by Sean McManus
From his office on the 15th floor of 500 Water Street, the headquarters of CSX Transportation, Chuck Wodehouse describes his vision for a $7.2 billion company that, in the realm of information technology, is a bit of a sleeper, an unexpected pioneer in the incubation, testing and application of some of the most sophisticated computer systems in the world.
Wodehouse is president of CSX Technology, the business unit of CSX Corporation designed to control every computer-based function of the railroad business, from customer service, to dispatching locomotives, to creating state-of-the-art software to network the company’s 100,000 trains and 24,000 rail miles, spanning 23 states and two Canadian provinces.
“Not many people realize that the railroad industry was among the first to utilize computer networking in a major way,” said Wodehouse. “When people think of railroads, they think of slow moving trains that block your way when you’re trying to drive somewhere.“
But the reality of the railroad business is vastly different.
CSX has always had a distinct subsidiary to manage the IT side of the railroad, knowing how critical technology is to the future of its core business. During its major acquisition phase in the 1980s, CSX even contemplated gobbling up technology companies in order to leverage its proprietary innovations.
“What we decided,” said Wodehouse, “is that it’s better to do a few things well than to do a lot of things not well.”
That streamlined corporate philosophy led to a string of profitable sell-offs during the 1990s which included ocean shipping lines, Texas Gas, American Commercial Barge Lines (CSX still owns a 34 percent stake) and TNT Logistics (formerly CTI).
The trend was reversed briefly in 1998 when CSX merged with Conrail.
But throughout the evolution of CSX, the company’s leadership knew that investing in technology would be the only way for the railroad to stay competitive moving into the next century.
The culmination of that foresight is located on the Southside, a data center known inside CSX as “The Bunker,” a high tech hub for around-the-clock support of CSX and the most precise tool Wodehouse has in his mission to make the railroad more profitable.
Cindy Luman, vice president of computer operations for CSX Technology, explained that The Bunker maintains a 99.9 percent “availability” rate when it comes to the 16 billion pieces of information that the computers are analyzing at any given time. The Bunker features the latest IBM mainframes, several hundred NT servers and the latest and most cutting edge web-enabled technology in the service of its biggest client, CSX Transportation.
“We focus on the highest levels of availability, recoverability and survivability,” said Luman from her office in the BellSouth building. “If the computers go down, it starts affecting the trains in less than an hour, so we don’t let that happen. “
CSX has an agreement with IBM stating that in the unlikely event of a shutdown, a remote dispatch crew can have a replica operation running out of a facility near Baltimore before the trains even know the difference.
In other words, there’s really no such thing as a shutdown. And railroad dispatch systems are fail safe. If one train doesn’t receive its instructions, they all stop moving.
“The federal government understands the role that the railroad industry plays in the regular functioning of the U.S.” said Luman. “That’s why the Department of Transportation, the Federal Railroad Administration, and the FBI work in conjunction with CSX Technology to implement some of the most sophisticated security mechanisms available today.”
The Bunker requires multiple levels of security just to mitigate against natural disasters, let alone attacks like the ones that occurred on Sept. 11— a day the facility went on complete lockdown —with nobody being allowed in or out for 24 hours.
Surrounding the building, infrared movement detectors are continuously scanning the perimeter. The entry ways are what Luman refers to as a “mantrap.” The glass is all bulletproof, and lightning detection devices warn of potential strikes. There are two back-up, external electrical generators making sure that every bit of electricity coming into the facility is clean. There is enough food, water and fuel to last 30 days. The Bunker even has its own water treatment facility and reinforced concrete walls encase the building, making sure that it can ride out a Category Four hurricane.
Inside, two redundant communication hubs are encased in additional reinforced concrete and, in preparation for corporate expansion, the walls are scaled to become twice their ordinary size. Mail doesn’t enter the building, it is opened at a remote location. And cars and people that come into The Bunker are searched.
There are different levels of security at The Bunker. In the case of Level 3 protocol, Luman resets every password and every external connection in the building daily. If they go to Level 4, the external crew is dispatched. Currently, Luman said that the protocol they’re operating under is “very serious.”
All of this because CSX and other railroad companies carry goods that are vital not only to the functioning of the economy, but to the security of the nation. According to Luman, the delivery of many of the munitions and ordnances that are critical to the daily operations of government are CSX’s responsibility.
Overseeing the operation is Wodehouse. Rising through the ranks of CSX on the finance side, he was working at CSX’s external auditor, Deloitte & Touche in 1978 when he jumped to CSX. From there, he held various roles in finance, working for CSX Corporation in Richmond as vice president of audit and advisory services, and then back to Jacksonville as comptroller before joining CSX Technology in 1999.
“I was supposed to come in and make the service better and deliver IT more reliably at a lower cost. It’s been a tremendous learning curve. But in the end, I’m still trying to increase the profitability of the railroad.”
To do that, Wodehouse has outlined three goals: first, get rid of the red tape. Second, deploy e-commerce tools to make CSX easier to work with, and third, connect management in a way that converts raw data into meaningful information.
“Truck lines have gained a reputation for being easier to work with,” said Wodehouse. “It’s time for us to play catch up.”
CSX Technology is still improving its website, www.shipcsx.com, which is supposed to make scheduling and price comparisons easier for CSX employees and their clients. And, Wodehouse hopes, the new wave of m (mobile) commerce will usher in a heightened level of communication between trains and dispatchers and management.
Wodehouse said he’s exploring ways to leverage CSX Technology’s capabilities with third parties to capitalize on the unique operations of The Bunker.
“Potentially we could partner with some skyline companies who utilize this kind of technology to make the most out of it,” he said.
The CSX Corporation reported $65 million net revenue in 2001, up from $54 the year before. The railroad accounts for 76 percent of that. The company spends a quarter a billion each year on technology.
But Wodehouse doesn’t want to stop there.
“The future is in the railroad,” he said standing up to go visit his friends at The Bunker. “It’s time to get out there and sell.”