Modernizing Railroad Inspections

Tell me about your role as a digital leader.
I’m Paul Whitfield, IT Project Manager at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) which is an operating administration within the Department of Transportation. Our nationwide team enforces and oversees the U.S. railroad safety regulations.

Why did the way railroad inspectors perform their jobs need to be modernized?
Our team of approximately 350 federal inspectors plays a critical role in ensuring railroad tracks, bridges, switches, ties, ballasts and crossing gates operate safely. Our track inspectors had previously been leveraging outdated palm devices and notebooks to gather data on possible defects. To perform their jobs more quickly and efficiently, inspectors needed both modernized hardware and software, including an app-based inspection platform, and rugged computer devices capable of synching with FRA’s legacy back-end database.

Describe the transformation process from concept to solution.
In creating the prototype for the Portable Inspection Reporting Tool (PIRT), it was initially necessary to literally walk the tracks with FRA inspectors in the field to understand how they do their jobs on a daily basis. After understanding and capturing the inspection requirements data, the team got to work and developed the PIRT prototype, a mobile inspection platform that uses a tablet with AI-powered speech recognition, a Bluetooth headset and a mobile app harness to empower inspectors to perform their inspections with voice commands.

What feedback about PIRT did you receive from inspectors in the field?
We rolled out PIRT initially to a pilot group of 30 track inspectors who called the solution a “homerun.” Inspectors reported features like the touch screens tablets, drop-down menus and data auto-population literally cut the time it took to perform their inspections in half. Thus, we are rolling out the next iteration of PIRT to all inspectors across the FRA enterprise writ large and incorporating additional requirements to support inspectors from multiple disciplines.

What’s next for PIRT?
We’re exploring how PIRT can be leveraged as a training device for new inspectors. We’re also at the beginning stages of automating some processes. We’re becoming more sophisticated in the ways we take in data with sensors, drones, video and social media along this nation’s more than 140,000 miles of railroad infrastructure. My vision is to start using machine learning as a “co-inspector for our inspectors,” eventually leveraging data predictively.

How would you describe the DMI team?
From the very beginning, the DMI team got it. We were particularly impressed with how quickly and effectively the team captured inspectors’ requirements during the pilot phase and came up with a PIRT prototype platform that was clean and intuitive in a matter of weeks. The team is super friendly, super flexible and definitely forward-thinking!