Communication breakdown


Just the other day, I was taking a road trip, traveling west along the Sunset Route through Hondo, Texas ("This is God's Country, Please Don't Drive Through It Like Hell"), when the thought occurred to me: railroad right-of-way looks pretty barren without telegraph lines!

I'm sure that's nothing but a sign of my ever-increasing chronological age. Still...sometimes, it's the little things you miss. Noting a location by counting the number of poles beyond a mile post. Getting a pretty good hint of a corridor's relative importance based upon the quantity of cross-arms. Listening to wires sing harmonically on a still winter's night.

The inevitable passage of time took care of all that. Copper was expensive; lines maintenance intensive. Telegraph poles, by definition, were constantly exposed to the elements and at their soulless mercy. Electromechanical systems required moving parts; electronic devices did not.

Changes in communications and signaling systems eventually doomed most traditional applications. After all, the British don't call radio "wireless" for nothing! Fiber optic cables can be conveniently buried out-of-sight (and weather). From satellite links to public telephones, several options to a costly dedicated network are now available.

Simply put, nostalgia doesn't pay the bills. As long as alternatives are efficient, less expensive and (literally) fail safe, there's no real downside.

Or is there?

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, ever vigilant to the possibility of successfully broadening its intrusive and generally useless activities, recently produced a memo which stated that twice during the month of December '11, computer hackers, "possibly from abroad," interfered with the proper operation of certain railroad signals in the Pacific Northwest. The officially unidentified railway line (whose proper name may match its reporting marks) saw service "slowed for a short while," with schedules delayed for "about 15 minutes."

Yep, that's what it says.

Emphasising they are "the agency responsible for protecting all U.S. transportation systems, not just airports," the T.S.A. mentioned how railroads may not have seen "cyberattacks" as a "major concern" before, but are now in general agreement that this is a "very serious" thing.

Upon further investigation, the T.S.A. seems to be backing off its previous "targeted attack" proclamation. Still, the story served its purpose.

Unfortunately, it also served to dish up unjustifiable worries and illegitimate conclusions about our industry which were, at once, both technically incorrect and patently unfair.

Danger never existed anyplace except in the minds those who might benefit from the presumption of danger.

In the world of signaling and dispatching systems, most activities fall under one of two categories: vital logic or control logic.

When I think of vital logic, I picture the classic interlocking plant. Machinery (or circuitry) is so "interlocked" that it cannot, accidentally or purposefully, allow for conflicting routes. If commands are entered in the wrong sequence or communication is disrupted, everything goes (or stays) red. In times past, this information was carried by lever and rod or pneumatic tube or metal wire. Today, it tends to be under the purview of coded track circuits. Same idea; identical results.

Control logic is the other ingredient - the one allowing dispatchers, hundreds or even thousands of miles away, to communicate with a Control Point (GCOR) or Controlled Point (NORAC). Control logic instructions are given to hardware via the vital logic device. In a sense, dispatchers are simply using control logic instruments to request that vital logic circuits perform a certain task, once it has been deemed safe to do so. Even a madman gaining access to a railroad's nerve centre couldn't force an interlocking plant to perform an unsafe manoeuvre.

Control logic can therefore be considered "non-vital." It is the area that, for economic reasons, might use public means of transmission to operate. A worst case scenario involving control logic results in a breakdown of communication between a dispatcher and his terriory. All trains may needlessly stop, but there is absolutely no danger involved. The possibility that some miscreant might set up a cornfield meet exists only in the movies.

Speaking of which, have any of you ever seen Disaster on the Coastliner? It's a 1979 A.B.C. TeleVision network movie starring Lloyd Bridges, Raymond Burr and the always wonderful William Shatner (whose penchant for entertaining outrageousness was used to full effect). The predictable plot involves a disgruntled former employee who sabotages the Trans Allied Railroad Corporation's main computer and the signaling system it controls, enabling him to route both the north- and southbound runs of Trans Allied's premiere passenger service onto the same track...where they spend the next hour-and-a-half helplessly highballing toward each other.

As I said: only in the movies.

If a hacker or hackers unknown ("abroad" or no) truly exist(ed) and actually penetrated a railroad's electronic communications network, it should not (I'm tempted to say could not) have compromised operational safety, whatsoever.

What the T.S.A. alleges to have occurred is a "denial of service attack." Something happened which made effective remote control difficult, if not impossible, for a period of time. Of course, a glitch (accidental or premeditated) that delays trains isn't meaningless; it costs real money. A breach in some computer system's firewall is never trivial; it's probably enough to keep most honest folks awake at night.

It just shouldn't be enough to cause panic, even when the seeds of such have been planted by government officials or their assigns.