What began as an effort to free up our Dispatching Team, has evolved into a new system that addresses hours of service reporting and will lead to future technological developments as well. In June of 2018, Watco updated the dispatching software with a new system that allowed for more flexibility in enhancing the features. One thing that was pointed out during the conversion was that the dispatchers spent a significant amount of time on the phone providing bulletins and verifying crew activity.

SVP of Operations Steve Coomes said, “We had the option of hiring additional dispatchers to handle the call volume or find a way to use the features in the new system to track that information and free up our dispatchers to better utilize their time.”

Most locations are already using a tablet or laptop to sign in, so it was just a matter of getting the devices to communicate and provide the needed information to the crews and dispatch.

“Once we started collecting that information, we were only a few steps away from having an hours of service (HOS) tracking system. One thing morphed into another, and the Crew Connect application was developed,” said Coomes. “The HOS information is used to meet Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) regulations, and it’s mandated that records be kept for two years. Utilizing this system creates efficiencies, and cuts back on paper and the file cabinets needed to store massive volumes of paperwork. By collecting the information electronically, we can use the data for research and reporting purposes as well.”

Watco IT developers and programmers worked with several team members like Coomes and Brad Walker, director of safety, and the pilot railroad crews to build a working system. Crews from the South Kansas and Oklahoma (SKOL) Pittsburg, Kanawha River (KNWA), Pecos Valley Southern (PVS), Texas & New Mexico (TXN), and Lubbock & Western (LBWR) participated in the testing. Currently, across Watco, crews use handwritten HOS (Hours of Service) and Time and Delay sheets that report the hours and work the team did during that shift. This information is then faxed to administrative assistants or kept for record-keeping. That information is then put in spreadsheet format to report to the FRA or operations. This process is time-consuming and has caused delays and issues because of problems such as not being able to read the writing, incorrect math, or missing information. To improve this process, the current system, Light Switch, that crews use to go on duty and print bulletins, has been integrated with Crew Connect. The team member will need to log into only one system to go on or off duty and manage their HOS. General managers and trainmasters will be able to view their roads as a whole, based on the dashboard. Managers can also see, per team member, where they stand against the maximum works hours of 276. As a team member approaches 276 hours, a green light in the system will turn to yellow at 200 hours, and it sends out a notification to managers. The light will then turn red at 250 hours, signifying they have limited hours left to work in the month.

LBWR, TXN, and PVS General Manager Todd Trammell said, “While the system is still in its infancy and we are still fine-tuning it, I love it. I’ve been asking for something like this since I’ve been a part of the short line industry because it is so beneficial to everyone who uses it. The system is more accurate and quicker than the paper method of recording hours. It also frees up the administrative assistants so they don’t have to spend their time tracking down team members and filling out sheets to comply with FRA rules.”

Team members now have access to view all their time cards on one screen to see what the month is reporting for HOS, consecutive days, and even behest time like training. Watco Go Teamers benefit from the system because they can see their HOS on the same screen regardless of the railroads they have worked on because everything is calculated under their name by month.

With standardizing the time and delay activities, teams now can report on activities. Examples are delays at interchange when we are held out of yards, which is currently managed by documenting the information in spreadsheets. By using Crew Connect, crews will be able to add an activity with a time frame and add remarks relating to the issues. Monthly reporting will then be available to provide documentation to counterparts and potentially improve traffic flow.

As the system is implemented on all the lines, Coomes sees several benefits in the future. “The system is going to help us in the area of crew calling,” said Coomes. “We can identify crews that are available, who’s rested, and who’s available for immediate needs. It will simplify the entire process and make everything more efficient.”

Because the system was built and supported by Watco Team Members, there are unlimited opportunities to improve and grow the capabilities of Crew Connect. The team members who have utilized the system have already come up with a long wish list for future enhancements. One item will be to get Crew Connect to “talk” to the payroll system, Kronos, and remove the additional steps of clocking in and out. Adding a locomotive inspection sheet to report and feed to eMaint is another feature that has been requested.

In order to stay compliant, team members met with the FRA in Dallas to review the system and received positive remarks about the new software they had designed. From the meeting, they were able to create access to any FRA agent needing to review time cards and determine how they will access and search the system.

Rebekah Garner, enterprise application support specialist, said, “We want to thank all the crew members that have been working on the pilot with us. During this time, they are doing dual reporting through paperwork and the system. By using their feedback, we are able to put fixes and improvements into the system for the remaining roads that will be using the system. They have been a big factor in the success of the application.”