departures in sync with compliant scheduling of crew, and save time and efforts while reducing penalties and fines. Breaking data and process siloes are not tasks confined to superheroes; today, data-driven leadership in freight and passenger railroads are leading the drive to unify their processes. As a result, workforce productivity is increasing by over 35%. There’s a 60% reduction in manual data management. And the hits of the unexpected pandemics or supply chain tremors are less powerful.

What’s the next step for you? Consider this a start to the conversation; you can connect with us here to learn more about how to unify your crew and safety management systems and implement an advanced analytics and business intelligence strategy in your organization.