A tech team effort keeps the trains running on time

A new Canadian company that gets railway crews to their trains on time expects to gain US$75 million in revenue in its first full year in business, and it’s crediting technology as the key enabler to that success.

Toronto-based RailCrewXpress was founded in May 2005 by a group of former employees of a company in a similar line of business. Scott Boyes, RailCrewXpress president and CEO, said from day one, technology was seen as the way to set the company, which operates exclusively in the U.S., apart from the competition.

Rail crew transportation companies are contracted by the railways to reposition their crews, either across town or hundreds of kilometers to another city. Boyes said it has mainly been a mom-and-pop business.

Accounting, payroll and human resources functions are unsophisticated, and many van crews don’t even carry cell phones, meaning they’re out of touch until they reach their destinations.

With an eye to controlling their margins and cutting costs, railways want more accurate ETAs from their crew transportation providers and the flexibility to accept new trip orders and reroute quickly, Boyes said. He added that this is something the current providers can’t give them.

Boyes said the concept behind RailCrewXpress was to equip the vans with mobile data terminals connected back to a central dispatch system that allows the vehicle and its progress to be tracked. That data can also be fed into billing, payroll and management reporting systems.

“The whole premise of our pitch to our investors and the railways was the technology platform on which we intended to serve the railways,” said Boyes.

RailCrewXpress worked with Mississauga, Ont.-based mobile computing hardware company Psion Teklogix to refine the concept, also bringing on board Boise, Id.-based mobile software provider MobileDataforce and Reston, Va.-based wireless data company Wireless Matrix as partners.

The system they developed sees Psion’s Workabout Pro S mobile computing device installed in each van and running a customized version of MobileDataforce’s PointSync enterprise mobile software, which transmits and synchs data to RailCrewXpress’ dispatch centre via a Mobile Base Station 2 (MB2) dome from Wireless Matrix that is set on the van’s roof.

“This was a very unique implementation for us but it symbolizes the type of applications we’re looking for, where we can utilize the flexibility of our products and the strength of our company’s solutions engineering and professional services groups to put together a complete solution,” said Ed McCabe, Psion’s director of mobile sales.

What also made the RailCrewXpress implementation unique, said McCabe, was a desire to automatically move between satellite and General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) data transmission, depending on the van’s location. Because the vans are often outside of GPRS coverage another option was needed, but the system needed to be able to intelligently decide how much information to send and when.

“Obviously you don’t want to send a lot of data over satellite because that gets very expensive,” said McCabe. “They only want to utilize the satellite when it’s required and typically use the GPRS for most of their communications.”

One addition being considered is a magnetic stripe reader or RFID scanner connected to the Workabout Pro to scan employee ID badges for information.

“That’s going to be the next step of the evolution of the thing,” said Boyes. “The railways aren’t ready for it, frankly.”

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