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General Electric | A superbrain for trains

The following was adapted from the original version on Handelsblatt.com.

When locomotives are being controlled by computers, they operate more efficiently. Jamie Miller, CEO of GE Transportation, focuses on digital applications.

By Thomas Jahn, New York

She is one of the few women in the railway and traffic engineering industry: Jamie Miller, head of the transportation unit at US conglomerate General Electric. The 48-year-old executive is arriving from the US to attend the railway technology fair InnoTrans, which starts tomorrow in Berlin, and personally attract new customers.

This is no simple task in the ailing industry. In North America, for instance, the market has seen a flood of locomotives over the last few years. At the same time, demand has been decreasing, not least due to weak commodity prices, she says.

This is reason enough for Miller to take the opportunity in Berlin and focus on customers outside the US. International business operations already account for 70% of the division’s USD5.9bn in revenues.

GE CEO Jeff Immelt certainly had good reason to choose Miller to head the transportation division one year ago. As General Electric’s Chief Information Officer, she was responsible for the conglomerate’s IT segment at the time. By using this expertise, Miller is now to give the transportation unit’s digital business a boost. So far, digital technology revenues in her unit amount to nearly USD500m, but the figure is to double by 2020 and the digital unit is to become a mainstay of the company’s larger global expansion.

Miller’s ambitious plans revolve around GE’s Go Linc system, a sort of “brain for the train”, as she puts it. At the fair, she will announce a “superbrain” for trains – developed in cooperation with chip manufacturer Intel – that is ten- to 15 times faster thanks to the new Intel microprocessor. “With Go Linc, we will make trains smart, we will make them self-aware,” Miller says.

In essence, GE installs an efficient computer system with storage solutions into the train. This is where sensors such as high-definition cameras provide information regarding payload or the state of the tracks. The computer processes data in real time and relays it to the train’s control system. So far, GE has installed the system in more than 6,000 locomotives. It is worth noting that 25% of them are not provided by GE, but by other producers.

Miller intends to push this development. Go Linc is to become a platform, and the train is to be “like an iPhone,” she says. Go Linc’s operating system has been developed in accordance with the standards set by the American Association of Railroads. These standards, Miller explains, are easily applicable to other countries. Railway companies can develop and use their own applications on the platform. “Over time, GE will not exclusively come up with these applications, they will also be devised by our customers,” Miller hopes.

Cruise control determines ideal speed

Similar to Apple, GE certainly wants to sell its own applications on Go Linc as well. These include offers such as the Trip Optimizer, an intelligent cruise control that calculates the ideal speed profile at any given time by considering factors likes weather, payload, or network utilization. The train drives autonomously, the train driver only has to step in during crucial situations.

According to GE, the Trip Optimizer lowers fuel consumption by an average of 10%. This figure is based on experience from GE Transport customers’ train rides covering more than 200 million kilometers. According to the conglomerate, fuel consumption has been cut by nearly 400 million liters.

Miller sold the Movement Planner to two US customers. According to Miller, the system works like an airport tower, determining when a particular train should drive on, or when it has to wait to let another one pass. The average driving speed across the entire network is up by 10%, GE announced, and capacity has increased accordingly. GE will manage roughly half of the rail traffic in North America with the system by the end of 2017.

A few weeks ago, Miller acquired Florida-based Ship-X-press in order to offer digital solutions to industrial customers. The purchasing price has not been disclosed, the company employs a staff of 200. Ship-X-press is to allow GE to expand into another segment on the railway and traffic engineering market: the company develops software that makes it easier to manage loading and shipping goods by rail.

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