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What Do Amazon & the Rail Industry Have in Common?

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Q&A with Lynden Tennison, Chief Strategy Officer, Union Pacific

With 26 years in the industry under his belt, Union Pacific’s Lynden Tennison has had a front row seat to the U.S. freight rail industry’s technological evolution. He served as Union Pacific’s Chief Information Officer for 13 years and most recently was promoted to Chief Strategy Officer.

“It’s like night and day,” he says. “Back then it was traditional big iron mainframes. Today, we look a whole lot more like a dot com.”

From their headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska, Union Pacific recruits the brightest in the tech field, from data scientists to programmers and artificial intelligence experts. Where is all that brain power going? Into all aspects of freight rail technology, Tennison says. From the creation of new mobile apps to analyzing huge amounts of data.

We sat down with Tennison to talk tech and get an inside perspective on how a centuries-old industry is using it to maintain its edge in today’s fast-paced — and increasingly automated — economy.

What has been one of your biggest challenges as CIO?

Number one — the biggest challenge — was showing up on a college campus to recruit tech talent. People think of railroads as an old-school, industrial economy type of company. We had to work hard to get past that. One of the biggest successes we had was with our college internship program. We would bring in students for 10 weeks and expose them to the advanced R&D we were working on — advanced visioning systems, patented sensor technology. Suddenly their eyes were opened, and they realized this really is a tech company inside an industrial giant. After we introduced the internship program, our offer acceptance rate at a top tier school went from 20% to 85%. It had a huge impact on our ability to attract talent.

What trends in rail tech are you most excited about?

I’m very excited about what’s possible in the areas of sensors and Big Data analytics. Sensor technology is becoming increasingly more cost-effective, allowing us to deploy a greater number of sensors across our network to collect more information about the health of our equipment. Monitoring our assets like this helps us drive greater efficiency through improved inspection processes and preventative maintenance. As the volume of data grows, our advanced analytics software will be able to uncover more and more patterns and trends in near real time. Ultimately, this will do a lot to drive safety and velocity on our network while improving customer satisfaction and service.

I’m also excited about mobile apps. We’ve all become accustomed to the Amazons of the world … that we’ll receive our package tomorrow or even today. We want our customers to have the same type of experience. Currently, we’re working on a project that leverages machine learning technology to enhance estimated time of arrivals for customers.

What is one of your greatest tech successes?

Our work with infrared heat sensors is probably one of our greatest success stories. These sensors are positioned along the track and alarm train engineers if a wheel bearing is too hot — something that could lead to a derailment. But, we wanted to know before the bearing was near failure. So, we wired up all these detectors and aggregated the readings from them into a central database where we could analyze them with deep analytics and identify trends and inflection points. From this, we created an artificial intelligence system that could tell us if a bearing was headed for an inflection point, allowing us to schedule a repair before we hit it. This system has reduced our bearing-caused derailments by more than 80% — a huge safety achievement.