Safety and Competition Pushing Rail Freight Towards Technology Adoption

Subscribe To Download This Insight

1Q 2018 | IN-5051

The evolution of rail freight transport appears to be where commercial trucking was about 5 years ago. Some innovations in other verticals like telematics, prognostics, or driver assist solutions may be new to the rail freight industry and be adapted to the unique needs of the industry.

Registered users can unlock up to five pieces of premium content each month.

Log in or register to unlock this Insight.


Industry Laggard Joining IoT


The industry’s adoption of transformative technologies is driven by a confluence of regulations, influx of younger workers, safety and security needs, grow of e-commerce, and the increasing need for seamless and transparent intermodal transit. The United States is expected to mandate positive train control (PTC) in December 2018. Like the ELD mandate for commercial trucking a year earlier, it is expected to be a tipping point for additive technology adoption. BNSF Railway began track geometry testing with several autonomous cars and drone pilots for condition-based maintenance. Union Pacific Railroad recently partnered with accelerator Plug and Play on its Supply Chain Innovation Platform. Additive technologies, such as inward-facing cameras, are facing resistance and legal battles in some cases. Other emerging technologies developing for freight include alt fuel/energy-efficient locomotives and wagons, train control systems, asset monitoring, video surveillance, predictive maintenance, intelligent rail infrastructure and operations, freight information systems (FIS), safety systems, and cybersecurity.

Connected Within and Across Modes


Industrial Internet technology adoption rates are “crossing the chasm” in ever-shorter waves. This can lead to rail adopting technology quickly and with broad scale. Key transformative technologies in rail freight are critical for intermodal commercial transport to be optimized and improve safety, bolster security, enhance efficiencies, and compete more closely with road-based long-haul transit. These solutions include alerts, monitoring, analysis, maintenance, and integration of systems.

There are opportunities across the value chain from OEMs (CRRC, Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier, Hitachi) to operators (China Railway, Union Pacific, BNSF, Indian Railways, DB Cargo) to telematics data (Trimble, ORBCOMM, Siemens) and infrastructure providers (Commtrex, Biarri Rail, Activu, Railinc, project44). Hardware from cameras, sensors, and gateways to software including scheduling, security, safety, load optimization, and track/trace are just a few options for transformative and actionable intelligence.

Trains completing inspections are said to remain inactive in terminals for nearly 1 million hours per year. Technologies such as machine vision and prognostics can identify issues early, decrease time to identify, and allow parts to be ordered and available at the right location, thus maximizing uptime. Diesel savings can be part of an energy management system by accurately assessing usage based on actual data and real-time feedback, in some cases from track conditions, train size, and load, as well as handling. Improved asset utilization is another opportunity for savings. Increased capacity can be realized through a combination of preventative maintenance, optimized routing and loading, and optimized speeds, based on the infrastructure and automated locomotives.

Adoption, Integration, and Evolution Required


The next stage of intermodal “intelligence” adoption is poised to be rail. Linking ground-based as well as water-based transport for a connected, optimized, secured, and transparent supply chain from vehicle to infrastructure is sorely needed. Rail networks must reinvent themselves from centuries-old commodities transport into real-time, interoperable, and dynamic systems that are invaluable to a 21st-century supply chain. These systems must be integrated across international borders, sea, land, and air. Rail must also be able to compete better with long-haul road transport by demonstrating multiple value props from environmental to efficiencies to cost. This can be accomplished through an integrated transportation ecosystem, greater resource utilization, and creation of new value-added services. 

Supply chain automation and competition across modes is rapidly increasing from Amazon to Telsa and Maersk. Industries and companies that remain tied to siloed legacy systems that are manual, pollution inducing, and with limited flexibility and connectivity risk becoming a part of the past.


Companies Mentioned