St. Louis to Omaha

A trip on the Union Pacific College Train Special

by Douglas W. Jones
THE UNIVERSITY OF IOWA Department of Computer Science


During July, 1995, the Union Pacific Railroad invited a number of representatives from various universities to participate in their College Train Special. I went on the July 19-20 trip, representing the University of Iowa.

In addition to the overnight trip from St. Louis to Omaha, the trip also included a tour of the Union Pacific Customer Service department in the old Missouri Pacific Building in St. Louis, and the Harriman Dispatching Center and UP Linc Television Center in Omaha.

The Train

The train consisted of 10 passenger cars pulled by two diesel engines. For a total of 40 passengers, about half UP employees and half university faculty, this seems a bit generous, but it was an overnight trip, with the intent that we all have plenty of time to talk and get to know each other. For those who just want to look at the photos, there is a photo index with thumbnail sketches.

At the rear of the train was the observation car Idaho; the rear half of this car is built like an auditorium, facing a large picture window at the rear. After the train arrived in Council Bluffs, Iowa, I took this photo of the Idaho. The view from inside the car is quite nice, as is shown by this photo; at night, the flood lights under the picture window are turned on, giving a good view of rails, and there are `front view mirrors' on each side, so you can see what's coming if you sit in the rearmost side seats.

There is a metal roller-shutter that can be lowered over the outside of the Idaho's picture window, and with this shutter down and a projection screen lowered inside the car, it made an excellent lecture hall for the two hours of formal presentations made during the trip.

Second from the rear was the diner City of Denver; the dining area was set up with 4 round tables, as shown in the photo. The service and the food were excellent, and except for the more modern photos along the walls, I had the impression that nothing had changed since the 1940's. In fact, this impression was wrong -- as built, the car almost certainly had a small 2 and 4-person rectangular tables under each window. All of the glassware, silver and china used for the service was etched, embossed or glazed with the UP emblem, and I don't think any of the food was microwaved, as you may be able to infer from the photo of the kitchen.

Third from the rear was the dome lounge Harriman. This is the most prominent car shown in the photo I took just before boarding the train in St. Louis Union Station. The lower level of the car contains a lounge area, while the dome itself provides a wonderful view in all directions, as shown in the photo; this photo also gives a view of the engines and it hints at some of the abandoned antenna systems from older generation radios the car has been equipped with over the years. The lump in the center of the front window of the dome is a digital spedometer; a similar spedometer was mounted above the rear window of the Idaho.

Ahead of the Harriman were the sleepers Portola, Green River, Omaha and North Platte. All but the North Platte had 8 compartments, while my itinerary shows the latter with 10 compartments. My compartment in the Portola was very cramped, as you might have expected, but it had a telephone, shower and a bathroom, and all in all, it was just big enough to serve its purpose.

Ahead of the sleepers was the business car Feather River. This car is a self contained business office, with 3 compartments, a compact dining room, an even more compact kitchen, and an office space with two large rear-facing desks. The car has an open platform, as shown in the photo I took in Council Bluffs. One of the desks has a cellular phone, while the other has a railroad radio and scanner. Outside the window by each desk is a mirror giving a view forward along the train, as shown in the photo. This is the best photo I got of the engines that pulled our train.

The crew sleeper Columbia River and a power car headed up the train. I gather that the Feather River and perhaps the Idaho carry their own diesel generators, but all of the other cars rely on a head-end power car for their electricity. The UP power cars are all apparently converted from old baggage cars.

While I'm presenting photos of the train, I'll stick in a photo of the other train that was parked in Council Bluffs when we arrived. This included the Chicago and North Western car Lake Geneva, evidence of the recent merger between the UP and the C&NW.

After we left our train, it was scheduled to depart for Cheyenne, Wyoming and Frontier Days. Each car in the Union Pacific fleet of passenger cars is apparently used on the order of 200 days a year; they support excursions, conferences like the one I attended, and business entertainment for bankers, shippers and major stockholders. The business car is still occasionally used for its original purpose; for example, on one of its recent trips, it apparently housed a consultant who was touring the UP's intermodal facilities, and it moved between stops on the tail end of various intermodal trains. When not in use, these cars are stored in an old service facility on the Omaha waterfront.

The UP uses a private passenger station of theirs in Council Bluffs Iowa for their Omaha terminus. This is listed as the UPRR Fox Park station in the UP literature I have, but it is also right next to Rock Island Junction, where the Iowa Interstate Railroad interchanges with the UP.

The Harriman Center

Our tour of the UP concluded with a tour of the Harriman Center. This center is a marvelous combination of modern and historical architecture. From the outside, it looks like a half-ruined old brick train shed, and in fact, it began life in the 19th century as a passenger station and then as a 4-track freight transfer station, a purpose it continued to serve until the 1960's. The UP continued to use the building for storage, but it was obviously near the end of its useful life when they decided to renovate it and use it for their centralized dispatching operation.

Today, the interior of the building is a light airy space, as shown in the photo. The original pinned iron arch of the train shed is preserved, and inside, the office space is very pleasant, with numerous railroad antiques around the walls. What you see in this photo is the UP crew scheduling and timekeeping departments.

In the space under their feet, everything is completely different. The scheduling and timekeeping departments sit on top of a bunker that is designed to stand the worst that nature could possibly deliver in Omaha; this is generally described as a tornado throwing a telephone pole end-first at the structure, and to withstand such a threat requires 18 to 24 inches (a half-meter) of reinforced concrete.

The bunker houses the Centralized Train Control dispatching center; this is supported by computers and auxiliary power equipment in a secondary hardened structure, and the atmosphere inside reminded me of the kind of thing you'd expect at NORAD headquarters inside Cheyanne Mountain or perhaps the launch control center at the Cape. One person joked that you needed to put on video burn lotion to prevent problems with all those computer displays. Unfortunately, I was out of film, but I cheated and scanned in the photo from the cover of the handout binder the UP gave us. This shows one of about 30 dispatchers at work in front of his section of the CTC display.

The 15 rear projection wall screens in front of each dispatcher aren't just for show -- they show the current setting of every signal, the current location of every train, the current alignment of every switch point, and the current status of each section of track in his or her territory. The screens on the table in front of the dispatcher display a list of the trains currently under that dispatcher's control, the status of each radio and telephone link available for communication with those trains, and, for dispatchers who handle interchange of traffic with other railroads, the state of the tracks `over the border' on the connecting railroad.

The hardware was made by Union Switch and Signal, based on 6 large DEC computers, 3 operational and 3 standby. One Sunday a month, all the standby systems are tested, and the center is supposed to have sufficient fuel and expendables to last 20 days without outside support.

It is important to note that the Harriman Center only handles the problems of assigning crews to locomotives and running trains between stations on the railroad. The Customer Service Center in St. Louis handles all matters involved with actually delivering freight service to customers. This involves everything from taking orders for service to tracking the locations of railroad cars, issuing orders for trains to pick up and drop off cars, and issuing orders for what cars should be shunted into what trains.

Much of the customer service center's interaction with customers is by fax, and all incoming fax traffic is digitized, so it never prints out on paper. They do have a bank of fax machines, as a backup, but their current operation is paperless, hard-to-read faxes are digitally manipulated to improve readability, and the archive of fax corrispondance is maintained in digital form.

The UP Railroad uses its big IBM mainframes as database servers support the customer service operation, with a large network of workstations allowing the customer service representatives to access the computers. In addition, each locomotive has an on-board computer that maintains train lists and logs train orders, largely eliminating paperwork from the moving train.

The UP Railroad Message

So why did the Union Pacific invite a bunch of Computer Science faculty members on such a trip? The message is simple. As one dispatcher said, in passing, ``experienced dispatchers are almost as hard to find as good C++ programmers.'' This dispatcher, incidentally, had worked his way up to that job from telegrapher, and yet he was aware of how much the UP railroad depends on programmers.

The UP Railroad is expanding aggressively, as evidenced by their investment in laying a new track across Nebraska, their purchase of the Chicago and Northwestern, and their recently announced bid to purchase the Southern Pacific. Furthermore, as a whole, the railroad industry in the United states is finally healthy, after 40 years of decline. The UP spent quite a bit of money and time in order to tell us this, and in order to emphatically demonstrate how highly tied their entire operation is to computing. Computer science students should keep these kinds of opportunities in mind!

One question I have been asked is, has the Union Pacific got some idea of what they want universities to teach in order to prepare people to work in the railroad industry? The short answer is, no. They did give all participants in the trip a copy of John Armstrong's ``The Railroad, What It Is and What It Does'', but beyond that and a few random suggestions, there was no unified curricular proposal. They certainly didn't ask for the development of a railroad engineering curriculum such as is available in Holland.

I speculate that part of the reason for this is that the younger UP management employees are mostly from random business school backgrounds, and this doesn't prepare them to believe that their business has any specialized educational requirements. In this regard, business schools today teach a conceit that is quite similar to the conceit traditionally taught by engineering schools -- that a good engineer can solve any technical problem, regardless of the engineering specialty involved. These kinds of conceits are both valuable and dangerous. Having such a conceit makes a manager or an engineer more likely to try hard to solve a problem, which makes a solution more likely, but the conceit also makes it more likely that, when a maniger or engineer gets in over his head, he won't admit it until the a disaster results.