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The History of TOPS

The History of TOPS


This gives a brief history of TOPS. Much of the material used in the research of this page came from various postings on the newsgroup uk.railway.


TOPS (Total Operations Processing System) is a set of programs originally written by the Southern Pacific railroad in the 1960s for complete control on their operations. It covers all aspects of railway operation including stock location and maintenance records, train consists and real-time train running reports. It has since been sold to a number of railways in North America and around the world. The legacy of the Southern Pacific still lingers in many of the systems in that specific track identification numbers are often called SPINS, which is short for Southern Pacific Industrial Numbering System.

The core programs use a specialised database management assembler language that was developed specifically for TOPS. (TOPSTRAN). As such, retaining skilled programmers is a major issue, along with the initial training of new ones. The programmes are very efficient in database management, but are not particularly user-friendly. The BR version, was an offshoot of the Canadian National Railways system called TRACS, (Transportation Reporting And Control System) which itself originated with the Southern Pacific.

The TOPS 2000 project it was intended as a new "front end" for the existing TOPS system. The actual data was still held in the original TOPS system and TOPS 2000 servers appeared as normal terminals as far as TOPS was concerned.

The original concept was that TOPS 2000 would replace the whole TOPS terminal / mainframe architecture with a new distributed client/server one. "Phase 1" was intended to present the rather cryptic TOPS data in a more user friendly way.

It was generally accepted that the TOPS programs were so complex and badly understood that nobody would seriously consider modifying them in any way unless it proved unavoidable. Most of the original documentation was seriously out of date and some of the subsequent modifications have not been documented at all.

All the TOPS and TOPS 2000 terminals were "hard wired" through the BR internal telecoms systems and there was no capability to "dial in" so 'Joe Bloggs', member of the public could not access TOPS from their home computer.

It is unclear who actually "owns" and maintains TOPS, it could still be the responsibility of the BRB. Officially TOPS is not in the public domain and could be classified as company sensitive as it was during mid 1994. But with so many people having access to it and with little security built into the programs it would be hard for to completely prevent the public from accessing TOPS.


Be warned those who do access TOPS for personal gain. Several companies have brought disciplinary procedures against employees accessing TOPS other than for work purposes.

If you know more then please contact me at