A Historic Perspective-Arthur D. Little Transportation Projects

In 1911, Carl F. Woods, was the Chemical Engineer in charge of the Arthur D. Little, Inc. Electric Railway Department that provided inspection, chemical analyses and physical tests of all material and supplies-specifications-timber preservation-electrolysis surveys.  Woods was also noted as a Director and Secretary of Arthur D. Little, Inc., keeping with the ADL philosophy that all staff wore many hats in the company. He worked with Harry S. Mork, Harvey J. Skinner, Arthur D. Little, and Frederic A. Olmstead in the early 1900s.

In 1913, he presented a paper at a meeting of the New England Street Railway. In that paper, he argued how a Chemist’s expertise benefits the practical street railway men. His examples focused on cost savings through the analysis of materials including:

  • coal to ensure an efficient burn,
  • feed water to prevent scale and corrosion,
  • cable insulation to maintain electrical strength and protect the conductor.

Over the years, Arthur D. Little’s work in the transportation sector was diverse:

  • 1910-Variations in Car Painting Practice by Carl Woods
  • 1911-General Motors first research and development laboratory
  • 1916-Study of natural resources for the Canadian Pacific Railway
  • 1927- Study of the freight-ton-mileage costs of transport by rail, concluding that decentralization was needed
  • 1950s-SABRE for American Airlines with IBM
  • 1960-Comparative Economics of Propane and Diesel Buses for the Chicago Transit Authority.
  • 1968 to 1969-Design and development of the five key experiments for the Apollo Lunar landing
  • 1969-A Feasibility Study of San Francisco Marin Ferry System by Dr. Claude Gruen, et al.
  • 1995-Electric cars powered by fuel cells
  • 1995-Privatization of the British Rail

Through the decades, Arthur D. Little, Inc. went through numerous reorganizations—some for the better and some for the worse. A Transportation Group under Management Consulting was established in the 1970s , led by Dr. P. Ranganath Nayak.  In 1995, this group was disbanded during a reorganization. It reemerged briefly in 1998 to be dismantled again in 1999.

Recollections of Dr. Ashok B. Boghani

In 1979, Dr. Boghani joined the Transportation Group at Arthur D. Little as an engineer, eager to work with Dr. Nayak. Over 21 years at ADL, he worked on 623 projects and proposals, leaving ADL as a Vice President and a management consultant in 2000. In Transportation, he was initially involved in evaluating the dynamics of rail cars and freight trains. His expertise evolved to analyzing transportation risks during the transport of hazardous materials on rail and in trucks. Next, he worked with railroads, helping them in the area of process re-engineering and also in the area of intelligent vehicle highway transportation. Later, Dr. Boghani joined another group at ADL, Technology and Innovation Management (TIM) led by Ron Jonash. In some ways, Dr. Boghani saw this as a blessing in disguise because he had a much broader platform to develop the next phase of his career, management consulting. Besides, Ashok noted “railroads were not terribly exciting clients”.

Ashok provided a write up of a number of his favorite projects. All were great; I’ve selected just a few that I particularly enjoyed.

Perturbed Track Test (PTT).  Railroad locomotives and cars ride on tracks that are not perfect. Anomalies in these tracks can cause the vehicles to move in every which way and sometimes such motion can cause derailment. How to prevent such derailments was a big thing in the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), a part of US Department of Transportation (DOT). This Perturbed Track was so named not because it was perpetually upset, but because it had well designed kinks over which rail vehicles were made to run and their motion recorded. We had a ton of data and were trying to figure out what was going on. We worked closely with DOT engineers located in their Cambridge R&D center called Transportation Systems Center (TSC). In the end, we came out with some resonance mechanisms as being responsible for unsavory motion of the vehicles (they usually are) and everyone was happy.  I then worked with  Russ Brantman and Ray Ehrlichman of TSC, to expand the PTT to a Safety Assessment Facility for Equipment (SAFE). The railroads watched us with fear and amusement and expanded the SAFE acronym to “Screwing Around For Ever”, reflecting on the length of time for the design.


SAFE died by a likely combination of bureaucracy, cost, and organizational pressure, but vehicle track tests continued. I, worked with a cast of characters from TSC; Dr. Herb Weinstock, an elderly German guy who knew everything, Dave Reed, the head of the group who was a techie, and Michael Coltman, a young fellow who was our project manager. I played the role of dynamicist.

Here comes the train

Grumman Bus Study. This was one of the more fascinating studies I did with Russ Brantman. Grumman (a separate company before it joined Northrop) was a well-respected aerospace and defense company. In addition to military jets (F-14 Tomcat), it had built Apollo Lunar Module. A well respected company indeed. However, in the late 70s and early 80s they decided to diversify into making metro buses, called Flxible. These buses, designed using the latest aerospace techniques, including what is called a semi-monocoque structure, were unfortunately no match for the New York City potholes and soon they started falling apart. In one scary instance, the fuel tank was punctured and there was a fire. Alarmed, US DOT’s Urban Mass Transit Administration, UMTA, retained TSC to find out what was the problem and if the proposed fixes by Grumman would work. I developed a dynamic simulation model of the bus so it could be virtually operated on any specific road. We also quantified typical loading of a bus during a typical operation cycle. In order to do that, one of my colleagues, Todd Burger, rode an MBTA bus through a rough area of Boston and counted the number of passengers as the bus went around its business. We had requested and got a police escort, as we did not want harm to come to Todd. The presence of policeman changed the rider profile—many folks entered the bus and upon seeing him departed. The cash box collected so much money, as no one dared ride for free, that it jammed. Oh well. Finally, using these test results and my simulation program, we were able to estimate the forces on various key parts first under as-is condition and then with the fixes Grumman was proposing. Alas, we said, the fixes would not work. The buses were soon taken out of the service and Grumman left the business soon afterword to focus on what they knew best—building airplanes.

Aluminum Coal Cars. I worked on a particularly interesting client for a project dealing with substituting aluminum coal cars for steel cars. Our client made this an especially interesting project. He was a middle aged single man who had very specific food preferences making every restaurant visit, when we were traveling together, an ordeal. This was somewhat compensated by the spectacle of him chasing every young lady who came to serve us.

Nuclear Reactor Safety. The Transportation Unit, worked closely with a group ran by Ashok Kalelkar (a grandson of the well known Gujarati author Kaka Kalelkar) that dealt with quantitative risk analysis. One interesting project in this area that I got involved with dealt with a nuclear reactor located close to a major river in the US. What would be the risk posed by LNG tankers that were scheduled to start going up the river in near future was the question. The fear was that if a tanker hit an object in the river, LNG would spill out, enter the cooling circuit of the reactor, and cause a major catastrophe. Yours truly was asked to ride a helicopter to identify potential hazards along the river that a tanker could hit. Needless to say, it was great fun! The highlight was the pilot asking me if this is what I did for living. “Indeed,” I said, “indeed.”

NY MTA Automatic Fare Collection. This was one of the more impactful and enjoyable projects I worked on in my career. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), one of the world’s biggest, retained us to give them advice on how to automate their entire fare collection system. This included all their subway, bus operations, and commuter rail operations, a massive undertaking indeed. At that time, they were still using tokens in subways and coins in buses, and given that the whole system was being upgraded they felt it was a good time to look into what should be done in fare collection. Peter Metz was the overall project manager and I was given a work module to evaluate what should be done for bus fare collection. We got three-candidate automatic bus fare collection equipment for this potentially very lucrative assignment, two from France (Crouzet and Alsthom) and one from the U.S.A. (Cubic). My team developed a test protocol for determining if these units would survive in the rough environment of New York City, and would be user friendly. To that end, we subjected them to all types of torture (shock, vibration, heat, cold, dust, vandalism) first in laboratory and then on the streets on NY City.

To simulate real operation, we mounted these units in three different buses, added sand bags to simulate passenger loads and drove around typical bus routes while NY city employees operated them. Some potholes in the typical route were amazingly brutal. Periodically people waiting on curbsides were very upset to see a bus running by and not stopping for them.

We also had several groups of typical riders try out the equipment and give us opinion about their ease of use. This task took place in a freezing garage near Hudson River.  These focus groups presented a special challenge. When we tried to give them traveller’s checks of $20 for their effort, they demanded cash, because most of them did not have a bank where they had an account to go and cash checks. So, one of the MTA representatives and I rushed to her bank, where she emptied her checking account to get me $20 bills which I stuffed in my pocket for disbursement. At night, when we were done, I asked for and got a police escort—too many people had seen my stash of $20 bills for me to feel safe walking back to the hotel! The next day, we found one of the units was vandalized. This was the one that constantly squawked, “Try again” which no doubt irritated the garage staff members leading them to puncture the speaker of the unit with a screwdriver. Ultimately, we clearly identified the pros and cons of each unit, and I managed to finish my task on the day promised and within budget. The overall project went well but Peter ran up a huge overrun, which did not endear him to the management of ADL. However, the blueprint we prepared for NY MTA brought about one of the biggest changes for the millions of commuters who rider their subways, buses, and commuter trains.

Transportation Risks for a Corporation. The Bhopal tragedy, in which hundreds of people were killed due to an accident involving the release of a poisonous gas, woke up the corporate America to consider


the liability that might be lurking in their operations. “Is there a Bhopal in our backyard?” became a catch phrase that prompted a major petrochemical corporation in Canada to give us a big assignment. I was given the responsibility to evaluate and quantify the transportation related risks—from one of their tank cars derailing and blowing up, to their private jet crashing and killing their senior management team. Besides the challenge of the problem itself, the human side of it made it one of the more memorable assignments I worked on. When we went to Calgary, the client team politely asked us to buy jeans because it was their “Stampede” time and suits were completely unsuitable.


With client (ADL’s Scott Stricoff is third from left, Lisa Bendixen, fourth, Ashok Boghani, sixth)


On Friday evening, after we were done for the week, they took us out to a rodeo contest (chuck wagon race, riding the bucking horses, roping the steer, etc.) and then for dinner and dance, where my dancing ability was put to the test. On Monday, Lisa Bendixen (my colleague) and I were put on a flight to Edmonton. We flew by helicopter over the prairies of Alberta and then landed in an absolute desolate place in Saskatchewan.

Why? Because they had an oil pumping operation that they wanted to include in our risk analysis work. On our way back, we were struck by a hailstorm. Never had I flown in a helicopter through a hailstorm, nor do I desire to do that again. At the end, we gave them a complete picture of where did the risks lurked in their operation, which areas they should focus on, and how to mitigate the risks.

Railroad Toilet Technology. A US government official was fishing under a railroad bridge when an Amtrak train thundered by. He was hit by an unidentified flying object and was not too pleased. He decided to do something and provided funding to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to see what would be the options available to fix the problem of open toilet in the Amtrak trains. We got the assignment and quickly set about everything we could about the marvelous hidden world of toilet technology. Todd Burger and I looked at railroads that deployed closed circulation toilets already and airplanes, where an open toilet was not an option. We met people who maintained them (talk about “shitty work”) and developed a business case. I did not follow up whether our study hastened the deployment of advanced toilets, but this remains one of my favorite stories on how I put my doctoral education to good use 😉

Bus Fare Collection-2. A French company hired us to look at the market for automatic bus fare collection. During the course of the assignment, the client approached one of my team members and convinced her to leave ADL and join them. Another team member, a senior electrical engineer I had worked with many times, including the landmark assignment for NY MTA, decided to change his sex during the course of the assignment. So, at the final presentation, he told the French client that the next time they see him; he would be Denise, instead of Dennis. It took a few moments for the news to sink in, given the language barrier, but it did, causing a great deal of discomfort.

Transportation improvement for a Venezuelan Company. Our office in Caracas sold a project to their national telephone company on how to reduce cost and improve service related to transportation. This was a part of a bigger effort that our firm had undertaken for the client. I managed the overall effort, working with Todd Burger and Julie Chapman. Julie and I went to Caracas to kick off the project. We were told that we should not take a cab from the airport and the office will arrange transportation. That was good because even then (1995), Caracas was a dangerous city. We reached our office and had a meeting with the staff. While we were waiting for our taxi to arrive to pick us up and take us to our hotels, a powerful storm struck the city, creating havoc. After waiting for over an hour downstairs, we called up our office, and managed to get a ride from one of our colleagues. The kick-off meeting with the client went well; however, it was clear that they were not expecting a young blonde woman, Julie, to be a member of the team. I could not make it to the next trip. Todd and Julie went back and evaluated their transportation fleet and practices. As a part of their evaluation, they had to travel to a remote place and stay in, what appeared to be a really sketchy hotel. Julie was quite distraught and I, as project manager, felt bad that I had put her in that situation. The report they produced was quite damning in terms of how the transportation function was misused, abused, and mismanaged. We made sure that Todd and Julie were safely back in the US before releasing the report. One does not know what could happen in that dangerous place when you blame senior and influential folks of all types of shenanigans.

During the last year of  my time at ADL it was clear that I was not working for the consulting firm I had joined. My decision to depart ADL was based on the fact that it had started floundering toward the end of the 1990s. Charlie Lamantia, the CEO, was let go and a new guy, Lorenzo Lamadrid, was appointed as the new head. Lorenzo had very little interest in what we did—he was in it to make a quick buck. Meanwhile I had become deeply involved in a new organization, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), and had become enamored with the exploding Internet industry. I joined an Internet start-up called IntellectExchange. The next three years were turbulent as we went through several business model modifications. We hired a few people, but never exceeded 10 or so, which was a wise thing to do because we could stretch our relatively small capital base. Finally, we did hit upon a business model that could succeed, but we were not able to scale up rapidly enough before the funding dried up. I ended up back with a consulting firm, the Monitor Group.

But consulting can be a thankless job. In the end,  working on a project that involved flying to and from Chicago during winter made me realize that perhaps there was more to life than to help an ungrateful client sell more of useless (in my opinion) products. A few weeks after the end of the project, I requested to go part time, get myself off from consulting work, and focus primarily on running the External Expert Service, which was my other responsibility at Monitor. My boss agreed and I set myself on the pathway to slowing down toward retirement.”