TOPS – a decade a head of its time

On his website Roger Ford lists 100 things that defined British Rail. At number 83 comes TOPS: “Licenced from Southern Pacific in the USA in 1971, BR’s total Operations Processing System brought the computer into the marshalling yard office. Shunters with hands like a bunch of bananas were among BR’s first computer literate employees.”

By the time I joined British Rail in 1981 TOPS was pretty much completely rolled out. Every depot, every yard, and every freight terminal was included. Each train, locomotive, or wagon passing through was carefully recorded and changes of status such as loading or unloading wagons were recorded. TOPS also monitored passenger stock but was effectively mainly a freight system.

At the front end of the system were yard shunters and people on the ground who would go out in all weathers, usually at night, and write down the numbers of every train and wagon they were responsible for. These hand written notes were then faxed (an innovation!) to the nearest TOPS office (there were dozens), where they were manually transcribed by one of hundreds of TOPS clerks into the computer system, which fed into a vast mainframe computer behind Marylebone station.

By 1983 I was a contract manager responsible for day to day monitoring of all construction materials moving by rail in the Southern Region. Each morning I would be handed a swathe of TOPS print outs that would basically tell me what had happened over night. The main think I remember was that each morning I would have to track down a string of broken down wagons from the clapped out fleet that was used on the Redhill to Warrington nightly sand train. Every time this train stopped, it seemed, it would leave behind a broken down wagon. My job was to somehow get these wagons seen to and returned to somewhere useful. This is a simple example of how, for over a decade, TOPS became the basic tool of rail freight management in the UK.

TOPS tracked wagons and locomotives. It could also plan and control traffic automatically – for instance by assigning a new destination as soon as wagons were unloaded, without waiting for someone to intervene. TOPS also managed and monitored maintenance ad had numerous other functions. Gradually TOPS was taught to communicate with the signalling system through a system called TRUST, and this allowed trains to be tracked continually. Customers were provided with PCs so that they could access TOPS directly, not only entering data but using TOPS to manage their own business. These systems were linked into the invoicing systems so that quickly paperwork was completely done away with.

Think about it: by the early 1980s British Rail could track every train and wagon in real time -something no other railway in Europe could do. And, what, 10 years before mobile phones were used in trucks, and 15 years before satnav?

TOPS was not perfect, but it WAS world class. In 1988 I went to Thailand where I worked on freight projects for two years. Without TOPS it was a window on British Rail of the 1960s. There was a whole room full of people trying to track down lost wagons. Rolling stock control added days of delays to every wagon. The Thai railway guys managed their business as best they could – but without TOPS it felt like working with one hand tied behind your back.

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2 Responses to TOPS – a decade a head of its time

  1. Les Smith says:

    I joined BR in 1971 as a signalling graduate management trainee and flipped into IT in March 1975 to join the TOPS team. TOPS was getting close to the initial implementation, which started in Penzance and moved up the country a bit further each week.
    In the 35 years of my IT career since I have to say that the TOPS implementation was one of the smoothest IT projects I have ever come across. Why is it that BR used to get so slated and still often does when it was actually very well run?

    Les Smith

  2. papagray says:

    I was a tops officer Carlisle Kingmoor/Euston House DMO/Norwood Jcn/Dover western Docks/Dollands moor. had a great time pity we could not use the same team to implement the Uk governments IT projects at least we would know they would work, and they could add-ons would work also perhaps the org TOPS team had the basic structure/ formulae and ground planning to implement a full UK programme that works effectivly

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