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Rob England: Incident Management at Cherry Valley, Illinois

Home » Practices » Rob England: Incident Management at Cherry Valley, Illinois

It had been raining for days in and around Rockford, Illinois that Friday afternoon in 2009, some of the heaviest rain locals had ever seen. Around 7:30 that night, people in Cherry Valley – a nearby dormitory suburb – began calling various emergency services: the water that had been flooding the road and tracks had broken through the Canadian National railroad’s line, washing away the trackbed.

An hour later, in driving rain, freight train U70691-18 came through the level crossing in Cherry Valley at 36 m.p.h, pulling 114 cars (wagons) mostly full of fuel ethanol – 8 million litres of it – bound for Chicago. Although ten cross-ties (sleepers) dangled in mid air above running water just beyond the crossing, somehow two locomotives and about half the train bounced across the breach before a rail weld fractured and cars began derailing. As the train tore in half the brakes went into emergency stop. 19 ethanol tank-cars derailed, 13 of them breaching and catching fire.

In a future article we will look at the story behind why one person waiting in a car at the Cherry Valley crossing died in the resulting conflagration, 600 homes were evacuated and $7.9M in damages were caused.

Today we will be focused on the rail traffic controller (RTC) who was the on-duty train dispatcher at the CN‘s Southern Operations Control Center in Homewood, Illinois. We won’t be concerned for now with the RTC’s role in the accident: we will talk about that next time. For now, we are interested in what he and his colleagues had to do after the accident.

While firemen battled to prevent the other cars going up in what could have been the mother of all ethanol fires, and paramedics dealt with the dead and injured, and police struggled to evacuate houses and deal with the road traffic chaos – all in torrential rain and widespread surface flooding – the RTC sat in a silent heated office 100 miles away watching computer monitors. All hell was breaking loose there too. Some of the heaviest rail traffic in the world – most of it freight – flows through and around Chicago; and one of the major arteries had just closed.

Back in an earlier article we talked about the services of a railroad. One of the major services is delivering goods, on time. Nobody likes to store materials if they can help it: railroads deliver “just in time”, such as giant ethanol trains, and the “hotshot” trans-continental double-stack container trains with nine locomotives that get rail-fans like me all excited. Some of the goods carried are perishables: fruit and vegetables from California, stock and meat from the midwest, all flowing east to the population centres of the USA.

The railroad had made commitments regarding the delivery of those goods: what we would call Service Level Targets. Those SLTs were enshrined in contractual arrangements – Service Level Agreements – with penalty clauses. And now trains were late: SLTs were being breached.

A number of RTCs and other staff in Homewood switched into familiar routines:

  • The US rail network is complex – a true network. Trains were scheduled to alternate routes, and traffic on those routes was closed up as tightly bunched together as the rules allowed to create extra capacity.
  • Partner managers got on the phone to the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads to negotiate capacity on their lines under reciprocal agreements already in place for situations just such as this one.
  • Customer relations staff called clients to negotiate new delivery times.
  • Traffic managers searched rail yard inventories for alternate stock of ethanol, that could be delivered early.
  • Crew managers told crews to pick up their trains in new locations and organised transport to get them there.

Fairly quickly, service was restored: oranges got squeezed in Manhatten, pigs and cows went to their deaths, and corn hootch got burnt in cars instead of all over the road in Cherry Valley.

This is Incident Management.

None of it had anything to do with what was happening in the little piece of hell that Cherry Valley had become. The people in heavy waterproofs, hi-viz and helmets, splashing around in the dark and rain, saving lives and property and trying to restore some semblance of local order – that’s not Incident Management.

At least I don’t think it is. I think they had a problem.

An incident is an interruption to service and a problem is an underlying cause of incidents. Incident Management is concerned with the restoration of expected levels of service to the users. Problem Management is concerned with removing the underlying causes.

To me that is a simple definition that works well. If you read the books and listen to the pundits you will get more complex models that seem to imply that everything done until trains once more rolled smoothly though Cherry Valley is Incident Management. I beg to differ. If the customer gets steak and orange juice then Cherry Valley could be still burning for all they care: Incident Management has met its goals.

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Rob England

Rob England is an independent IT management consultant and commentator based in Wellington, New Zealand. Rob is an internationally-recognised thought leader in ITSM. He is a published author of several books and many articles. He is best known for his controversial blog and alter-ego, the IT Skeptic. Rob is an acknowledged contributor to ITIL (2011 Service Strategy book). He was awarded the inaugural New Zealand IT Service Management Champion award for 2010 by itSMFnz.

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  • http://twitter.com/aalem Aale Roos

    Good story but I find it hard to try to cram all that under the two labels of incident and problem. I think your Standard & Case is much better model.

    In this case there were several activities which concentrated on different elements and had different objectives. The incident managements were about customers, trains and cargo. The problem managements were about the injured people and the wreck. Using the same names is just confusing.
    I would say that you miss the real Problem Management which starts after the emergency is over and tries to answer questions like: How could this happen? and How do we prevent it from happening again.

    • http://www.itskeptic.org/ Rob England (The IT Skeptic)

      “The incident managements were about customers, trains and cargo. The problem managements were about the injured people and the wreck.” …and the broken track. That’s exactly what the article said (or is meant to say). My next article – on Problem Management – will clarify that further.

      You suggest I’m overburdening terminology, but I’d say it is overloading “problem management” to also make it deal with “How could this happen? and How do we prevent it from happening again.” My next next article on problem prevention will deal with this.