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Total Operations Processing System, or TOPS, is a computer system for managing the locomotives and rolling stock (railroad cars) owned by and/or operated on a rail system. It was originally developed by the American-based Southern Pacific Railroad and was widely sold; it is best known in Britain for its use by British Rail (BR) and its successors.
The Southern Pacific Railroad was ahead of the pack in its embracing of technology. In the early 1960s, it developed a computer system called 'Total Operations Processing System', or 'TOPS'. The purpose was to take all the paperwork associated with a locomotive or rolling stock - its maintenance history, its allocation to division and depot and duty, its status, its location, and much more - and keep it in computer form, constantly updated by terminals at every maintenance facility. On paper, this information was difficult to keep track of, difficult to keep up to date, and difficult to query; requiring many telephone calls. Computerizing this information enabled a railroad to keep better track of its assets, and to utilize them better.
In order to offset the development costs of the system, Southern Pacific sold it to other railroads. A number of American railroads took to the system, as did many others around the world.
Adoption by British Rail
In the mid to late 1960s, British Rail (BR) was searching around for ways to increase efficiency, and came across the TOPS system in a 1968 presentation by an IBM US Transportation Industry Representative, who shortly after, formed IBM World Trade Corp's Transportation Industry Centre in Brussels (E. Wrathall). They purchased the system (along with source code, as was typical for such a large mainframe-based system in those days) and implemented it, assisted by Southern Pacific data processing experts. At the time, the British Government operated a 'Buy British' policy for the nationalised industries, and the purchase of an IBM System/360 mainframe to operate TOPS had to be approved by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Edward Heath.
The adoption of the TOPS system made for some changes in the way the railway system in Britain worked. Hitherto, locomotives were numbered in three different series. Steam locomotives carried unadorned numbers up to five digits long. Diesel locomotives carried one to four-digit numbers prefixed with a letter 'D', and electric locomotives with a letter 'E'. Thus, up to three locomotives could carry the same number. TOPS could not handle this, and it also required similar locomotives to be numbered in a consecutive series in terms of classification, in order that they might be treated together as a group.
TOPS numbering under British Rail
Sequentiality was all that was required, but with the requirement to renumber, it was decided to adopt a logical system for classification, and the five- or six-digit TOPS number was divided into two parts. No class of locomotive or multiple unit numbered over 1000 examples, so the last three digits were used for the individual number between 001 and 999 (Although Class 43 goes down to 000, it being the HST Prototype power Cars) in that class. The first two or three digits were used to denote the class of locomotive or multiple unit. The numbers were often written in two space separated groups, such as "47 401" to highlight that division, but the TOPS system actually stored and displayed them without the space: "47401". Sub-classifications were indicated in the TOPS system with a slash and a subclass number, e.g. "47/4". It was convention, though not enforced within the TOPS system, that subclass numbers were boundaries in the locomotive numbering system, such that class "47/4" started with number "47 401". If there were more than 99 numbers in a subclass, the number series extended to the next value of the third digit; thus, since there were more than 200 locomotives in class "47/4", subclasses "47/5" and "47/6" did not exist, and the next valid subclass by convention was "47/7" starting with "47 701". However, in some cases, the sequences do not match, e.g. 158/0 numbers start at 158 701.
Locomotives are assigned classes 01–98: diesel locomotives 01–70 (originally 01–69), DC electric locomotives 71–79 (originally 70–79), AC electric locomotives 80–96, departmental locos (those not in revenue-earning use) 97, and steam locomotives 98. One oddity was the inclusion of British Rail's shipping fleet in the system as Class 99. Diesel multiple units (DMUs) with mechanical or hydraulic transmission are classified 100–199, with electric transmission 200–299. Electric multiple units (EMUs) are given the subsequent classes; 300–399 are overhead AC units (including AC/DC dual-voltage units), while Southern Region DC third rail EMUs are 400–499, other DC EMUs 500–599.
Most classes in the 600–999 range are not currently in use, but selected numbers in the 900 series have been used for departmental multiple units, mostly converted from former passenger units. There are also a number of units currently under construction or being planned that will utilise the 700 and 800 series, which include:
- Class 700 — for the Thameslink Programme, planned to enter service as early as 2016
- Class 800 and Class 801 — for the Intercity Express Programme, planned for service in 2017
Coaching stock and individual multiple unit cars are allocated five-digit numbers; since the early 1980s, it has been forbidden for them to have the same numbers as locomotives, but before then duplication was possible because they carried a prefix letter, which was considered part of the number. More recent EMU deliveries have six-figure coach numbers.
TOPS has grown very out of date in recent decades. It is a text-terminal, mainframe-driven system; which is regarded as not very user-friendly, and hard to use compared with contemporary computer user-interfaces. In addition, it is written in its own programming language, TOPSTRAN (not strictly speaking a separate language but a set of IBM Assembler macros), and it is increasingly hard to find and train developers to maintain it. The division of British Rail and privatisation has also hurt TOPS, because it was never really designed for that; some Freight Operating Companies do not keep information as up to date as they should.
Attempts have been made to 'skin' the system with a more user-friendly interface, called TOPS 2000; in addition, there are other parallel systems now, such as TRUST, Genius and the Mobile Consisting Application, but none has yet fully supplanted the TOPS system.
K383400 0010 2837 22/10/86 U483 ON N199 BY KO TRAIN ENQUIRY RESPONSE FOR 377Z380 22 TFA - 9KJ ACTUAL TRAIN ID 377Z380 22 BOOKED 7Z380 DEP OVER&WHAR 1520 22 2 HRS 20 MINS LATE FOR REASON L CAT B SECTOR 5 LOCO 25901 LOCO 25908 25 LDS 0 MTYS 886 TONNES 799 T/FT 418 POTENTIAL VAC BRAKE FORCE STATION CONSIST ARR DEP LDS MTYS SCHEDULE 37015 OVER&WHAR 1520 025 000 71212 65700 BESCOTYD NRP 1707 EST 1709 EST 025 000 74260 READINGWJ DETAIL 2007 EST 025 000 END
- Simmons, Jack; Biddle, Gordon (1997). The Oxford Companion to British Railway History From 1603 to the 1990s (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-211697-5., Pp515-516.
- Mobile Consiting. "Mobile Consisting Application". 3Squared. 3Squared. Retrieved 24 August 2016.
- South Devon Railway newsletter 8