Computers on Union Pacific
This page was last updated on January 8, 2023.
In 1954 the first computers were installed in yard offices in Council Bluffs, North Platte and Cheyenne. In 1958, Union Pacific leased an IBM 705, and the use of computers expanded rapidly after that. In 1962, the IBM 705 was replaced by an IBM 7080, which was bigger, faster and ran on solid-state transistors. These early computers performed accounting functions for revenue, payroll, and inventory control.
In the mid 1960s Union Pacific installed an IBM System/360 mainframe computer system, and used it to develop the new Complete Operating Information (COIN) system. This was also the first use of COBOL as a programming language. Development began in October 1965 and the first phase went into operation in January 1967. The COIN computer system became fully operational in November 1969.
Roadway 900000 Series Numbers
The most visible result came in 1959 when the railroad's non-revenue and maintenance equipment was renumbered to the 900000 number series. This was because the computer system did not allow leading zeros on car numbers. On hand-written and type-written forms, the leading-zero concept had allowed clerks and conductors to visually recognize the movement of non-revenue equipment on various car lists, but the new computerized car scheduling system needed car numbers that did not begin with a zero.
Union Pacific began using computers for its payroll and car movement data. Previously, car movement data had been by use of IBM punch cards.
The following comes from UP's annual report for the year ending December 31, 1957, through the courtesy of Jim Ehernberger:
A five-story addition to the Headquarters Building at Omaha is being constructed for the primary purpose of providing appropriate quarters for the Company's electronic data-processing operation, including a large IBM Type 705 machine to be leased in the latter part of 1958. This machine requires particularly rigid control of dust, humidity and temperature for proper functioning, and it will be less costly to arrange for such conditions in a new structure, than to remodel space in the main building for this purpose. Moreover, the addition will provide necessary space for the probable expansion of office requirements in the next few years.
The Union Pacific installed its first electric punch-card equipment in 1909 for freight accounting purposes, and punch-card methods were gradually extended to many other types of accounting. Two Type 650 electronic machines were placed in service in 1956, and for three years a special team of experts has been intensively studying electronic data-processing methods in the entire field of paper work. It has been the Company's view that it would be uneconomic to incur the substantial expense involved in using a large data-processing machine before a sufficient number of work applications had been developed to keep the machine as fully occupied as possible, immediately upon acquisition. This has now been accomplished and the Type 705 electronic machine (acquisition of which will permit release of the two Type 650 machines and certain other equipment) will be used for a wide variety of functions, including greatly improved control of the extensive stocks of material and supplies maintained by the Company.
Additional comments from Jim Ehernberger:
The first purposes were for payrolls. That was a big deal. As time moved along, car reporting became involved. In 1953 when I first started they were using the IBM cards for train consists and records. Prior to the IBM card system, it was a mammoth hand-written JUMBO book for being able to go back and obtain information regarding the passing of cars, etc. The IBM cards went through a sorter machine every night after the last day's train departed, and it sorted the car numbers into numerical order, and then a printer printed out that record. (Jim Ehernberger, via email dated September 5, 2014)
Union Pacific installed an IBM Type 705 mainframe computer at its Omaha headquarters. In addition to all of its cabinets and storage drives, the new computer used thousands of vacuum tubes and the keep the new machine cool and operating properly, UP built a five-story addition to its headquarters building that included the required climate and dust control. (Klein, Union Pacific: The Reconfiguration: America's Greatest Railroad from 1969 to the Present, page 52)
UP's COIN Computer System
Work on what would become COIN (Complete Operating INformation) started in October 1965, and the first terminals went on-line in January 1967, between Omaha and traffic offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Installation of COIN terminals in 38 yard offices got under way in August 1968. The system became fully operational on October 30, 1969.
A three-page interview with Carl Mayer and John Jorgensen, by Tom Shedd, in the May 1969 issue of Modern Railroads, a rail industry trade publication, confirmed that "a group was set up in October 1965 to develop COIN headed by Don Peterson with a Steering Committee co-chaired by S. J. How and Art Mercer." (Dick Peterson, email dated February 10, 2017)
There was some speculation among a few UP historians that a series of newly delivered boxcars with a red dot of their doors was in correlation with UP's use of its COIN (Complete Operating INformation) system. The timelines appear to match, for "Red Dot" boxcars delivered in 1966 and 1968, versus COIN testing trials beginning in mid 1966, and the COIN system going online in the major terminals in January 1968, with coverage in 38 locations taking place by late October 1969.
The use of the red dots may have been a way to create a manageable sample of cars that could be traced and studied to compare the new computer system, and the traditional yard office procedures.
The following comes from the March 1969 issue of the UP INFO newsletter, distributed to Union Pacific employees.
The COIN System is now operating throughout the Union Pacific. You say, "What is the COIN System and what makes it tick?"
For those of you who have not been involved in COIN, let us explain. COIN is an acronym meaning Complete Operating INformation. It is a computer-based information system to provide needed intelligence concerning the whereabouts of cars on the system.
In 1965 the COIN Committee was formed with members from the Operating, Transportation, Traffic and Accounting Departments. It was charged with designing an information system to serve the basic needs of those departments which consisted of advance consists of trains, customer car tracing, empty car inventories and car accounting.
IBM 1050 machines were located in 38 yards on the system and 53 teletypes were placed in traffic and other offices throughout the country. These machines are all connected and communicate with the two IBM 360 computers in Omaha.
People in each of these locations were trained to use the machines to tell the computer what is happening to freight cars and locomotives. The computer then advances consists, informs traffic offices as to the whereabouts of shippers lading and records statistical information for the Accounting Department.
Flocon, for Flow Control, a department within the Transportation Department, uses computer generated information to monitor and direct the flow of empty equipment.
That briefly answers the question, "What is COIN?" As to what makes it tick - People. Management, COIN and Quality Control people and Programming Specialists started this system, but the people who really deserve the credit are the people in the field.
Those who have expended much energy in entering the data and mastering the manual of instruction are the ones who make the system work and they are to be commended for a job well done.
Will COIN change? Yes, the system is flexible and can be modified and adjusted as the needs arise. Already, changes in procedures are being studied with the idea in mind to improve and expand the system to the end that it will enable the system to better serve Union Pacitic and its patrons.
On October 30, 1969, the first phase of COIN was fully operational. The COIN system used an interconnected network of 53 IBM 1050 computer terminals, located in 38 yard offices, all connected to the IBM System/360 mainframe at Omaha headquarters.
Maury Klein wrote: "Under COIN the consists moved first through the Omaha computer center on their way to the next yard. The COIN computer also received other car movement data, such as car receipt and delivery, load origins, and the placing of cars on repair, industry, shop, hold, and cleaning tracks. In August 1968 conversion of yard offices to the final COIN procedures got under way. By the year's end all yards had been converted and the final COIN file went into full use."
(Union Pacific's use of computers is covered in Maury Klein's Union Pacific, The Reconfiguration, 1969 to the Present, pages 51-54)
Union Pacific placed into full operation its new Complete Operation Information (COIN) system. The new real-time computer network had been successfully installed using 54 IBM computing machines, located in 39 yard offices in 13 western states. The COIN system handled every train and piece of equipment, loaded or empty, recorded on punch cards, which were then fed into the central computer system in the railroad's Omaha headquarters. (New York Times, November 23, 1969)
"Computer Operations and Systems -- Union Pacific significantly augmented its computer capability at Omaha through acquisition and installation of two new IBM 370 computer systems. The Computer Center is organized to provide an integrated management information system encompassing the financial, marketing and operating needs of the business. The financial control systems include responsibility accounting and planning, and procedures for profitability determination. The marketing information systems provide data to evaluate new business opportunities and data used in rate-making. The operating control systems include the Complete Operating INformation (COIN) system used to monitor car movements and to provide information concerning railroad operations to 200 locations. Now, with the new IBM 370 equipment operating, the COIN system enters its advanced phase which is designed for real time reporting, analysis, and control of car distribution, allocation of locomotives, and train operations throughout Union Pacific's 9,500-mile rail system. The COIN system will continue to provide car tracing services and administrative message switching. During 1972, the Railroad will install in the Omaha area its first Univac 9311 Terminal Information System. It will be used for mechanized waybill production and computerization of yard and industrial car inventories." (Union Pacific 1971 Annual Report)
By 1975, Union Pacific had installed the rail industry's first interactive graphics design system for producing, storing and retrieving engineering drawings.