Telematics and the Railroad: The Future of Shipment Visibility

Coming soon, rail cars will be equipped with sensor devices that provide critical shipment information to reduce costs, improve efficiency, prevent theft and more

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RailPulse, a coalition of rail car owners, is working to accelerate the adoption of GPS and other telematics technology for rail cars, which could dramatically transform freight shipping

If you’re an online shopper, oftentimes you know when your purchase leaves the warehouse and can track its entire progress to your front door. If you’re really excited about that package, your anticipation grows when you get an alert saying it’s just 10 stops away from your home.

How do these companies know such detailed information about where that package is? The answer, in part, is telematics. When a delivery van is equipped with these GPS-enabled devices, companies can track its exact location. So, when a package is scanned onto a truck and that truck is in your neighborhood, the company can pass that information on to you.

What if railroads could provide that same level of visibility? In 2023, we will find out. RailPulse, a coalition of rail car owners, is working to accelerate the adoption of GPS and other telematics technology for rail cars across North America — a move that could transform freight shipping forever.

What Does “Telematics” Mean?

Telematics devices are commonly used in commercial fleet vehicles (like delivery vans) to record vehicle data. Some of the most common data points are:

  • Location
  • Vehicle speed
  • Dangerous driver behaviors like harsh braking or hard cornering
  • Maintenance alerts
  • Vehicle fault codes
  • Idling
  • Trip distance and time

Telematics devices transmit these data to a software platform fleet managers can use to make informed choices about how to improve driver, vehicle, and overall fleet performance.

How Will Railroads Use Telematics?

Telematics devices in rail cars will capture some of the same information as vehicles while also gathering data specific to the needs of the rail industry.

From a broad perspective, the RailPulse technology platform will track the location, condition and health of rail cars. This real-time information will be available to all participants in the rail ecosystem, including shippers, builders, rail car owners and the railroads, and will yield numerous benefits.

  • Location

GPS information pulled from telematics devices will show the precise latitude and longitude location of the rail car at the track level, regardless of whether the rail car is moving or stopped.

Benefits: This will help railroads provide more accurate ETAs, give shippers greater visibility, and enable proactive decision making.

  • Condition

On-board sensors that work in conjunction with telematics devices can provide status updates on the current condition of the car, including loaded/unloaded, doors open/closed, hatches open/closed, temperature and moisture level.

Benefits: These data can be used to identify usage patterns, understand empty vs loaded miles, and identify out-of-route cars, all of which drive rail car fleet efficiency.

  • Health

Sensors can also help monitor the health of a rail car, including the condition of bearings, bolsters, air and couplers.

Benefits: This helps rail car owners perform timely maintenance and repairs, reduce rail car downtime and improve safety. Knowing the door or hatch open/closed status also alerts car owners to cargo theft or mechanical defects.

Together, monitoring the location, condition and health of rail cars via telematics will provide rail customers with more precise information about the status, location and condition of their equipment any time they wish to see it. GPS and telematics data will be available on an easy-to-use dashboard and through APIs, making it easy for customers to view the data they care about most.

How Will Shippers Use Telematics Data?

Railroad customers stand to benefit from telematics in several ways. The following examples illustrate just a few.

  • Productivity Gains

Situation: Jerry is the fleet coordinator for a paper company. He spends three hours a day searching
across multiple railroad websites to locate cars.

Solution: Armed with telematics data that is auto refreshed every five minutes, Jerry can now see where rail cars are on his fleet management dashboard instead, which makes planning faster and easier.

Benefit: Jerry could see as much as a 50% productivity gain and will have near constant rail car visibility all in one place. This lets him spend more time on problem solving and less time on data gathering.

  • Faster Decision Making

Situation: Naomi is a logistics broker who works through a third-party logistics provider to download car location three times a day. To do so, she must visit two or more providers’ websites and contact all five Class I railroads to get an ETA on release dates.

Solution: The RailPulse platform will consolidate these data sources into a single platform for greater accessibility and ease of use.

Benefit: Now, Naomi can see the information in one place, make faster decisions based on real-time data and improve car turns.

  • Cost Savings and Improved Customer Service

Situation: Yash is in customer service at a large chemicals company. He spends most of his day answering customers’ questions about ETAs.

Solution: GPS tracking enables real-time visibility, including first- and last-mile movement. With predictive analytics and machine learning, Brandon will be able to provide more accurate ETAs to customers faster.

Benefit: Yash can provide better customer service, while his company will save money through reduced overtime, better inventory control, and faster cycle times.

  • Product and Car Protection

Situation: Yiqun is the manager at a refined fuels receiving terminal. Her team must heat up rail cars to unload the product, making sure not to overheat it or damage the car lining.

Solution: Sensors can measure the temperature of the commodity so Elizabeth’s team can heat the product to the ideal temperature and maintain product and rail car integrity.

Benefit: Yiqun’s team can unload rail cars more efficiently and the company can avoid costly rail car damage.

  • Improved Efficiency and Reduced Costs

Situation: Christine leads a multi-modal supply chain team that tracks tens of thousands of shipments every year. Cost efficiency and reliability are critical to her.

Solution: Real-time location reporting and analytics delivered on a dashboard lets Christine’s team find cars with the most inefficient movements across the network, then address those issues.

Benefit: Implementing corrective actions helps cars move more efficiently, which results in cost savings.

Shipment Visibility and Powerful Analytics Ahead

RailPulse members are currently piloting telematics technology on their equipment. The conclusions they draw from their data collection and analysis efforts will then be shared with the coalition to improve the platform before its launch. RailPulse plans to introduce its rail car telematics platform in early 2023, which means these exciting improvements are coming soon.

Learn More

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