UNION PACIFIC has learned that reporting a bad-order locomotive can be relatively easy. However, finding and fixing the problem efficiently and getting the loco back on the road can be another matter.

To this end, the railroad has formed Reliability Teams at each of its 13 major locomotive repair shops strategically located across its 52 300 route-km network. The concept, trialled about three years ago, sees each team member provided with a range of diagnostic tools. Their role is to keep the fleet of around 8 500 locos fit and healthy and reduce the number of units sitting in the shops awaiting repair.

Although based at the repair shops, the team members fan out to cover all the railway's main terminal facilities. Every loco arriving at a servicing point gets a quick diagnostic inspection, whether a crew has reported a problem or not. Locos that are obviously ailing are repaired, or sidelined for workshop attention if the problem is severe. The others get an electronic check, and their operating data is downloaded, helping to build up a database that will identify otherwise-undetectable problems that might eventually lead to a failure on the road.

According to UP's Mechanical Superintendent, Locomotives, John Estes, 'it's all about running lean'. One result of introducing the teams has been a reduction in shop cycle time. 'What we do differently from other railroads, is take downloads from every locomotive and upload them into our mainframe. That helps us to identify the repairs that need to be made.'

Prior to the forming of the Reliability Teams, Estes explains, many locomotives that might need work would come into a servicing area, but the local staff would have no knowledge of what might, or might not, be wrong. A loco which might sound and seem to be working properly, would be assigned to a train, rather than getting the attention it needed.

'Today, our workers have tools we didn't use to have. They get feedback on the accuracy of their repairs, and with the diagnostic system, they can learn if something they had fixed failed again.'

Reliability Team members are provided with Internet-connected laptops able to connect with UP's main fleet database, and other diagnostic tools to guide them through the maze of onboard electronic components, especially when looking for an intermittent problem. Using the laptop, they can study the fault logs for a particular locomotive and find when a specific part or system last had a problem.

Estes says the concept started out as a way to get the locomotive servicing staff at each terminal involved in improving fleet reliability, which at the same time meant fewer units in the shop. Getting the right people looking at the locomotives, producing accurate work orders, meant that ailing locos could be repaired and put back into traffic faster.

'Our philosophy', he concludes 'is that the people who do the work are the best ones to improve the work.'

  • CAPTION: Reliability Team in action. Foreman Sonny Lunde and machinist-technician Tony Oberding inspect a newly-arrived loco at UP's Roseville yard in California?Photos: David Lustig