GPS and Smart Sensors on Rail Cars Will Require Industry-Wide Collaboration and Innovation

By Ashok Fichadia, Assistant Vice President, Customer-Technology

Installing the RailPulse Handbrake Released sensor on a Union Pacific covered hopper

Railcar Technician Lee Novotny installs the RailPulse Handbrake Released sensor on a Union Pacific covered hopper at the Dupo, Illinois, car repair facility.

We all use GPS technology in our everyday lives, whether to track our Amazon packages or to help get us to our destination via a phone app. So why not use GPS to track and monitor rail cars? And while we are at it, why not make the rail cars smarter with sensors that monitor their health and status?

Before I explain how and why Union Pacific is helping lead the charge on applying GPS and sensor technology to the nation’s rail car fleet, here are a few facts you may not know:

Railroads are one of the safest, most environmentally responsible modes of freight transportation in North America.

It’s a fact: Moving freight by rail is more than four times more fuel efficient than by truck, and accounts for less than 2% of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. And compared to trucks, railroads are much safer in transporting hazardous materials. The rail industry’s continued investment in safety and technology has resulted in decreasing hazmat incidents by nearly 80% since 2000, and railroads have about nine times fewer hazmat incidents than trucks on a hazmat ton-mileage basis.

While customers appreciate the rail industry’s safety and sustainability benefits, they continue to expect advances to track their rail freight in real time. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of supply chains, and the need for advanced freight tracking across different railroads and modes of transportation. In addition to tracking, customers want rail car technology that provides real-time alerts, relevant notifications and enables automation.

Well, GPS and sensor solutions that enable these benefits do exist -- they can record the location of the railcar, identify if the handbrake is set on the railcar, detect excessive impact, and report on the loaded/empty state of the railcar or if doors/hatches are open or closed. In fact, Union Pacific is already well underway in equipping its intermodal container fleet with similar technology. Doing so will enable Union Pacific to provide best-in-class intermodal service product powered by state-of-the-art technology.

However, given that there are 1.6 million rail cars in North America owned by more than 200 companies, all of which are exchanged across multiple Class I and short-line railroads as well as customers, no single entity could implement sensor-enabled rail cars across the entire U.S. rail network. Instead, all members of the rail industry must come together to provide "advanced telematics” – onboard monitoring using GPS and sensor technology.

Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern are leading the way and championing this cause. The railroads have joined and are promoting RailPulse, a coalition of railcar owners working together to facilitate and accelerate adoption of GPS and other telematics technology across the entire rail network to increase safety, equipment visibility and efficiency.

RailPulse’s goal is to promote sensor technology that will track data in three areas:

  • Location - Track-level GPS latitude and longitude location of the rail car, both moving and stopped,
  • Condition - The status of the rail car in terms of loaded/unloaded, doors opened/closed, hatches opened/closed, temperature, moisture, impact or any other onboard sensors,
  • Health – The rail car’s mechanical health in terms of bearings, bolsters, air, couplers or other components.

As part of this joint effort, Union Pacific is evaluating the technology, defining industry standards, establishing data-sharing protocols and piloting the tech on our system. We’ve equipped a number of rail cars on our network with a GPS device. The goal is to have GPS and telematics data available on a dashboard and through Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), making it easy for customers to view data they care about most.

We expect our contributions and RailPulse’s standards-based approach will enhance shipment and rail car visibility, simplify shipper experience, enhance safety and lower operational costs for the entire industry.

Our commitment to RailPulse positions us among the leaders at adapting industry-enhancing technologies and is another example of how Union Pacific constantly innovates in ways that support our mission of providing safe, reliable, sustainable transportation solutions.

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