Computer Engineering

Intelligence for the railways

System organizes railways and reduces by 18% the time trains spend at shunting yards

eduardo cesarA software program developed by CFlex, a company from Campinas, is leading to an efficiency shake-up at Brazil’s precarious railway system. Acquired by most of the country’s railways carriers, the CFlexTrains computer system is able to reduce by up to 18% the time the trains remain in yards to cross or overtake another train. As is common knowledge, most of the Brazilian railway tracks are one-way, allowing only one train to cross at a time. As a result, many trains are obliged to wait for the right time to proceed on the tracks at the crossing. The CFlex system provides a screen with  charts of the current and future positions of trains, within a specific period of time, and organizes a schedule for several trains to use the tracks during the scheduled period, ensuring the safety of the trip and reducing the waiting time to a minimum.

However, this is not the most complex task that the CFlexTrains accomplishes. If the operator, for example, wants to intervene and establish that a specific train has priority, the system is able to instantly re-schedule the trip. If a locomotive breaks down, which is something that happens frequently, the re-scheduling is immediately carried out by the software. The program can constantly re-schedule the use of the railway line according to the operator’s needs. “This is a tool that helps the user make the proper decision,” says 34-year old computer engineer Rodrigo Almeida Gonçalves, one of the CFlex founders.

To have an idea of the magnitude of this innovative product’s impact, until some time ago the decision on which train would be the first to go on the railway tracks and which trains would wait for clearance was totally manual. The decision was made by a solitary railway controller. In practice, only immediate problems were taken into account. If several trains had to share the same railway track at the same time, the decision was taken at that moment, without taking into account the problems that such a decision would cause two or three hours later – when new bottlenecks would have to be dealt with. “Whenever someone made a mistake, it was sometimes necessary for the train to back up for dozens of kilometers, causing huge losses,” says Gonçalves. “Very often the operator would get fired when this sort of thing happened. And his work colleagues, fearing the same fate, would spend a lot of time making conservative decisions, which added to delays on the lines,” he adds.

eduardo cesarCFlexTrains focuses on the medium term. It is equipped with two intelligent agents. One, on a local level, plans the use of the railway tracks for the next hours. The other agent acts concurrently. It tries to predict blockages on the railway, caused by crossing and overtaking trains, and anticipates solutions for this. When a problem occurs, the two agents conduct a dialogue and present, in a millionth of a second, the best possible solution, based on previous calculations. The distinctive feature is that the equipment provides solutions in real time. Other systems were developed to organize the use of the railway tracks, but it took them a while to provide the answers.

Agreement with Companhia Vale
The technology and the labor used by CFlex come from the academic community and the company still maintains this link. In the late nineties, the Companhia Vale do Rio Doce mining company asked Fernando Gomide, Rafael Mendes and Luís Gimeno Latre, professors at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), to develop software to help plan the movement of trains around the company’s railway network. The project was carried out and was the inspiration for Rodrigo Gonçalves’ doctoral thesis on the problem related to scheduling the work of the locomotive engineers. Concurrently, Magali Rondon González, a master’s degree student, is conducting research into the use of intelligent systems for railway transportation. The agreement with Vale was not extended after the company was privatized, but Unicamp maintained its investments in this line of research. The result was the creation of CFlex, whose partners are the former students Rodrigo and Magali. The company was created in 1996 and named Softel, as part of Project Softex 2000. The name was changed later on to portray its current line of business. In 2004, Luís Elesbão de Oliveira Neto, a former Ferronorte director, joined CFlex as a partner. From then on, the company decided to invest in the improvement of the CFlexTrains system, supported by FAPESP, by means of the Technological Innovation for Small Companies Program (Pipe). The partners have already managed to sell the system to  major railroads. The most recent sale was to América Latina Logística (ALL), which will implement the technology in railways in Argentina. In addition to ALL, the system is also being used by Companhia Ferroviária do Nordeste and is being implemented at Ferrovia Centro-Atlântica and Estrada de Ferro Vitória-Minas.

Today, in addition to CFlexTrains, the company sells software that organizes logistics for mining companies and ports. It has also developed a program for a formula that blends fat and oils for the food industry, blending raw materials of different kinds and sources without changing the quality of the end product. CFlex has 24 employees, most of whom work in research and development. As some of them are still at the university, involved with papers and theses, the company offers a flexi- time system. Nevertheless, to ensure that clients’ needs will be properly met, the company created a software programs for in-house use that manages employees’ agendas, establishes goals and schedules meetings. “The ties with the university are vital for the company, but the world will not wait for us to finish our studies,” says Rodrigo Gonçalves.

The Project
Supervision: System for the support of railway logistics and operations (nº 04/02901-6); Modality Technological Innovation Program for Small Businesses; Coordinator Rodrigo Almeida Gonçalves – CFlex; Investment R$ 86,249.16 (Fapesp)