I’d like everyone to meet FRED:

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A FRED is a flashing rear-end device or an end-of-train device. The evolution of the FRED replaced the caboose. The FRED serves as the perfect example of coming-out-of-nowhere automation.

Prior to the FRED, trains on hauls going outside a rail yard had a caboose. You could think of the caboose a bit like a hotel. Just like a hotel, the caboose had costs and logistics tied to keeping it running. They were not cheap to maintain. You had to keep them heated (stoves/fuel), provide water, and accommodate living areas. As you can probably imagine, the railroad workers operated in harsh conditions, hence ongoing maintenance was necessary to keep them physically livable and safe.

Automation’s Cost Benefit Appeal

The costs of a caboose were not trivial. Two employees worked in the caboose, a conductor and a rear brakeman. Those workers got health benefits, pension and had other associated costs, just like any other employee. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has very strict limits on how long employees can work and how long they must be off shift and not working. For workers stationed in the caboose, these rules added safety but also added head count, which impacted the railroad’s operating ratio, or cost of doing business. In the end, this was a prime situation for a cost benefit analysis compared to something that could automate the work of the caboose.

There was an idea to replace the caboose with a FRED, and in a short period it evolved into a smarter sensor. Somewhat like an Internet of Things object, the FRED broadcasts operating data to the locomotive up front. A FRED can report on air brake pressure, report on loss of pressure, a train breaking in half, or report when the mile-long end of a train passed a certain point in the tracks so the engineer knows the train is clear to speed up. The ease and accuracy alone increased safety by removing human error in those series of checks. You could validate the value of a FRED by tacking it on a caboose and confirming who performed better – the human or the device – and the data did not lie. You could compare the ability of the FRED to service the train much like you can compare the times and consistency of automation serving up virtual machines to customers.

Change Happens Quick

Once the smart FRED was approved by the FRA, the caboose became obsolete. As someone who grew up in a railroad family, this really felt like it happened overnight. Employees of the railroad were up in arms about the FRED’s automation that “could not possibly do what they did.” The problem was the FRED did do their job, without sleep and with a much lower error rate, without a wood stove, without water – and it continuously reports in. Could a FRED report if a car ahead of it was attached but tipped over? No, it could not, but the history of caboose workers paying attention to report on issues like that did not have a great track record either. The industry changed, and it has not looked back.

Today, every train in the long haul freight business relies on FREDs. FREDs automated a series of jobs, and the railroads were quick to take up the technology. In what felt like an overnight experience for conductors and rear brakeman, many did not want a new job, they wanted their old job – and that job was gone. With little warning and little chance of a job change, a series of layoffs swept the industry after the introduction of FREDs.

Data Center Parallels

Thankfully, the embrace of orchestration and automation in the data center, while happening fast, is not making change at the breakneck speed of FREDS in the 1980s. The FRED is a great example where technology pops up and the “can only be done my way” attitude toward a job really gets challenged. IT workers can make the transition, but it will not be without culture, technology and process changes that will make automation accessible. The FREDs within the data center today are docker containers, PaaS, continuous improvement, hyperconverged infrastructure, among others. These are real opportunity technologies for IT, but the small window to make the change is a linked interplay of time and people’s ability and willingness to adapt.

Is your IT staff the next generation of rear brakemen or conductors? Is “not possible to automate my job” a phrase they utter? If so, it might be worth telling them about how the FRED changed railroading.

Learn about how a software-defined data center can boost automation in the data center.

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