Rail industry on track for XML transition

The CIOs of Canada’s largest railways are putting together a task force to see how their industry will move from electronic data interchange to transactions that make use of extensible markup language.

Senior IT executives are planning a meeting next week where the transition to extensible

markup language (XML) will be “”at the top of the agenda,”” according to Allen Borak, vice-president of information services at Canadian Pacific Railway. The group, which Borak said meets fairly often, wants to start defining what it will need to do in order to take advantage of XML’s flexibility.

Companies like CP Rail and its counterparts have invested millions of dollars in proprietary electronic data interchange (EDI) systems over the last 15 years. XML would not necessarily replace those investments, but it could make EDI less complex and expensive. XML is a “”metalanguage”” — a language for describing other languages — that lets users design their own customized markup languages for different types of documents.

“”Railways were one of the first users of EDI and defined transactions with customers,”” Borak said. “”We want to take the same approach with XML, and start moving over time. It’ll happen first with the smaller customer, because they don’t have the big investments that our large customers do with systems handling large volumes of transactions.””

CP Rail recently completed a rollout of a messaging services platform called NextPath from Cary, N.C.-based RailInc that will handle documents including bills of lading, purchase orders and other data with more than 1,500 trading partners. Launched in October, NextPath was designed to help convert between many formats, including XML, but Borak said most of its data isn’t managed that way.

“”Despite all the talk in the press about XML, EDI is still what businesses today runs on,”” he said.

RailInc president Jim Gardner said the company has been working with CP, CN and several railway firms in the U.S. to develop industry-specific XML standards. Financial firms have done something like this already, creating extensible business relationship language (XBRL) that is being used by the Toronto Stock Exchange, among others.

Gord Sinkez, RailInc’s vice-president of new product development, said there are a number of rail industry groups in North America taking common approaches to XML schemas that could be used to share data.

“”There’s procedural sharing, but the actual structures seem to be evolving independently,”” he said. “”In some ways, XML is where EDI was 20 or 30 years ago. You don’t have the consolidation yet that you have around traditional EDI, where basically you have EDIFACT in the rest of the world and ANSI EDI in North America.””

Another of Canada’s largest transportation companies has also looked into the benefits of XML-based transaction processing.

Via Rail Canada recently introduced XML into the online system it offers passengers for booking tickets. The application, called Odyssey and provided by Toronto-based OneRail but branded ReserVia, depends on exchanging five XML messages with the railway’s reservation system. There needs to be one message exchange for train availability, fare quotes, creating a booking, refund eligibility and cancellations.

According to Mohamed Bhanji, Via Rail Canada’s director of marketing technology, the reservation system exchanges data through what he called structured data messages (SDMs) that were developed by IBM. This also links to Via’s self-service ticket kiosks.

Bhanji said next year he will be looking at third-party sales booking tools so Via can provide direct interface to its Internet booking engine to the travel agent community.

Travel agents can register on ReserVia today, but those travel agents have corporate clients who would like to see the system comply with their travel policies and integrate with its back-office accounting systems. “”They are telling us that they don’t mind working with us, provided we do a direct integration from the self-booking tools that are used in the companies directly to ReserVia,”” he said.

Borak said any agreements on XML for the rail industry will probably be North American-wide, but in Europe some specific standards work is already under way. In 2001, for example, the Fraunhofer Institute for Transport and Infrastructure Systems helped kick-start an industry-wide effort to create a universally valid data format to simplify information exchange among railway companies called railML. The schemas that have been developed so far are available in a library on the organization’s Web site.

Bhanji said the subject of XML comes up every year at the annual Union of International Railways conference in Europe, where he presented earlier this year. Recently, however, more groups are being formed to speed up standards development.

“”Even if XML has many advantages, when you go to fund investments, it takes time to move to new technologies,”” he said. “”Especially with established players, there’s always some resistance to change. But it’s only a question of time. It will come.””

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