Amtrak Re-Ups Server Outsourcing Contract with Big Blue
August 10, 2009 Timothy Prickett Morgan
Helping make the trains run on time is something that midrange systems have a lot of experience with. Long before there were PC servers, midrange boxes were scattered along the routes of railroads, providing local processing capacity for ticketing and linking back to reservation systems, which as many times as not were running on mainframes.
With IT budgets under pressure and the need to do even more complex stuff to help Amtrak run better, America’s national commuter railroad decided it was time to renew and extend its IT outsourcing contract with Big Blue. Amtrak announced a five-year deal that will, according to a Fox Business report, save the railroad some $85 million over a seven-year period.
Yeah, I know that doesn’t make sense, but Raul Arce, vice president of travel and transportation at IBM, didn’t correct the numbers Fox Business was throwing around when he was being interviewed, and no one at IBM is answering questions about the specifics of this deal. But it looks like Fox Business was talking about a seven-year outsourcing deal Amtrak signed in 2002 with Big Blue. Under that 2002 deal, which had just expired, IBM not only took over the IT infrastructure, but had the right to resell Amtrak’s Arrow reservation system, which was written for mainframes and which runs atop its TPF operating system, to other railroads.
Amtrak has over 19,000 employees and a data center located in Manassas, Virginia, where its reservation and other systems are located; these systems manage its 21,000 miles of track and the engines and railroad coaches that are pulled behind them. The new deal that Amtrak has signed covers running the railroad’s mainframes and midrange boxes as well as performing security services, asset management, help desk operations, and desktop support services for 10,000 workstations nationwide. Given the fact that Amtrak is a federally subsidized railroad, IBM can’t just offshore Amtrak’s entire IT operations without causing a political nightmare for itself and the Obama administration, and hence IBM has promised to support Amtrak’s ticketing and reservation systems from within the United States. The reservation system processed rides for over 28.7 million passengers in 2008, making it one of the largest such reservation systems for railroads in the world and rivaling those used by airlines.
IBM has been a partner of Amtrak’s since 1994, and the two have been working in recent months to develop so-called Smart Planet technologies to wirelessly link the Amtrak management offices directly to sensors in the tracks, in power substations, and in handheld iPhones used by track inspectors along the Northeast rail lines. These technologies are being developed at a rail innovation center in Bejing, China.
IBM has partnered with Amtrak on IT projects since 1994, and Arce said in the Fox Business report that Big Blue has been helping to automate railroads for more than 50 years. He added that the majority of passenger ticketing and reservation systems in the rail space are based on IBM gear, and that the same was true of airline reservation systems. It is unclear at this point what midrange systems Amtrak is using; I have heard that there are Solaris boxes and Windows boxes, but there are almost certainly Power Systems machines and it is likely that some of the applications are running atop these use an OS/400-style operating system. If any of you know about the AS/400s at Amtrak, let me know and I will share.