In recent years, a reduced growth in international trade and declines in heavy freight, such as coal and steel, have caused a downward trend in the rail freight industry. Nevertheless, increasing moves towards digitalisation could help turn the tide.

In line with the commuter rail industry, freight operators are striving to boost efficiency and productivity by upgrading locomotives with intelligent systems that increase safety and capacity, enhance reliability and create better connectivity on freight networks.

According to GE Transportation chief digital officer Laurie Tolson, the growing trend of digitalisation in the rail freight industry is linked with a growth in intermodal networks, which itself is largely being driven by consumerism. According to a report from the Association of American Railroads, US railroads posted a 6.5% increase in intermodal traffic in March.

Tolson also claims that service levels for most US freight railways are currently ‘not acceptable’ for many manufacturers, forcing them to opt for more expensive options such as road freight. “They just haven’t been able to do the coordination and kind of information sharing that would allow them to actually perform,” she says.

For years, lessors would rely on manual tracking methods and arduous correspondence with rail operators to locate their containers. However, as solutions driven by big data and the Internet of Things (IoT) continue to permeate commuter rail networks, tracking cargo has become a key driver for digital innovation in the freight industry.

Tracking cargo: the future is digital

Companies are fitting their wagons and locomotives with systems that enable constant monitoring and maintenance planning, saving time and reducing the manpower these procedures would otherwise require.

“That visibility is going to help lift the entire industry to be highly competitive,” says Tolson. “If you can track it, you can count on it, and that I think will help modernise the entire industry and get them to where they’re going to go, which I hope is going to be the cheapest way to ship things for all of us as consumers.”

Leading in this area is DB Cargo, one of Europe’s largest rail operators. The company is currently in the process of digitalising its freight wagon fleet. By 2020, it aims to have fitted roughly 70,000 wagons in Germany with telematics systems and state-of-the-art sensors.

“By 2020, [DB Cargo] aims to have fitted roughly 70,000 wagons in Germany with telematics systems and state-of-the-art sensors.”

On-board GPS systems will track the wagons and enable DB Cargo to forecast their estimated time of arrival, while the sensors will provide a variety of data, from whether wagons are full or empty, to temperature and humidity levels inside. In addition to boosting scheduling and predictive maintenance activities, the company claims the move will have benefits along the supply chain.

“In a world of ever-increasing digitalisation, today’s customers expect a high level of service – they want to know, in real time, where their freight is, when it will arrive and what condition it is in,” said DB Cargo CEO Dr Roland Bosch in a press release. “This is why we are retrofitting our entire fleet with digital technology.

Another company, SNCF Logistics, believes that better tracking could help drive shippers back towards rail freight. Last year, the company announced a partnership with Traxens to develop the ‘Digital Freight Train’, which is set to be packed with monitoring and real-time tracking technologies that would add “considerable value for clients and insurers”. On-board devices supplied by Traxens will also be able to remotely control and adjust the temperature of refrigerated containers, enhancing the transport of perishable products.

“A majority of shippers say they are willing to resort to more rail freight if certain criteria such as real-time data and on-time deliveries are better taken into account – which would be guaranteed with future digital freight trains,” said SNCF in a statement.

Digital means of tracking cargo also has obvious merits when it comes to the transport of potentially dangerous goods, a topic that often plagues the freight industry. In 2013, a runaway train and its shipment of oil derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Canada, toppling more than 40 buildings and killing 47 people.

Last August, technology firm Asto Telematics was contracted to fit its new telematics technology onto Sasol Germany’s fleet of ethylene oxide tank containers and wagons. This would allow the energy and chemical company to monitor wagon movements, temperature and impact forces on the wagons. In a possible danger scenario, an automated message with data on the wagon and its load could be sent to the appropriate authorities, such as the fire brigade, to enable targeted intervention.

Monitoring fuel use and safety

GE Transportation’s portfolio of digital solutions highlights the numerous potential advantages of tracking cargo. Its GoLINC platform collects and processes information from on-board sensors and makes the data available to third parties. Then there is Trip Optimizer, an automated cruise control system that combines real-time data, including train size, route topology and track quality, to determine when locomotives should accelerate or brake.

“The network is expecting to save 9.4 million litres of diesel and reduce CO2 emissions by 20,600 tonnes annually.”

With this system set to be deployed on more than 100 locomotives on Brazil’s Estrada de Ferro Carajás heavy haul network by 2019, the network is expecting to save 9.4 million litres of diesel and reduce CO2 emissions by 20,600 tonnes annually.

“You can go 429 miles on a single gallon of fuel with a tonne of freight, so if you do the numbers the math is phenomenal,” says Tolson. “The more we can help make that predictable, safe and accurate, I think that we all win, including railroads.”

GE Transportation is still in the early stages of a five-year contract to digitise 250 DB Cargo locomotives across Germany, the UK, France and Poland. According to Tolson, the process of fitting locomotives with digital technologies is time-consuming, but ultimately proven to improve service delivery to customers and reduce downtime.

“You have to do a lot of testing and amalgamation to make sure what you’re putting on there is safe [and] reliable,” she says. “That’s not a challenge; it’s just the work that you’ve got to do.”