Managing Technology: Nine Misconceptions

A significant part of my multi-decade railroad (now post-retirement consulting) career has involved managing or participating in many technology experiments and “first-customer launches” of new locomotive models. 

The “experiments,” which had varying degrees of success, included improving wet-weather adhesion of high-adhesion six-axle units in the 1990s; operating the first 150-car Western coal trains with end-of-train units controlled by Locotrol™ (now known as Distributed Power); equipping the first non-turbocharged switcher with Diesel Particulate Filters and road units with exhaust aftertreatment, well before Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations would have required DPFs or aftertreatment on locomotives; and creating the first turbocharged road units equipped with Exhaust Gas Recirculation to reduce oxides of nitrogen (NOx) before EGR became the technology choice of most locomotive builders for achieving EPA Tier 4 emissions.

Green Goat™ diesel-battery hybrid switcher

The “new locomotive launches” (first customer railroad) included the first EMD GP50s; the first GE Dash-9s; the first GE AC4400s in Western coal service; two models of 6,000-hp units (GE’s AC6000CW and EMD’s SD90MAC); the largest fleet of Green Goat™ diesel-battery hybrid switchers; development of the first and largest fleet of Genset multi-engine switchers meeting EPA Tiers 2, 3 and 4; the first single-diesel-engine Tier 4 switchers from multiple manufacturers; and now a new zero-emissions battery-electric switcher. 

The list of “new technology projects” includes integrating LOCOTROL™ and electronic air brakes; identifying braking deficiencies with the earliest double-stack container cars; effectively using remote locomotive diagnostics; field testing Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes; developing and implementing networked trackside detectors to statistically predict roller bearing failures before they could overheat; installing Positive Train Control (PTC) on locomotives when PTC itself, overall, was still a “work in progress.”

I don’t have space here to detail each and every locomotive, project or technology attempt, but the outcomes ranged from “very successful” to “troublesome” to “not good,” which sounds like a random distribution of outcomes. But I’ve learned over time that randomness was not at play; that some new locomotive models and new technologies could and should have been managed differently (or, unfortunately, maybe not even started). Here is a quotation from 72 years ago that can describe the mixed outcome of those projects: 

“The road of discovery, in whatever field, can always be recognized by the ‘bleached bones’ of those who failed to make the grade, for it takes not only courage, but extraordinary endurance to sustain the voyager.”

Based on that statement, “courage and endurance” are important attributes in managing new technologies, and new locomotives. But is that all you need? In my opinion, no. 

The comment above was made in 1949 by Lisle F. Small, Director of Research, Lima-Hamilton Company. A former Navy propulsion engineering officer, Small was leading Lima-Hamilton’s effort to surpass diesel-electric locomotive developments by bigger diesel locomotive builders by transitioning to gas turbine-electric locomotives using a free-piston gasifier (a crankshaft-less engine with dual-acting pistons) to produce combustion gas for the turbine. Lima-Hamilton was the smallest U.S. locomotive builder, and it survived only two-plus years after Small wrote his paper (having built only 174 diesel-electric locomotives and none with free piston gasifiers by Sept. 11, 1951). 

Too often, those of us charged with finding, exploring, recommending and obtaining approval to spend corporate funds and implementing “new locomotives” (and/or new technologies) may find ourselves deep into heavily and repeatedly modifying (and sometimes dismantling and disposing of) “unsuccessful” locomotives or technologies. 

There are many contributory reasons for such failures. I’m going to provide you with nine, drawing upon the experience of the former staff executive for corporate technology planning at General Electric in the 1980s, Lowell W. Steele. He first wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review in 1983 and later published a book, Managing Technology (1989, McGraw-Hill), that defined nine managerial misconceptions about technological change that often damage attempts to adopt and use new technology. 

Following are summaries of Steele’s nine misconceptions and the corresponding “realities,” along with some locomotive and railroad technology examples.

MISCONCEPTION 1: “BEST POSSIBLE” DETERMINES THE CHOICE OF ANY TECHNOLOGY

The reality is that choosing “what is good enough” will always greatly reduce risk. 

People involved with creating technologies can “fall in love” with something new that actually may have little or no real value to the customer, the ultimate user. A locomotive builder once offered my railroad “more dynamic braking effort” on new AC locomotives. We declined the “enhancement” because additional DB effort was only marginally useful, as maximum dynamic braking force is limited by operating rules to avoid excessive buff forces that can lead to derailments. 

Generally speaking, what is “good enough”? Only the ultimate customer (the end user) can determine that. Therefore, as both technology managers and technology customers, we must persistently ask, “Do I really need this ‘best possible’ feature or level of performance, complexity or newness?”

Government agencies often provide financial incentives (grants, etc.) for “new technology solutions,” but with accelerated schedules that assume “success will come quickly.”

MISCONCEPTION 2: TECHNOLOGY IS ALWAYS CHOSEN AFTER RATIONAL ANALYSIS

The reality is that any successful technology is always determined largely by “industry convention” and limited by past practice.

Why did North American railroads lag their European counterparts in embracing AC traction? The North American railroads originally saw AC traction as being simply a lower-cost, less-failure-prone motor technology, compared with the legacy DC traction motors. Reduced motor maintenance by itself, however, would produce a dismal return on investment for an AC locomotive likely to cost more up front. The decisive tipping point for AC traction was asking, “Can we haul more tonnage and thus earn more revenue with lower locomotive fuel and maintenance costs with fewer AC locomotives?”

MISCONCEPTION 3: TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES OR DISCOVERIES USUALLY GET ADOPTED, EVENTUALLY

The reality is that most “new” technologies never succeed, and in fact they should not succeed.

A railroad designed, built and briefly tested an experimental “all battery” switcher, claiming it to be “the world’s first.” The experimental locomotive was then redesigned and rebuilt and never succeeded. In reality, 126 battery locomotives were previously built and operated on standard gauge railroads in the U.S. between 1920 and 2014 (compared with more than 140,000 diesel-electric locomotives). Were all “lessons to be learned” about propulsion batteries recognized and understood before launching this locomotive?

MISCONCEPTION 4: THE ORIGINAL “DISCOVERY” IS THE BIGGEST HURDLE, AND “DOWNSTREAM EFFORT” WILL ULTIMATELY BRING SUCCESS

The reality is that we usually know little about new technologies, and a lot of time, money and effort will be required to overcome the inevitable negative factors.

Electronic fuel injection (EFI) was introduced on locomotive engines in the 1990s to improve fuel consumption and reduce exhaust emissions. The two major manufacturers as well as many railroad customers had major “learning curve” experiences with EFI. One manufacturer chose a quickly “upscaled” version of an automotive EFI system; the other an EFI from an offshore supplier. Railroads and the builders learned much about maintaining EFI in the first decade of operation. 

Similarly, some railroads generally expected they could maintain ultra-low-emission multi-engine Genset switchers equipped with “fussier” high-speed truck-derivative diesel engines similar to maintaining older locomotives. GP38-2s (manufactured between 1972 and 1986) and similar locomotives may be “bullet proof” and easily maintained, but their exhaust emissions and fuel efficiency continue to be debated.

MISCONCEPTION 5: NEW TECHNOLOGIES HAVE INTRINSIC VALUE

The reality is that only the customer—for example, locomotive users such as a railroad’s transportation department in combination with mechanical and marketing—can determine the true value of a new locomotive or technology. 

One locomotive builder worked for a decade-plus to develop its own diesel locomotive engine while also persistently believing that gas turbines would ultimately become the dominant locomotive power plant. Turbines never got a foothold.

MISCONCEPTION 6: RADICALLY NEW ADVANCES IN TECHNOLOGY WILL PREVAIL

The reality is that new is not necessarily better. 

In the late 1960s, Rolls-Royce in the U.K. designed the RB211 high-bypass fan jet engine, and Lockheed designed the L1011 triple-engine wide-body airliner around that engine. Rolls Royce chose lightweight composite carbon fiber as the material for the engine’s massive fan blades, but discovered late in the program that the blades would shatter during the “bird strike” test (chicken carcasses shot into the engine from an air cannon). This delayed RB211 engine production; set Lockheed’s airliner project behind schedule, pushing it into the number three market position behind Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas; and ultimately led to Rolls-Royce going bankrupt. The RB211 engine family ultimately became successful (ironically powering Boeing 757s), but only after great engineering, economic and commercial turmoil.

In our industry, gauge-face and top-of-rail lubrication to reduce rolling resistance and improve fuel efficiency has been in existence for decades (one industry researcher devoted most of his career to it), but the industry continues seeking improvements—which is desirable—and eliminating some performance and maintenance issues. 

MISCONCEPTION 7: A NEW TECHNOLOGY’S SUCCESS IS DETERMINED BY ITS UTILITY, POWER OR UNIQUENESS

The reality is that infrastructure—or, more often, the lack of it—will determine success or failure.

Currently, major attention is being given to hydrogen fuel cell and all-battery locomotives to decarbonize railroads. Very little if any discussion is addressing their unique infrastructure demands.

Hydrogen today is “manufactured” using steam-methane reforming, a process using natural gas as the energy input. While “clean” hydrogen is produced, the process itself releases large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas contributing to climate change. To allow fuel cell locomotives to be truly “zero carbon” will require large production facilities to produce “green hydrogen,” such as hydrolysis powered by all-renewable electricity; or “blue hydrogen” using carbon capture and sequestration technologies still in development. And hydrogen as a locomotive energy source will have to be carried, onboard or in “energy tenders,” as either a cryogenic liquid (as the second-coldest substance on earth) or a high-pressure gas. Both approaches are possible. But this points to the need to design, develop, fund and install a large-scale hydrogen infrastructure for railroads. 

Similarly, large all-battery electric locomotives will require massive recharging systems that don’t exist today to be time-competitive with refueling a road locomotive with 5,000 U.S. gallons of fuel in only 15 minutes.

MISCONCEPTION 8: A TECHNOLOGY’S PROGRESS COMES LARGELY FROM IMPROVING PERFORMANCE

The reality is that progress requires standards, constraints and a state of normalcy (“routine”). 

In a highly regulated industry like railroading, this requires expeditious establishment of industry standards and government regulations enabling rapid commercialization. And a “state of normalcy” can often be at odds with how railroaders think and behave. Two examples come to mind. 

• Locotrol™ (the earliest predecessor of today’s Distributed Power) largely languished for 30 years from inception in the 1960s until the mid-1990s. Why? Most railroads lacked vision about using the technology, so “normalcy and routine” prevailed. 

• ECP brakes were first tested in the 1990s, but the industry (railroads, suppliers and car owners) had no clear and cohesive economic reason to invest in ECP. The FRA’s Brake System Safety Standards (regulations in 49 CFR 232) were not changed to reflect ECP’s technical advantage over conventional air braking until late 2008—18 years into the effort—when train air brake inspection intervals were increased from 1,000 or 1,500 miles to 3,500 miles for trains equipped with ECP brakes. But even then, ECP never gained a foothold in North America. Why? The PTC mandate was passed by Congress the very same day that the longer inspection distance was allowed for ECP brakes. Guess where investments (billions of dollars) were made. And PTC itself rapidly went far over budget and years behind schedule.

MISCONCEPTION 9: ANY NEW TECHNOLOGY CAN SIMPLY BE GRAFTED ONTO OR INTO AN EXISTING BUSINESS

The reality is that any new product or technology must be created simultaneously with changes to an existing business system or creation of an entirely new business system. 

Lowell Steele cites dieselization of U.S. railroads (1940-1960) as an example of this paradox. Diesel-electric locomotives were more complex and involved new technologies for railroads, such as diesel engines and extensive reliance on electrical generators and motors. Railroads inefficiently attempted to inspect, repair and maintain diesel locomotives inside shops built for steam locomotives. And railroad labor forces had to be retrained or hired along with diesel-specific tools and procedures. In fact, entire shop crafts such as boilermakers were eventually eliminated.

Another example involved the introduction of AC traction to Western coal trains in the U.S. in the early 1990s. While three AC locomotives could replace four or five older DC locomotives pulling 115-car coal trains, the trains themselves could not be lengthened (to haul more coal at lower cost) because more AC locomotives (with more tractive effort) would break coupler knuckles at the front of longer and heavier coal trains. 

The real advantage of AC locomotives came about only by combining AC traction with Distributed Power, placing the additional AC locomotive unit(s) at the rear end or at mid-train, to reduce coupler forces. And infrastructure also had to be improved: longer loading tracks at coal mines, longer unloading tracks at power plants, and longer main line passing sidings to accommodate coal trains up to 140 cars long as compared with the traditional 115 cars. The business of moving coal involved infrastructure owned by three industries: mining, railroad and power generation. Locomotive technologies, train operations, marketing and customer relationships all had to be changed.

I find Misconception 9 to be prominently present in many media reports and commercial presentations about hydrogen fuel cell and battery-electric locomotives. Zero-carbon and zero-emission locomotives involve and require much more than just the hardware above the wheels. Remember the new shops, skills and tooling required after World War II for diesel locomotives? Diesel locomotive shops are generally not “white glove” workplaces. The recent introduction of “High Pressure Common Rail” fuel injection systems on EPA Tier 3 and Tier 4 locomotives has forced railroads and their shop people to treat HPCR components almost like crankshaft bearings, with strict requirements for lint-free work towels and a near-total absence of airborne dirt that can cause high-pressure fuel leaks on microscopically polished pipe seals. Hydrogen fuel cells are very precise and clean devices, extremely intolerant of contaminants such as dirt, oils, and even ordinary tap water containing dissolved minerals. How about lint-free white gloves?

The use of highly flammable hydrogen will also require future fuel cell locomotives to be maintained differently than diesel locomotives. Various codes and standards must be followed.

For example, garages servicing gas-fueled motor vehicles are required to be equipped with sparkless electrical switches and motors and ceiling heaters without open flames are prohibited from having “hot welding” (imagine a locomotive shop without torches!) and must have improved rates of ventilation (faster turnover of a building’s internal air) to minimize the risk of explosions, damage and injury in the event of igniting gaseous fuels mixed with air. Shops for hydrogen fuel cell locomotives will be similar. In addition to improved ventilation, shops may have to be modified with blowout panels in exterior walls to prevent accidental gas ignition from collapsing walls. I’m not saying that hydrogen cannot be a safe energy source for locomotives; it does, however, have more critical safety requirements than even natural gas. Several U.S. and Canadian railroads learned much of this from their research programs with liquefied natural gas (LNG) and dual-fuel diesel locomotives.

An expanded discussion of “dissatisfaction” with new locomotives and their technologies will be the topic of a presentation at the October 2021 conference in Texas of the Locomotive Maintenance Officers Association (LMOA).

Take heed of Steele’s misconceptions and realities about technological change. Massive investments in new locomotives and their technologies (and sometimes even personal careers) can encounter significant but usually avoidable headwinds.

Have plenty of courage and endurance. But avoid those misconceptions.

REFERENCES

  • Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) technical paper 490082, “Free Piston Gas Generator Brightens Gas Turbine Future,” June 1949.
  • American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) technical paper JRC2014-3805, “Battery Storage of Propulsion Energy for Locomotives,” 2014.
  • ASME technical paper JRC2021-1030,  “Battery Electric Locomotives & Battery Tenders: Operational & infrastructure Challenges to Widespread Adoption,” 2021.
  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard Number 2, “Hydrogen Technology Code.”
  • ASME technical paper RTDF2012-9409, “Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) as a Freight Railroad Fuel: Perspective from a Western U.S. Railroad,” 2012.

Michael Iden, P.E., was General Director, Car and Locomotive Engineering for Union Pacific, serving as the lead technical representative in locomotive emissions issues. Previously he was employed by the Southern Railway System, the Electro- Motive Division of General Motors and the Chicago & North Western Transportation Company. Iden has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering and a Master of Management degree from Northwestern University, which he attended on a General Motors fellowship. He is a registered professional engineer in several states, and a federally licensed locomotive engineer. Iden’s work at Union Pacific included, among many programs, leading the team that developed the Genset switching locomotive. Iden also lead UP’s experimental efforts with retrofitting the first U.S. switcher with diesel particulate filters, and retrofitting the first older line-haul locomotive with an oxidation catalyst. Iden served on several technical committees of the Association of American Railroads (AAR), and was chairman of three committees: the Locomotive Committee, the Technology Scanning Committee, and the Coupling Systems and Truck Castings Committee. He was awarded the AAR’s 2012 John H. Chafee Environmental Excellence Award.

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