Workers monitor data from railroad locomotives at GE’s new Global Performance Optimization Center in north Fort Worth. Khampha Bouaphanh kbouaphanh@star-telegram.com
Workers monitor data from railroad locomotives at GE’s new Global Performance Optimization Center in north Fort Worth. Khampha Bouaphanh kbouaphanh@star-telegram.com

Your Commute

GE opens ‘mission control for trains’ in Fort Worth, Texas

May 25, 2017 5:20 PM

FORT WORTH

General Electric, which builds railroad locomotives west of the Texas Motor Speedway, has opened a “mission control” center in far north Fort Worth to digitally track the performance of 17,000 vehicles worldwide.

GE on Thursday publicly unveiled the new facility, known as the Global Performance Optimization Center, which is located in an otherwise nondescript office building near Interstate 35W and Heritage Trace Parkway. The center is just a few miles south of the sprawling GE Manufacturing Solutions plant, where an average of nine to 10 locomotives have been built per week since it opened about four years ago.

The new center is the latest step as GE aims to keep pace with a digital revolution taking place in manufacturing industries such as railroading, with more heavy machines being equipped with artificial intelligence. Modern locomotives are outfitted with about 250 sensors, which provide real-time data that makes it possible for GE workers to troubleshoot mechanical problems before they cause delays in freight shipments.

Most problems — everything from water leaks in the engine to electrical issues — can be diagnosed while trains are crossing the country and fixed when the locomotive gets to its next scheduled stop. Often, the crew operating the train doesn’t even know a problem has been identified by the computer programs.

Using data from sensors to diagnose mechanical problems has been a common practice since about 2000, but the technology has dramatically improved in the past couple of years, said Jim Hilderhoff, GE Transportation’s global commercial leader.

“This is the culmination of a couple of decades of work to improve the use of technology and speed up communications,” he said.

Around the clock

The mission control center in Fort Worth will monitor about 2.5 million pieces of data coming in per day, he said. About three to four workers are on duty at any given time, and the office is staffed around the clock.

On one wall, workers can view a map of the world, with color-coded squares showing the location of every active GE locomotive. Workers also have individual stations where they can review thousands of pieces of data coming in every 15 minutes.

Similar GE facilities already are open in Erie, Pa., as well as in Brazil and Kazakhstan, GE officials said. The three facilities share the same data and, once a problem is identified, mutually decide which center should be responsible for putting together a detailed trouble-shooting guide sent to railroads so the repairs can be made.

One of GE’s biggest customers is Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway, which operates about 5,300 locomotives, said Bruno Soto, BNSF’s general director for locomotive maintenance and reliability. Of those, about 4,500 locomotives are made by GE, including about 3,500 machines that have the sensor technology needed to send data to the Global Performance Optimization Center.

Slump-busting

The high-tech approach comes as railroads struggle to make the most efficient use of their locomotives, as they work through a two-year-plus slump in freight rail shipping that has led to layoffs and other financial cutbacks.

Last year, Fort Worth-based BNSF furloughed about 4,600 employees nationwide, about 10 percent of its workforce. BNSF is part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, which is based in Omaha, Neb.

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Star-Telegram/Domingo Ramirez Jr. ramirez@star-telegram.com

Company officials mostly blamed declines in the energy sector.

Despite BNSF’s reductions, the company pressed on with a $4.3 billion capital plan that included locomotive purchases. Those purchases were part of agreements signed in years past, when freight shipping was booming.

GE Manufacturing Solutions also felt the rail industry’s slump. In February, the company laid off about 250 hourly and salaried employees at its Fort Worth plant, a little less than a third of its workforce.

Today, just over 600 employees remain in Fort Worth, spokesman Tim Bader said.

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796, @gdickson

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